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The other speech tonight…

Tonight Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert addressed the AIPAC policy conference currently underway in Washington, and as expected Iran was the centerpiece of his presentation. He made clear that the military option against the Iranian nuclear program remains very much on the table, if not a main course warming in the oven:

The Iranian threat must be stopped by all possible means. International economic and political sanctions on Iran, as crucial as they may be, are only an initial step, and must be dramatically increased. Iran’s defiance of international resolutions and its continued tactics of deception and denial leave no doubt as to the urgent need for more drastic and robust measures. The sanctions must be clearly defined and religiously enforced. Any willingness to overlook Iranian violations or justify Iran’s questionable tactics will immediately be interpreted as a sign of weakness and will only encourage them to proceed with more vigor.

He then called on the nations of the world to individually impose sanctions on Iran:

Each and every country must understand that the long-term cost of a nuclear Iran greatly outweighs the short-term benefits of doing business with Iran. … Sanctions can be imposed on the export of gasoline to Iran and they can be imposed on countries which refine gasoline for Iran. Governments should announce that Iranian businessmen are no longer welcome in their countries, and that funds arriving from or channeled to Iran should not be transferred through their banks.

Then there’s Syria, about which Olmert articulated only a few platitudes, telegraphing the improbability of the current talks:

Syria is currently a threat to regional stability, but if it ultimately makes the choice to have peace relations with Israel, for which it will have to disengage from its allies in the Axis of Evil, this will constitute a drastic, strategic shift in the entire Middle East.

At least he threw in an Axis of Evil reference, which in regard to Syria is about the biggest acknowledgment he’s made of the existence of the Bush administration. Olmert’s Syria gambit is a continuing insult to Washington, which in 2005, after several years of fruitless engagement made a wise decision: that it would not permit Syria, as during the Clinton years, to dance at two weddings — to host terror groups in Damascus, ally with Iran, sponsor Hezbollah, dominate Lebanon, and encourage proxy wars on Israel while also enjoying western engagement, peace overtures, and lavish international attention. Today even the Arab states have ostracized Syria. But not Olmert. One hopes that a stern reprimand will be administered to him in Washington. (For more, please read this excellent piece by David Schenker.)

On the Arab states:

These nations, which want to promote peace and which fully recognize the direct threat to them posed by a nuclear Iran and by foreign and domestic extremism, now have a golden opportunity to support a process of normalization and reconciliation with Israel, which will isolate Iran and the extremists and help foil their pursuit of regional dominance.

I’m not so sure Olmert is accurately presenting the regional dynamics. The rise of Iran, and especially the regime’s endeavor to position itself as the champion of “resistance” in the Middle East, has placed the Sunni states in a position that is far more awkward than Olmert lets on. Sure, the Sunnis are worried about Iran, primarily because they’re concerned about the stability of their own regimes. But publicly allying with Israel would present its own risks to Arab regimes — think of what happened to Sadat in 1981. The Sunnis have been moving closer to Israel, and may well continue doing so; but this will be extraordinarily discreet, certainly without photo-ops.

The conclusion. Perhaps Olmert has a mischievous speechwriter, or a terribly dark sense of humor. In noting the cloud over his government, he remarked that “Israeli politics is accustomed to all kinds of trials and tribulations.” Well, there hasn’t been an indictment just yet.



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