Israel steps up warnings to Bush on Iran

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be the only issue on his visit to Israel.

Ariel Schalit/AP
Rocket strike: Israel believes that Katyusha rockets, like those that hit the town of Shlomi Tuesday, are given to Lebanese militias by Iran.

President Bush arrives here Wednesday to propel forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But Israeli leaders seem more interested in focusing on Iran's nuclear program.

Several senior Israeli officials, analysts, and military experts have been increasingly vocal about concerns that the recent National Intelligence Estimate report, which said Iran halted a secret nuclear arms program in 2003, takes the pressure off Iran and will spur them toward nuclear military capability.

Some here have said the NIE has put Israel on the defensive, making it feel isolated in its assessment of the threat. That could prompt Israel to act unilaterally against Iran, analysts say, a move that would certainly be resisted by Washington. Still, Mr. Bush has indicated that Iran is a key issue as he visits the region.

The president's Middle East trip comes at a moment when Tehran has returned to the diplomatic spotlight. On Tuesday, two Katyusha rockets, which Israel believes are supplied by Iran, that were fired from Lebanon hit Israel. It's unclear, however, who shot the rockets, but Katyushas are the weapon of choice for Iranian-backed Hizbullah against Israel.

Moreover, a standoff between Iranian and US warships in the Strait of Hormuz has reheated tensions between Tehran and Washington. On Monday, the Pentagon confirmed that five Iranian boats had harassed and threatened three US Navy warships in international waters.

Iranian officials played down the events, but the Pentagon deemed the Iranian actions "careless, reckless, and potentially hostile" and said Tehran should provide an explanation.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman says that during Mr. Bush's visit, the first in his presidency, Israel plans to place Iran as high and as prominently on the agenda as the recently resurrected Israeli-Palestinian peace track.

"We're concerned that the Iran nuclear program is going ahead," says Mark Regev. "We're concerned that there shouldn't be complacency in the international community, and ... that the headlines that came out of the NIE report could give comfort to the regime in Iran."

At a briefing late last week with recently retired military officials, who enjoy more leeway to speak about controversial issues in public than do sitting officials, several sounded alarm bells on Iran following the NIE report.

"It's very clear that it puts Israel in a corner and that means that decisionmakers will have to take very critical decisions because in the past we thought someone else was watching and that the world would take care of it," said retired Maj. Gen. Jacob Amidror.

"I want to be strong: Iran is building their nuclear military capability," Mr. Amidror told the small group at the briefing, including a handful of Western reporters, at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, a conservative think thank in Israel. "We think that the report of the American intelligence community is a huge mistake, based on I don't know what."

Mr. Regev struck a different tone, explaining that Israel and the US were essentially on the "same page," but that Israel is concerned that the report's true findings have been misunderstood by the media.

"There's a difference between the headlines and the summary of the report," Regev says. "The NIE says that there was an Iranian weaponization program until 2003 and since then, there's no evidence. But is it not possible that it's gone underground?"

That appears to be the conclusion of most people in the Israeli intelligence community.

Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi-Farkash, Israeli's head of military intelligence from 2001 to 2006, has been one of those who is outspoken about his disappointment with the NIE report. He says that Iran's continued uranium enrichment, coupled with its well-known development of long-range missiles, makes it clear that Iran is still in full pursuit of a nuclear weapon.

Mr. Zeevi-Farkash said that in late 2002 and early 2003 Israel became aware of Iran's nuclear program. In turn, he says Iran decided to seek a way to hide the development of their nuclear weapons program.

Zeevi-Farkash revealed that at the time, he and the head of Mossad, Israel's covert intelligence agency, went to meet with several European leaders, upon the request of then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to convince them of the threat.

The response, Zeevi-Farkash said, was that if there was such a threat, combating it would be a team effort. "If this will happen and Iran will achieve nuclear military capacity," he was told by European leaders, then the US and Israel will solve the problem," he said at the briefing.

"The NIE has sent a signal to Tehran that the danger of external sanctions has ended," Zeevi-Farkash says. "And the NIE has weakened Turkey and the moderate Sunni countries in the region [who have been working] to build a nuclear coalition against Tehran. The NIE report opens Iran to pursuing its nuclear ambitions without any obstacles."

Zeevi-Farkash has been highly critical of the NIE report since its release, going so far as to suggest that it may have been spun by Bush opponents. The former military intelligence chief told The Jerusalem Post last month the NIE report was "political" and aimed at depriving Bush of any justification for military intervention.

Retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, an influential ex-senior intelligence officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, has also been deeply critical of the report. "There are important repercussions to the very poor work the American intelligence has done," he said. Until recently, Mr. Kuperwasser served as the head of the Research and Assessment Division of Israeli Military Intelligence.

"The first thing in intelligence is to ask the right questions," Kuperwasser said. "This is a country that has had a 15-year-program of weaponization. One should ask how far had they gone in 15 years ... [and] even if they had stopped it temporarily, who cares?"

"We know that in 2005 they resumed some of the things they stopped," he added. "The part of the program to develop the fissile material is going on."

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