(photo credit: AP)
The flap over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's seemingly inadvertent breach of Israel's policy of nuclear ambiguity is certainly embarrassing, but does not really change anything. Since such policies should not be changed by a slip of the tongue, Olmert was wise to quickly correct himself and reiterate the familiar formula that Israel will "not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region."
It may be worth considering a change in policy whereby Israel seeks a form of international acceptance for our alleged arsenal, along the lines that India has just received. It should go without saying, however, that such a shift in stance should not be done off-the-cuff, but as the result of careful analysis and with deliberate planning.
The main issue at this moment, however, should not be our nuclear ambiguity policy, but our self-defense policy of which this alleged capability is a part.
The clear purpose of Olmert's European swing is to consult and convey messages with respect to the growing threat from Iran. On this, Olmert reportedly heard from Germany that Israel "will not stand alone," which is not a new message, particularly from Chancellor Angela Merkel.
What is far from clear is what such reassurances really mean. The German government, for example, told Olmert that it had reduced its multi-billion dollar trade with Iran by 12 percent. Germany will also, presumably, support the sanctions package that is being worked out between Europe and Russia.
As Olmert has pointed out, it is impossible to take such measures seriously while European nations are still actively subsidizing massive amounts of trade with Teheran. The objective here cannot be sending signals and taking symbolic steps. The only thing that matters is if the West decides to raise the price of Iran's bid to become a nuclear power so high that the regime decides to give up the attempt, as did Libya in the wake of punishing sanctions and the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
In this context, it is important for Israel to be clear.
Olmert needs to tell his European and American counterparts that joint Western action against Iran is by far the most appropriate and preferred option, but that alternatively, Israel sees unilateral action as the inevitable last resort. Israel would have to take action even though the risks both for Israel and for other countries would be high, and even if there were no guarantees of success.
In short, Israel must make it clear that the West's choice is not between confronting or tolerating a nuclear Iran, but between taking collective action and forcing Israel to act alone.
Part of this message should be that while Israel has no non-military option of last resort, that there are still non-military forms of collective action that could be even more effective than military action. A total European trade and diplomatic embargo, including the blocking of Iran's refined oil imports, coupled with a bid to revoke Iran's UN membership and international support for Iranian opposition movements, would not necessitate firing a shot, and would likely force Iran to back down.
There is no denying that such a course of action would also entail risks, and would have to be backed by the credible threat of military force. But Israel's job now is to make clear that, as messy as such a confrontation might be, it will be less risky and more effective than forcing Israel to confront Iran on its own.
The alternative to Israel conveying such a message is clear. If Israel signals, explicitly or implicitly, that it can live under the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb, than other nations will be even more tempted to do so. Europe's rhetoric notwithstanding, its actions already reveal that it is making such a choice.
It would be hard to imagine a single European leader who would bother to claim that weak and half-hearted sanctions, such as those currently contemplated, have the slightest chance of working. Ineffective sanctions only buy Teheran more time to perfect its enrichment technology and surge toward the nuclear point of no return.
Though our government is right to avoid looking like it is leading the charge, we do have a central role: to concentrate the minds of Western leaders regarding the consequences of inaction, and to belatedly reverse the current trends towards a disastrous complacency. Our nuclear stance should, for now, be ambiguous; our policy toward the Iranian threat should not.