What to Make of a Recent Israeli Military Exercise: Interview with Israeli Intel Correspondent

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While many people are concerned about whether the Bush administration plans to carry out a parting shot strike on Iran’s nuclear program before it leaves office, most policy experts in and out of government I’ve interviewed think that is unlikely, for a lot of reasons. But the U.S., of course, is not the only actor to consider.

Today came reports that Israel carried out a large-scale military exercise over the eastern Mediterranean and Greece earlier this month that clearly seemed to have Iran in mind. More than 100 F-16 and F-15 fighter planes and rescue helicopters were involved in the Israeli military exercise, according to Pentagon and other US government officials cited in a report today in the New York Times. “Several American officials said the Israeli exercise appeared to be an effort to develop the military’s capacity to carry out long-range strikes and to demonstrate the seriousness with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear program,” the paper reported. The exercise was so large, U.S. officials told the paper, it was implied that Israel wanted not only Iran, but the US and other allies, to be aware of it.

I asked Yossi Melman, intelligence correspondent for Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, and co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Iran, how to interpret the reported Israeli military exercise (Israeli officials have not commented on it). I also asked him about Israel’s timeline for contemplating a possible go-it-alone strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, should diplomacy, international sanctions and other measures be judged to fail.

Mother Jones: How to interpret the exercise?

Melman: The Israeli Air Force and all the other agencies are preparing tentative contingency plans. This has been going on for many many months. Israel’s air space is limited, so you need to fly over the sea, but to practice you also need land. To do it over Turkey will not be sufficient (1500-1800 km) and politically sensitive. So there is an Israeli Greek security agreement [for this purpose] and that’s what they are doing.

Now does it mean an imminent attack? Far from that. I don’t see at the moment an Israeli cabinet which has the nerve to take such a decision. But as I wrote in my book and in my newspaper and in various international forums recently, Israel will probably do it as a last resort.

MJ: What is Israel’s thinking on timing?

Melman: Of course they will wait. Israel will never do it before having some sort of understanding (tacit or not) with the U.S. administration. If they decide to do it, it will not be before spring – mid 2009 most probably, end of 2009, unless they realize something dramatic is boiling up in Iran. I think they will wait also for Iran’s presidential elections to see if [Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] is reelected. (Those Iranian presidential elections are May or June 2009).

MJ: Do you think there is a possibility that increased diplomacy and international sanctions could succeed? I was at a forum today where both speakers – including Patrick Clawson – who you’ve interviewed – expressed some degree of mild optimism that reinvigorated multilateral diplomacy might succeed to persuade Iran to some sort of agreement on its nuclear program. And that it would be far preferable to the military option. Former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy has also expressed the belief that negotiations with Iran could succeed. What are your thoughts about this? And indeed, about the highly politicized question in the U.S. presidential race about whether Washington should pursue direct diplomacy with Iran? (before contemplating such “last resort” options)?

Melman: I favor direct talks between the U.S. and Iran. But I am very pessimistic about the success of any talks or diplomacy. As long as China and Russia are not part of the loop no diplomatic pressure would succeed. Yet there is a need to exhaust the diplomatic path, if only to show domestic audiences that the West is not trigger happy or a war monger.

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