This piece also appears at TPMCafe
Israel’s President Shimon Peres came out unequivocally this past weekend against a military strike on Iran. “There are two ways [to deal with Iran] –a military and civilian way. I don’t believe in the military option – any kind of military option…it will not solve the problem…an attack can trigger a bigger war.” Many have argued, myself included, that Israeli interests would be better served by ratcheting down the military rhetoric and embracing a more far-reaching diplomatic approach – especially given statements by the Pentagon’s top brass against a military strike and the impact that war talk has in emboldening and strengthening President Ahmadinejad’s hard-line camp in Tehran. What is remarkable though is the political timing of the statements by Israel’s president and other senior Israelis coming as it does in the thick of an American political campaign that pits the uber-belligerent “bomb bomb” Iran ticket of McCain-Palin against the more savvy ‘tough diplomacy for a tough world’ ticket of Obama-Biden.
Apparently, if Israel’s president has anything to do with it, all the talk of a possible Israeli strike in the November-January window (if Obama wins out of concern for his possible policies) – would be consigned to the total nonsense file.
This is the first time that Israel’s president has come out with such an unequivocal statement. He even criticized American foreign policy stating they are “making a mistake” by relying too much on military intervention rather than economic and diplomatic persuasion. Ok, so the presidency in Israel is not an executive decision making position but rather a ceremonial head of state. Some would even say, well what do you expect from Shimon Peres, given his (largely undeserved) image as a peacenik dove. Yet Peres historically, and especially in his new presidential role, acts as the consensus politician and bellwether for opinion – he developed Israel’s own nuclear program, supported the settlements, and vacillates between rejectionism and peace advocacy as the public mood shifts.
More importantly Peres is not alone – both the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been talking down any unilateral Israeli threat posture vis-à-vis Iran, and have chided the more bellicose occasional comments emanating from their cabinet colleagues. Foreign Minister (and possible next PM) Tzipi Livni already several months ago was reported as arguing in favor of talking down the Iranian threat and suggesting that it “did not pose an existential threat to Israel.” One of the other contenders in next week’s leadership primary to replace Olmert as head of the governing Kadima party, the current Interior Minister, Meir Shetreet, went a step further. Here is what Minister Shetreet said during this election campaign (by the way he is unlikely to win that primary): “Israel must on no account attack Iran, speak of attacking Iran or even think about it…it is a megalomaniacal reckless idea…we are not permitted to gamble away Israel’s future.”
So there is something of a shifting mood in Israel that is beginning to recognize that the current policies have not produced results, that more threats are unlikely to do so, and that other diplomatic options might need to be considered. That does not mean that Israel has definitively dropped the attack option or that there are no voices now advocating for it – but they are beginning to look like the outliers rather than the opposite. The most outspoken hawk remains the other Kadima leadership contestant, Transportation Minister (and former chief of staff) Shaul Mofaz, who was roundly criticized from many quarters when he made headlines earlier this summer by claiming that an Israeli attack was “inevitable.”
So there is an interesting convergence here; very highly placed Israelis are no longer talking themselves into a frenzy of fear over Iran and instead are taking a more considered and realistic approach; the international community is stating its clear preference for a diplomatic solution, the latest being the French president Sarkozy who said that an attack would be “a catastrophe” that “must be prevented”; and even the Bush administration sent its third ranking diplomat Under-Secretary William Burns to Geneva recently as part of the P5+1. Of course, presidential candidate Barack Obama has long advocated unconditional hard-bargaining diplomacy with Iran.
So who is left behind in his bunker? Yes, Senator John McCain, the “bomb bomb Iran” man (one assumes that Governor Palin does not have a position given that Iran does not border Alaska). The McCain-Palin ticket seems wedded to a rather peculiar brand of hope and change policy on energy and national security that can best be described as a “drill and kill” policy. What is refreshing is that in the president’s residence in Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, that is apparently not the kind of change they are willing to believe in.