Editor's Notes: Gridlock

Israeli experts are saying that Teheran is mere months from clearing the last hurdles, after which it will be almost unstoppable.

A lot of residential buildings have sprung up in southern Jerusalem over the last few years. There are entire new neighborhoods, such as Har Homa. Kibbutz Ramat Rachel sold off a considerable amount of its agricultural land in the Talpiot area, much of which was swallowed up in medium-sized apartment bloc projects. A series of similar-sized and still taller apartment complexes newly line the main Derech Hebron. Unsurprisingly, the capital's road system has found itself unable to cope with the extra traffic. As in so many other parts of the city, the country and indeed the world, south Jerusalem, year by year, has found itself ever-more helplessly snarled up as more people, with more cars, hit the streets. The chaos recedes a little each summer, during the school holidays. But at the start of each new school year, as every irritable car-pooling parent will testify, it resumes at full-force, and just a little bit worse than it was the year before. The back-to-school south Jerusalem traffic nightmare was exacerbated at the start of the new term this week because of roadworks - commendably designed to ultimately improve traffic flow and add an extra lane - that have reduced Derech Hebron to a single lane for a lengthy stretch where it nears the city center. The alternative main route into town, Derech Bethlehem, is only a single lane in either direction, and invariably grinds to a halt at key stretches - the consequence of a familiar combination of good shops, selfish parking, local and through traffic, bus routes and more. Nearer the city center, the Keren Hayesod thoroughfare has been reduced to a single lane in each direction for some time now, with the middle lanes fenced off, again commendably, for public transport. But it doesn't take much to go wrong - too many taxis, for instance, backed up in the narrow entrance road to the Dan Panorama Hotel - for that single lane to jam, frequently prompting shouted arguments between hot, impatient, frustrated drivers, with repercussions all the way back toward those already snarled up on the Hebron and Bethlehem roads. But this is not a column about a lack of forward planning to grapple with predictable paralysis on the roads, or about the incompetence and selfishness that exacerbates it. IRAN IS on the point of mastering the technology to produce a nuclear bomb. Some Israeli experts have been saying that Teheran is mere months from clearing the last hurdles, after which it will be able to duplicate its capabilities at innumerable sites and will thus be almost unstoppable. Some of these experts have been saying "months" for months, if you follow. Israel has long argued that a nuclear Iran is a global problem, and that it must fall to the free world to thwart Teheran's ambitions. Many world leaders have said the same thing; they just haven't done much about it. Meanwhile not a week goes by without Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly declaring his desire to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Sometimes, in the recent past, US President George Bush responded to Ahmadinejad's threats by saying that America would come to Israel's defense if necessary. He's toned that down a little of late; having been held responsible in some quarters for dragging the US into Iraq, the last thing the Jews need, it has been pointed out to him, is to now be perceived as pulling America into confrontation with Iran. Abraham Foxman, the well-informed director of the Anti-Defamation League who has been visiting Israel this month, believes that Bush will explore "every possible avenue to see if there is a political solution to convince Iran to desist. Nobody will be able to say, 'We didn't try this option.'" His fear, Foxman says, "is that Teheran misunderstands these efforts, and reads them as a sign of weakness." Ultimately, though, Foxman regards Bush firmly as "a man of his word. When the president says, as he has on several occasions, that the world cannot live with, or permit, a nuclear Iran, he means it." Giora Eiland, until recently Israel's national security adviser, sounded much less certain of this when I spoke with him two weeks ago. As reported in the Post at the time, he set out America's three possible courses of action: One, giving up on stopping Iran and "making the best of it" in isolating the regime, hoping for regime change and trying to head-off a regional rush to nuclear capability. Two, launching a last-ditch bid to diplomatically persuade Teheran to at least suspend its program, since it was inconceivable that non-military methods could convince the mullahs to abandon the nuclear drive altogether. And three, military intervention, which would have to come within months, before the final technological obstacle was cleared. All three options were bad, Eiland said. But choosing his words with extreme care, he assessed that the difficulties facing the administration over that third course were growing. An Israeli cabinet minister, in a conversation I had last week, entertained the possibility that Iran might indeed prove unstoppable; I have never previously heard so senior a figure so much as contemplate this notion. He went on to assert, presumably by way of comfort, that a nuclear Iran would not necessarily immediately strike out at Israel. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It would certainly remake the balance of power at a stroke - in the Middle East and globally. Israeli experts are divided about the potential viability of an Israeli military option. Few believe that Israel could thoroughly "take out" Iran's nuclear facilities. Some argue that the repercussions of a preemptive strike that is less than completely successful are prohibitive. Others assert that a sustained air attack, over a few days, would cause a massive setback to the Iranian program, that continued oversight could prevent a rebuilding, and that while the US is capable of doing a better job of both of those tasks, Israel dare not fail to act if the US proves unwilling. Another school of thought has it that Israel must build up its second-strike capability - so that it is unmistakable that a non-conventional attack on Israel would lead certainly and absolutely to the destruction of Iran. There could be no more acute dilemma: a declared enemy on the point of obtaining the most potent weapon of mass destruction, time running short, and innumerable variables to be weighed en route to a decision by the Israeli government. At the very start of the recent war with Hizbullah, it was argued in some quarters that Iran had deliberately timed the northern border bombardment, incursion and kidnapping that triggered the conflict in order to distract the attention of the world's leading statesmen - to change the focus of a G-8 meeting that had been designed to concentrate on the Teheran nuclear program. That theory was subsequently largely discarded; if anything, the crystal-clear evidence of Iran's management of Hizbullah deepened international recognition of the wide threat posed by Teheran, albeit without prompting a discernible new push for concerted action against it. But where the second Lebanon war has clearly distracted attention is in Israel. Three-and-a-half weeks after the fighting ended, Israel's political and military leadership is paralyzing itself in an orgy of in-fighting and blame-trading. The coalition is wobbling, the opposition is scenting opportunity, and nobody is paying more than lip service to the notion that Israel, facing the Iran crisis, might actually need an emergency government of the best and brightest in which partisan ambitions are subsumed to the national interest. Ex-generals are demanding resignations. Serving generals are consulting with their lawyers. The prime minister is attempting to avoid the establishment of the fully independent state commission of inquiry that his own defense minister is backing. Appointees to the alternative inquiry committees he favors are being challenged, as is the very purpose of separate committees that, by definition, cannot identify and rectify the stark failures of coordination between the political and military hierarchies that were apparently at the root of some of what went wrong. Rather than the urgent learning of lessons, delay and obstruction and argument and recrimination are the order of the day. It's a kind of national political gridlock. The watching ayatollahs must find it tremendously entertaining. Israel needs, urgently, to get moving.