Page last updated at 13:41 GMT, Monday, 17 May 2010 14:41 UK

Israelis debate how to deal with a nuclear Iran

Israeli experts representing Hamas and Russia (l) talk to Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Kurtzer (r)
Middle East experts debated what to do if Iran developed a nuclear weapon

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

There is no more pressing question for foreign diplomats and spies working inside Israel. How likely is it that Israel may take pre-emptive military action against Iran, to try to thwart its nuclear ambitions?

Iran vigorously denies that it is attempting to build a nuclear weapon. Israel, and much of the world, does not believe that.

Israeli chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi (l) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (r)
Mr Netanyahu has said a nuclear Iran meant an iminent "second Holocast"

But what if, despite international opposition and its own protestations, Iran were to produce an atomic bomb?

On Sunday, a high-level panel from the Israeli political and military establishment considered just that question, at the Inter-Disciplinary Centre in Herziliya.

And some of the panel's conclusions were surprising.

No senior military officer or politician in Israel thinks that Iran and its nuclear programme is anything other than a hugely serious threat to Israel and to the region.

But there is a telling difference in rhetoric.

'Domino effect'

Speaking to the BBC after the end of the panel's discussions, Tzipi Livni - the leader of the main opposition party, and Israel's previous long-serving foreign minister - insisted that a nuclear Iran did not pose an existential threat to Israel.

Ms Livni directed particular criticism at the current Israeli Prime Minister's Benjamin Netanyahu repeated warnings about a second Holocaust.

US senator George Mitchell (r) and Israeli Opposition Leader Tzipi Livni
Tzipi Livni criticised the way the Israeli government is handling Iran

"The role of leadership is to give an answer to this kind of threat," she said, rather than to stoke worry.

"Israel in 2010 is not the Jews in Europe in 1939."

What is more, she said, Israel - and the world - should not fixate on the damage that could be caused by Iran, if and when it became nuclear-armed.

The very possibility was changing the region now.

There was, she said, a "domino effect" among states "too weak to confront (Iran) or to have their own nuclear weapon".

As long as the world fails to "stop the bully", these states are "going to join him, and this is going to change completely the allies and alliances in the region, and this is something that the free world cannot afford."

Ms Livni said that you could already see some countries "come off the fence" and tilt towards Iran. She cited Qatar and Turkey.

All of which still raises the question of what course of action Israel may take, whether it is likely to try to hit Iran militarily.

No-one who is really in the know about Israel's specific intentions and plans will talk about them.

But Daniel Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel, is a veteran - not just of diplomacy, but of this type of war-game simulations.

He said that, time and again, a marked difference of emphasis would emerge from the role-playing, with the Israelis favouring military action as a "first course of response", and the US tending to look at alternatives.

Peace deal

In that context, there was a particularly striking contribution from Dan Halutz, the previous chief of staff of the Israeli armed forces, and another participant in the day of war-gaming.

Natanz uranium enrichment facility in a June 26, 2007

He argued strongly not just for talk of military pre-emption, but diplomatic pre-emption.

He said that the Iranians should be isolated from the rest of the Muslim world, which, he claimed, was "by and large more concerned than Israel is about a nuclear Iran."

The way to do that, he said, was clear: a comprehensive regional peace settlement. "The price is known, all the files are ready."

It was not, said the former chief of staff, an easy or simple decision. But it was a decision that had to be taken.

"A decision to say no [to a peace settlement] is not short-term. It is a strategic choice: we need to know that from here to eternity, we're prepared to do whatever is necessary to fight for the decision to say no. But if we think differently, we have to say yes."

Lt-General Halutz went further, disparaging talk about Israel's "red lines" in negotiations.

The phrase should, he said, be removed from the diplomatic lexicon, because whenever it came to the crunch, those absolute boundaries disappeared.

All this needs to be set against the briefings on Iran from from the very top of Israel's current security establishment: that there should be no doubt that Israel is intent on doing all that it thinks needs to be done to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon.

But there are also others, voices of powerful experience, who say that Israel needs to think as widely and as imaginatively as possible to prevent Iran shaping the region in its own image.

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