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Israel prepares for next threat — nuclear?

Israel is starting to come to terms with a burgeoning Middle Eastern nuclear arms race.

It’s de rigueur for international strategists to say that Israel isn’t the country that should be most worried by Iranian nuclear ambitions. Instead, they posit the Gulf states, Shia Iran’s Sunni Muslim rivals, as the most at-risk.

There’s something to that. Yet Iran’s biggest success in exporting Islamic Revolution has been through Hezbollah in Lebanon. It also now has a direct line to Gaza with Hamas, which it helps to bankroll. Both would be easy places from which to use nuclear capability to influence regional — or even world — events.

Israel’s response to the Iranian move toward nukes is complicated. Its actions are limited. A potential aerial attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be difficult without bunker-buster bombs or coordination with the U.S. and the Arab countries over which Israeli jets would have to fly.

Diplomatically, Israel has little faith that sanctions can do anything more than delay an Iranian bomb. Why? Because it has experience of its own in negotiating about an issue so long that its negotiating partner in the end accepts a sliver of what it had originally asked for — and even then the negotiations can start again without reference to previous deals.

That’s a familiar tactic in Jerusalem, which has frequently confounded Western negotiators. Just as Iran has infuriated Washington with the sanctions issue, agreeing to something when total breakdown seemed imminent and pulling back just before it was required to act.

In public Israeli officials are forced to push for stiff sanctions. But rather than believing Iran’s nuclear program will be ended, they view the sanctions as a way of buying time for Israel to prepare its troops exercises like those next week and to ready more advanced missile defenses.

Congress this week voted for President Barack Obama’s plan to give $205 million to Israel to fund its short-range missile defense system. That’s vital to Israel now, given Hamas’ rockets in Gaza, which have Tel Aviv in range, and Hezbollah’s ability to hit any place in Israel with some of its 42,000 missile arsenal. But it will only be more important once the equation has a nuclear component.