Monday, June 19, 2006

Israel's Olmert Convenes Ex-premiers on Iran

Dan Williams, Reuters:
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held talks on Monday with three former Israeli premiers about Iran's nuclear program, signaling a drive for consensus on an issue the Jewish state calls a threat to its existence. READ MORE

Olmert lacks the military pedigree common to most of his predecessors, as does Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz, a veteran trade unionist who won the key portfolio under a coalition deal between his Labor Party and the ruling Kadima.

They make for a leadership untested in strategic matters such as how to handle Iran, which Israel, believed to have the Middle East's only atomic arsenal, has vowed to prevent from acquiring the bomb. Iran says it seeks nuclear energy only.

"We had an intelligence briefing, and discussed the options available to the country," Ehud Barak, a retired military chief of staff who served as prime minister in the 1990s, told Israel's Channel One television after the talks.

Barak, of centre-left Labor, has counseled a cautious tack on Iran, pointing out that Israel's arch-foe was not expected to be capable of deploying nuclear missiles before the next decade.

By contrast, Benjamin Netanyahu of the right-wing Likud, another former prime minister and ex-army officer taking part in the consultations, has urged preemptive action akin to Israel's 1981 air strike against the main Iraqi atomic reactor at Osiraq.

Netanyahu currently heads the Israeli opposition.

Rounding off the so-called "Premier Forum" was Shimon Peres, who helped found Israel's nuclear program in the 1950s and 1960s, twice held top office and is now Olmert's senior deputy.

Like Olmert, Peres endorses Western efforts to curb Iran's nuclear ambitions through diplomacy but refuses to rule out force of arms as a last resort against a country whose president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, has called repeatedly for Israel's elimination and denied the Nazi Holocaust took place.

A cartoon in Israel's biggest newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, showed Olmert opening the discussion with his predecessors only to be told by them in unison that Israel's biggest quandary in terms of national security was "getting rid of Amir Peretz."

Peretz has been challenged by a flare-up of fighting with Palestinians over the Gaza Strip, which Israel quit last year after 38 years of occupation. He is also fending off a mutiny by former Israeli top brass now serving as Labor lawmakers.

Barak denied that the Premier Forum would decide national policy, saying that as prime minister he also consulted with his predecessors on defusing Israeli crises with Lebanon and Syria.

"We are not an alternative to the government," he said.