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Throughout the British sailors crisis over the last two weeks, Israel, like Britain's other friends in the region, kept a low profile.
The message was clear: Prime Minister Tony Blair's government was trying to bring about a speedy solution through diplomatic means and intervention would only make things worse. But that doesn't mean the abduction of the 15 British sailors and marines and the way it ended hasn't had any effect on the ongoing tensions between Israel and Iran.
It would be callous, of course, not to be thankful for the safe return of the abductees to their homes and not to empathize with their families' relief, but we cannot ignore the fact that the elaborate show stage-managed by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of his "gift" to the British people has made Israel's position vis- -vis Iran that much more difficult.
For the past five years, Israel's official policy on Iran developing nuclear arms has been that Teheran's nuclear program was the problem of the entire international community. The unstated hope is that an international campaign of diplomatic pressure and sanctions will eventually force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, but such pressure would only be effective if the US and its allies made it quite clear to Teheran that if need be, such measures would be backed up by military action.
Two weeks ago, Iran seemed to be risking accusations of piracy on the high seas by capturing the two British patrol boats. Now, Ahmadinejad has turned the tables and is regarded by some in the West as a magnanimous leader for releasing his prisoners unscathed.
Politicians and pundits who have ruled out the option of attacking Iran now point to the outcome of the hostage crisis as proof that negotiations are the only viable route to a solution to the nuclear issue as well.
Since Iran has shown no signs whatsoever of even slowing down its nuclear program - Vice President Parvaiz Davudi even announced the opening of a new installation at the Bushehr reactor this week, at the height of the sailors drama - renewed emphasis on friendly negotiations will only serve to provide it with more time in which to reach the point of no return. Iran as a nuclear power will have become a fact of life.
One leader who is obviously worried that Ahmadinejad will turn into a "legitimate" partner is Blair, who didn't let the rejoicing at the sailors' release on Thursday distract him from blaming the Iranians for aiding the terrorists in southern Iraq who had killed four British soldiers in a roadside bomb attack the night before.
But Blair is on his way out of office and has lost credibility with both the British public and the media on issues of foreign policy, especially where it concerns the war in Iraq. If the current mollification of Iran persists, Israel will become isolated in its demand for resolute international action against an Iranian bomb and the moment of truth, when the Israeli government will have to decide whether to act alone, will arrive.
The fact that Ahmadinejad got away with an act of piracy has additional implications for Israel. It is hard to believe that the timing on Thursday of either the first announcement by a senior Hizbullah leader that captive IDF reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser were being treated humanely or the rumors from Damascus of Syria's intent to act as a mediator with Hizbullah were coincidental.
If Ahmadinejad can gain international legitimacy by capturing and then releasing prisoners, then other groups are also going to get in on the act.
Shlomo Goldwasser, father of one of the captured IDF reservists, said Thursday that Israel should learn from Britain and employ diplomacy to urge Hizbullah to release his son, Ehud.
"I know that when you want to do business, you have to talk directly with the other side, without any go-between. I don't care that by law, Hizbullah is classified as a terror organization. We can talk with Hizbullah to get our boys back home," he said.
Goldwasser obviously has a point, but the problem is how Israel can prevent Hizbullah and its Iranian patrons from taking the whole country hostage.
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