Analysis: As Biden visits, Israel keeps Iran fears in mind

JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders would like nothing better than to smash Iran’s putative nuclear capability with a swift bombing raid. Trouble is, most Israeli military and political chiefs are doubtful it could be done and fear the broader consequences of any attempt.

That might make for uncomfortable times down the road for Israel when it comes in the range of Iranian nukes. But it also could lead to domestic political conflict over the peace talks with the Palestinians, which U.S. mediators announced this week will restart in the coming days.

Israeli observers fear that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make concessions to the Palestinians to buy favor with Washington, in the hope that he’ll be able to persuade President Barack Obama to take a much tougher line on sanctions — or even military action — against Iran.

“Talks on Iran and talks on the Palestinian state are now combined,” said Hanan Shay, former head of the Israeli army’s command and control branch and now senior lecturer at Ashkelon Academic College. “But you mustn’t buy an agreement from the U.S. that protects Israel on the one track, when you also do things that put Israel at risk on the other track.”

Israeli military and intelligence officials have long talked of a potential attack on Iranian nuclear targets, emphasizing a similarity to the historic importance of the 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor by the Israeli air force and the effectiveness of a bombing raid just over two years ago against a purported Syrian military nuclear site. But they’ve also consistently acknowledged that such an attack would be far harder to pull off against Iran, and that success or failure could lead to an unpredictable diplomatic and military response from a range of countries.

In an interview with an Israeli newspaper before his arrival Monday for a weeklong visit to the region, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden said that “a nuclear-armed Iran would constitute a threat not only to Israel — it would also constitute a threat to the United States.”

The response to Biden’s comments from most Israeli political and intelligence figures is, in private, uniform: if you’re so threatened, Mister Vice President, why don’t you seem more worried about it?

Biden’s visit has so far provided no answer.

The read from Israeli intelligence officials presently is that world efforts led by the U.S. to prevent Iran acquiring nuclear weapons capability are too weak to have any effect on Tehran’s scheme. That’s not because of any doubt among intelligence officials that Iran is firmly on track for such capability. Rather it’s because of a lack of will and Israeli fingers point at the Obama administration for failing to provide some backbone to the sanctions campaign.

“Either the U.S. is not taking the whole thing seriously or it’s accepting the inevitable,” said Ephraim Asculai, a former delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency who’s a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for International Security Studies. “Perhaps the U.S. simply doesn’t think it can curb Iran’s ambitions.”

In this reading, Biden’s general statements of support — on Tuesday, he said “there is no space between the United State and Israel when it comes to Israel’s security” — are unconvincing. “Biden didn’t come here with anything concrete,” said Asculai.

Israeli officials say the country’s current tack is to persuade the U.S. to push for tougher sanctions and to lean on Russia and China to support such moves. Whether the Palestinians will be indirect beneficiaries will emerge when talks start.

In news, Biden's tour devolved into diplomatic backpeddling Tuesday after Israel announced plans to build 1,600 new homes for Israelis in east Jerusalem.

Biden quickly issued a statement condemning the decision to build on land claimed by both Israelis and Palestinians. Israel's interior minister later publicly apologized for the timing of the announcement.

Biden, meeting with Palestinian leaders on Wednesday, repeated his criticism of Israel's action and said the United States would hold both Israel and the Palestinians responsible for any steps that make peace more difficult to achieve.