Iranian threat dominates Cheneys Israel talks

With Vice President Dick Cheney in Israel this week talking tough about Iran, the big question was whether President Bush would be willing to use military force in the waning days of his presidency to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

The answer from most Israeli intelligence analysts: not likely.

Along with talks on Iran, Cheney focused on two other key issues while in Israel: the possibility of Israel-Syria peace talks and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

On these issues too, time seems to be running out for the Bush administration.

But it was the Iranian dilemma that topped the agenda in two meetings Cheney held with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and one with Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Barak, arguing that a nuclear-armed Iran would threaten regional and international stability, said no option should be taken off the table, including the use of force.

The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate published last December suggested a chasm between Israeli and American assessments, but Israeli officials say the views of both sides are now almost identical.

They agree that Iran is trying to speed up its uranium enrichment program. Israel estimates that Iran will be able to build a bomb by late next year or early 2010.

Israel also figures that the chances of the Bush administration ordering a preemptive military strike against Iran are virtually zero. The only such scenario the Israelis envision is if the Democratic presidential candidates appear to be far ahead of their Republican rival and Bush senses a now-or-never strike option.

Even in these circumstances, the Israelis say, an American strike is highly unlikely.

Still, the Israelis are hoping that the hard-line Cheney will push the envelope — a role he reportedly played in the U.S. invasion of Iraq. One official said Cheney is seen as “a significant player” who could influence “serious issues that cannot wait.”

The debate over what to do about Iran will continue next month in Washington when top American and Israeli officials meet for another scheduled round of talks.

On the Syrian issue, significant nuanced differences have emerged.

While the Bush administration does not trust Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israel believes it might be able to work with him. Israel and the United States recognize the possibility of a huge strategic gain by prying Syria away from the Iranian axis.

In his talks with Israeli leaders, however, Cheney made it clear that he did not think this was possible. Indeed, the vice president said the United States had evidence that Syria and Iran were doing all they could through Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza to undermine Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

While a few weeks ago Israel received new signals from Assad that he was willing to talk, the Syrian position cooled quickly, as it has frequently in the past.

Israeli analysts now expect little movement on the Syrian track at least until after the Bush administration leaves office next January. Assad, they say, would be prepared to make peace with Israel and break with Iran only if the United States underwrites the deal with strong economic and diplomatic support.

But Assad is biding his time in the belief that he’ll get a better deal from the next American president — whomever is elected.

With 10 months to go in its tenure, the Bush administration is investing considerable energy on the Palestinian front. The Annapolis conference last November was followed by a flurry of high-level visits to the region — Bush in January, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in early March and now Cheney.

The impression, though, is that the visits have been all process and little substance. A peace deal by the end of the year — the stated goal of the Americans, Israelis and the Palestinian Authority — seems highly unrealistic.

Israelis and Palestinians have not been able to make significant progress on their own, and the United States has not been prepared to force either side to make concessions.

Indeed, after his talks with the Israelis, Cheney made it clear that this administration will not lean on Israel.

“The United States will never pressure Israel to take steps that threaten its security,” he said.

Cheney warned the Palestinians that ongoing terror could cost them their chance for statehood.

“Terror and rockets do not merely kill innocent civilians; they also kill the legitimate hopes and aspirations of the Palestinian people,” he said.

The lack of progress in the peace talks has led to widespread disillusionment on the West Bank.

A recent survey by leading Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki showed a sharp increase in support for terrorist violence and a pervasive skepticism about the chances for peace with Israel based on the principle of two states for two peoples.

According to the poll, 84 percent of Palestinians supported the terrorist shooting spree that killed eight students earlier this month at the Mercaz Harav yeshiva in Jerusalem. That is a sign of just how radicalized Palestinian society has become. In the mid-1990s, polls showed Palestinian support for suicide bombings at less than 20 percent.

Although most Palestinians still say they want a two-state solution, few believe it will happen soon. Shikaki attributes the dismal poll numbers to dashed Palestinian hopes raised by Annapolis.

“What happened after Annapolis?” Shikaki fumed. “Israeli settlement construction is on the rise, daily life under the Israeli military has become worse, the number of checkpoints has in fact increased and what Palestinians hear from their leaders every day is that permanent-status negotiations are going nowhere.”