Wall Street Journal: A flurry of Israeli military maneuvers and diplomatic initiatives are highlighting the Jewish state's increasingly aggressive campaign to contain Iran, and stoking fears in some Arab and Western capitals.
The Wall Street Journal
Mideast Nations Take the Initiative As U.S. Sway Ebbs
By JAY SOLOMON and YOCHI J. DREAZEN
June 21, 2008; Page A5
WASHINGTON — A flurry of Israeli military maneuvers and diplomatic initiatives are highlighting the Jewish state's increasingly aggressive campaign to contain Iran, and stoking fears in some Arab and Western capitals.
Jerusalem's actions come as the Middle East is already repositioning itself for the post-Bush administration era, say Arab and European diplomats. In addition to the Israelis, the Turks, Egyptians and Qataris have seized on the perceived power vacuum in Washington to begin fashioning their own initiatives to try to address the region's hot spots, from Lebanon to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Middle East governments "are filling the vacuum and taking advantage of the U.S. administration's weakness," said an Arab official involved in the regional diplomacy. "Countries are pursuing their own agendas now."
U.S. officials Friday confirmed a report in the New York Times that Israel recently mounted a large-scale military exercise in the Eastern Mediterranean that appeared designed to hone the tactical skills needed in any future military strike against Iran's nuclear installations.
Two U.S. officials said the exercise, which took place in early June, involved more than 100 Israeli F-16s and F-15s, as well as refueling planes and helicopters capable of rescuing downed pilots. The Israeli aircraft flew more than 900 miles, roughly the distance between Israel and Iran's main Natanz nuclear-enrichment facility.
At the Pentagon, a senior military official said that Israel gave the U.S. "advance knowledge" of the exercise, but only in general terms. The Pentagon official said that Israel didn't explicitly link the maneuvers to a possible strike against Iran.
A second military official said that U.S. policy makers were divided over the reasons for the exercise. Some viewed the maneuvers as an actual practice run for a future strike on Iran, while others see it mainly as a show of force designed to remind both Tehran and Washington of Israel's concern.
Many Israeli officials see Iran's growing nuclear capability as a threat and fear that the Bush administration — serving out its final months in office and mired in the unpopular Iraq war — may no longer be seriously considering coercive actions to stop Tehran's nuclear program.
A statement released by the Israeli Defense Forces Friday didn't confirm or deny the exercises and noted that it "regularly trains for various missions."
Israel's military maneuvers occurred as the Jewish state is concurrently pursuing a string of diplomatic initiatives aimed at calming Jerusalem's relations with its neighbors and defusing threats from Iran's regional allies.
This week, Israel and the Islamist group Hamas announced a truce brokered by Egypt that seeks to freeze hostilities in the Gaza Strip while allowing the return of economic aid and trade to the territory. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government has also initiated indirect peace talks with Syria aimed at resolving territorial disputes and announced this week a willingness to open a similar diplomatic channel with Lebanon.
Israeli officials say these negotiations, if successful, could greatly weaken Iran's regional role. Tehran is the principal financier and arms supplier to both Hamas and the Lebanese militia and political party Hezbollah. Iran also has a strategic alliance with Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Arab and European leaders have embraced Israel's peace overtures, particularly its effort to woo Syria away from Iran's orbit. But there is also a concern that Israel could feel justified in resorting to military action against Iran should the diplomatic offensive fail. There is also a belief among some European diplomats that the peace effort could be designed, in part, to minimize retaliatory strikes by Tehran's allies should Israel attack Iran.
"You connect all these things: Very aggressive threats towards Iran, all these offers to the neighbors. I think it makes sense," said a European diplomat working on Iran.
A senior U.S. official said that, in addition to the large exercise this month, Israel's air force has recently begun to devote more time to training its pilots in low-flying tactics, evasion and jamming modern radar systems.
Israel has raised its rhetoric about Iran in recent months as international diplomatic efforts to force Tehran's suspension of its nuclear activities have failed. An Israeli minister said this month that an Israeli strike on Iran was "unavoidable" if Tehran didn't stop its uranium-enrichment activities.
A relatively moderate line coming out of Washington has fed the perception in the Middle East that the U.S. isn't contemplating military action on Iran. U.S. officials, particularly Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, have stressed the need for diplomacy in handling the Iran threat in recent weeks.
Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has pledged on the campaign trail to personally engage in high-level talks with Tehran in a bid to resolve the nuclear crisis. Republican candidate John McCain has focused on the military option.
–Cam Simpson in Jerusalem contributed to this article.