JERUSALEM — When a US secretary of State comes to town, all eyes are on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But as Condoleezza Rice's weekend visit here demonstrated, there is no issue dominating the agenda like the international standoff surrounding Iran's nuclear ambitions.
A report last week in one of Britain's leading newspapers, The Sunday Times, claimed that Israel was making preparations for a conventional attack on Iran to destroy its uranium enrichment facilities. Ms. Rice, asked in an Israeli television interview during her visit if the US would support such an Israeli strike, gave a reply that didn't exactly douse the smoldering signals emanating from Israel and Iran. Rather, the fact that some kind of a confrontation is now talked about openly, she said, is an indication of how grave the situation has become.
"I still think there is room for diplomacy, but even talk of such action shows how serious it would be for Iran to continue its actions unabated," Rice told Israel's Channel 10.
Israeli officials denied The Sunday Times report, but said Israel expects to see more intense diplomatic action against Iran if Iran does not comply with a UN resolution, passed in December, which gives the country two months to suspend its "proliferation of sensitive nuclear activities."
"Israel," says Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev, "is putting its entire support behind UN Security Council [Resolution] 1737. That gives the Iranians 60 days to act, and that's mid-February. If in February there's still more noncompliance, we'll need more robust diplomacy."
But Israel doesn't expect the issue to be solved by then, says Mr. Regev. "We think it's clear that other steps will be necessary," he adds. "It's important that the Iranian leadership be given a crystal-clear choice: either they cease their nuclear program, or they endanger their relationship with the rest of the world."
Rice's visit comes at a time in which nearly every think tank here is turning its spotlight on Iran, and asking rather publicly the questions that used to be asked only in the quiet of intelligence officials' chambers. Would Israel do a replay of its preemptive attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor a quarter-century ago, this time hitting Iran? Should it?
Israel has long treated its own nuclear program as a taboo topic. Last month, however, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview with German television that Iran aspires to "possess nuclear weapons like US, France, Israel, and Russia." Israeli officials depicted it as a kind of a slip, as it was a divergence from Israel's longstanding policy of nuclear ambivalence.
Today, however, Israel's nuclear program is considered an unofficial fact. The country's stated policy is that it will not be the first to introduce weapons into the region.
It was the same newspaper, The Sunday Times, which published a controversial story on Israel's program in 1986, leading to an 18-year-long incarceration of Israeli technician Mordechai Vanunu, the main source for the story. Other publications have explored the possibility of a strike against Iran, including an April 2006 New Yorker article which revealed that the US was studying the option of hitting Iran's nuclear facilities.
Eldad Pardo, an expert on Iran at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says he sees reasons for a hint of optimism that diplomacy will work.
"In general, the world is worried and it should be worried," he says.
"If the world is united, and there is effective pressure, they might change course and [supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad] are going to lose," he says. "If not, I don't think there will be an Israeli attack, but there will be a violent clash, some major confrontation, down the road."
While the controversy over Iran's weapons program is international in scope, Israel finds itself on the front line of the issue: Mr. Ahmedinejad has called for Israel to be wiped out, and Israel blames Iran for keeping Islamic militant groups Hizbullah and Hamas in business. The more public part of Israel's reaction has been to lobby for tougher global sanctions against Iran. And several leading right-wing political figures here – including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Dore Gold, the head of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs – are now seeking legal proceedings in Europe against Ahmedinejad in attempt to get him charged with incitement to commit genocide.
But the option on the back burner remains the possibility of military action, in part out of concern that the progress of Iran's nuclear development will outpace diplomacy. In other words, if Iran's program isn't halted now, at what price will it be halted later, if at all?
That, says Dr. Zvi Shtauber, the director of the Institute for National Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is keeping many minds here focused on whether Israel will find itself at war with Iran.
"At the end of the day, that will be the question: to use military means or not," Dr. Shtauber told reporters in Tel Aviv at a recent press briefing addressing the institute's Middle East outlook.
"Anything can happen," he said, "because we are not in any avenue for discussions."
Ephraim Kam, the deputy director of the institute, expressed concern over whether sanctions, given their rocky record with changing policy elsewhere in the world, would really lure Iran to a more agreeable place on its nuclear program.
"For the time being, priority should be given to the political channels. But a few years from now, Israel might have to make a decision on whether to launch a strike on Iranian military sites," Dr. Kam says. "I think just talking to Iranians is not going to help. Prolonged sanctions could help, but Iran could decide to sustain the losses and continue."
In a development US officials hope will improve Washington's image in the region, Ms. Rice left town with an Israeli-Palestinian nod for the renewed US efforts to revive the peace process, effectively deadlocked since 2000. Before departing Tuesday for Egypt, Rice won an agreement to sponsor a summit between the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in three to four weeks. The US push for the three-way meeting, senior US officials indicated, would stick to the principles of the 2003 road map outlined by the Bush administration.
However, summoning support for pressure against Iran, both on the nuclear issue and on what the US sees as a troubling Iranian role in the Iraqi turmoil, is expected to be on Rice's front burner on her next stops: Kuwait City, Riyadh, London, and Berlin.