Netanyahu & Olmert Policy Variations Towards Iran

To what extent does the policy towards a nuclear Iran of the present Benjamin Netanyahu premiership differ from that of Ehud Olmert?
{Oriental Studies, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford}

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Introduction

In examining the Israeli position and policy towards a nuclear Iran, it is possible to note different attitudes between the Likud Party’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Kadima’s Ehud Olmert. Netanyahu is more intense and dramatic in portraying nuclear Iran, while Olmert was more subtle and calmer. While both called for international awareness of the Iranian nuclear threat, they varied in approach and intensity. Furthermore, it will be shown that the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the Iranian presidency has intensified the danger a nuclear Iran would pose to Israel. This essay is divided into three main sections: first, what a nuclear Iran means to Israel; second, how international attention was drawn to the threat; and finally, what actions Netanyahu and Olmert have called for to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat. This essay will show how in speeches and interviews, Netanyahu and Olmert presented a nuclear Iran to the world.

What does a Nuclear Iran mean to Israel?

Israel’s security has always been a priority since the state’s establishment in 1948. Israel’s birth was mired in conflicts, from within its territories and from its surroundings. Israel views itself as an island surrounded by a hostile sea, namely its Arab neighbours that view Israel as an illegal state[1]. However, Israel sees itself as the homeland for the Jewish people: since the exile of the Jews by the Romans in the 1st and 2nd Centuries CE after the destruction of the Second Temple, there are more Jews living in Israel than anywhere else in the world[2]. As a result, Israeli governments have been concerned about the security of their citizens, and even more so about the potential destruction of the Zionist dream of returning the Jews to their homeland.

With this sense of threatened existence, Israel has been fearful of Iran since it announced the restart of its nuclear programme in 1992[3]. Ever since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic regime of Iran has often spoken against Israel and Ayatollah Khomeini has called for its destruction[4]. However Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister, from 1996 to 1999, saw the election of Mohammad Khatami as President of Iran in 1997. Even though Netanyahu initially saw Khatami’s election as a “positive development” for Israel[5], the Iranian leadership led by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continued to speak against Israel and call for its destruction[6]. However, Khatami himself was considered a moderate and liberal figure in Iranian politics[7]. He sought to improve relations with the West[8], and, moreover, he condemned acts of terrorism against Israelis[9]. This shows that the threat of a nuclear attack by Iran was not as present during Khatami’s presidency. Furthermore, during this period, there was little comment on Iran’s nuclear programme by Israeli officials.

This changed when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the sixth President of Iran in August 2005. More conservative in outlook, he resumed the early rhetoric of the Islamic Republic. A few months after his election, Ahmadinejad addressed a ‘World without Zionism’ conference and declared that Israel was a “disgraceful blot” that should be “wiped off the face of the earth”[10]. By calling for the complete destruction of Israel, Iran posed a realistic nuclear threat. Although there were attempts by Ahmadinejad’s ministers to improve his image after this speech by saying that he had been misunderstood[11], his statements proved difficult to ignore and the threat he posed to Israel’s existence intensified. With Ahmadinejad’s fiery rhetoric, one can observe greater concern and urgency in the statements of both Olmert and Netanyahu.

After Ariel Sharon’s serious stroke in January 2006, Ehud Olmert was appointed acting prime minister, and following an election, he became Israel’s 12th prime minister. Sharon had already spoken against Iran and had warned of its developing nuclear programme when he said that Iran “makes every effort to possess nuclear weapons”, and that it would soon pass the “point of no return”[12]. Olmert echoed these sentiments when he discussed Iran’s enriching of uranium for the purposes of developing a nuclear weapon[13]. This shows that there was already a belief within Israel that Iran was intent on pursuing a nuclear programme.

However, during his time as prime minister, Olmert has displayed uncertainty over the authenticity of Iran’s nuclear programme. In an interview, he stated that he was unconvinced about Iran’s technological advancement in actually developing a nuclear warhead. Moreover, he said that Iran was not “as close as it pretends” to developing such weapons. He bases his judgement on what Iranian leaders have said, and has decided that although it is not far from it, Iran still does not have the technology[14]. According to a US intelligence review, despite the existence of a nuclear programme, Iran is still a few years away from manufacturing a nuclear weapon[15]. Iran has also signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows it to develop nuclear energy for “peaceful purposes”[16]. Olmert, thus, lacked the confidence to overtly accuse Iran of possessing nuclear weapons.

The debate over whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons is secondary to the fact that the threat of a nuclear Iran was enough to generate genuine fear. Despite doubt over Iran’s current capabilities, Israel believes that it is or at least will be armed in the foreseeable future, and this fear is enough for Israel to feel threatened. In an interview with the German weekly news magazine Der Speigel, Olmert stated that he believed that Iran’s nuclear threat was serious enough, and that Israel was convinced of Iran’s military programme and that Iran will fight to defend it[17]. Furthermore, in a poll published in Israel in 2006, it showed that 79% of Israeli Jews believe that Iran posed a genuine threat to Israel’s existence while 66% believe that Iran would develop a nuclear weapon and use it against Israel[18]. This shows that although Olmert himself was initially reluctant to talk of Iran’s nuclear weapons in real terms, the fear amongst Israelis was high. In order to appear as if he had its citizens’ interests at heart, he had to speak against Iran and the threat of its nuclear arms programme.

Although Olmert talks about the threat Iran poses to Israel’s existence, his views are fairly calm and he discusses the threat of Iran in vague terms, instead of painting a bleak picture. Furthermore, his tenure as prime minister was marked by a bribery scandal and criticism over his accidental admittance of Israel’s nuclear weapons on German television while on a state visit to Germany[19]. Olmert’s concerns about Iran’s nuclear programme and his heightened warnings and calls for further action against Iran coincided with increased corruption charges against him in Israel; many of his statements against Iran date from May 2008 when he was facing a ballot within his own party that would result in his removal[20]. By raising concerns about Iran, it could be said that Olmert was trying to encourage support for himself as well as to unite his party behind him.

However, since Netanyahu was appointed prime minister in March 2009, the tone against Iran has become more fatalistic. Netanyahu’s recent statements play on the sense of insecurity and hostility Israel feels, especially when he portrays Ahmadinejad as Hitler. This began when Netanyahu was leader of the opposition. While addressing the United Jewish Communities General Assembly, he openly declared that, “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs”. He went on to say that Ahmadinejad was preparing for another holocaust[21].

He echoed these sentiments when he became prime minister. In an interview with CNN’s Larry King, Netanyahu’s tone when speaking about Iran was ominous. He believed that it was “imperative to take note when someone [Ahmadinejad] calls for our [Israel’s] extermination”[22], which would be a modern-day Holocaust. By comparing Ahmadinejad’s Iran to Hitler’s Germany, Netanyahu was able to conjure up certain emotions and memory of the Holocaust, and the fear and threat the Jewish people experienced. Netanyahu’s terms were more dramatic than how Olmert addressed the threat. Moreover, Netanyahu was able to connect the present idea of a nuclear Iran with a not so distant past, in the form of a new Holocaust, thereby making the threat seem more urgent. This was enough to generate and perpetuate the fear against Iran. It also helped increase the urgency in Israel’s need for regional security, as well as international support.

Iran as a Nuclear Threat: Not Just an Israeli concern

As has been discussed above, Israel has been greatly concerned with Iran’s threats against its existence. In order to secure Israel’s security in the region, both Olmert and Netanyahu have portrayed the nuclear threat posed by Iran as a global concern. By doing so, Israel is not isolated and places itself under the responsibility of the international community. Olmert began to internationalise the nuclear threat when he first stated that Israel should not be the one to condemn Iran’s nuclear programme. Instead, he names the United States, Russia, Britain, Germany and France as those who should be at the forefront because they have the capabilities[23].

By making the nuclear threat a global concern, Olmert was able to place the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of other countries; particularly countries Israel considers allies that can deal with the Iranian threat. Moreover, to Olmert, the 2003 war in Iraq and the subsequent removal of Sadam Hussain improved Middle Eastern security, particularly for countries that have been targeted by Hussain, such as Israel, Palestine and Jordan. Olmert therefore sees President Bush as the “natural partner” in fighting terror[24]. This shows that the US would be an ally in a possible war with Iran, especially since Iran is considered a country that supports terrorism and actively calls for the destruction of Israel.

Netanyahu’s current term in office displays continuity with Olmert, especially in terms of the latter’s internationalising of Iran’s nuclear threat. Even as leader of the opposition, Netanyahu maintained the government’s position of making Iran an international concern. He even said that although Israel “would certainly be the first stop on Iran’s tour of destruction… [the arsenal] will be directed against ‘the big Satan’, the US, and the ‘moderate Satan’, Europe”[25]. A few months after he was sworn in, in an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, Netanyahu stated that Iran was a threat not only to Israel but also to the entire international community. He qualified this global fear by stating that Iran is known to sponsor terrorism worldwide. He went on to say that it was possible that Iran could supply these terrorists with nuclear weapons[26]. Netanyahu portrays a nuclear Iran as a threat to global security through its support of terrorist activities. By continuing Olmert’s policy of internationalising the Iranian threat, Netanyahu has been able to place pressure on its allies to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Military Action Against Iran: Security at Any Price

The threat posed by Iran, compounded by Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric, has made both Olmert and Netanyahu voice drastic options to counter it. In 2008, while on a visit to America, Olmert addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee where he proposed that Iran should be stopped “by all possible means”[27]. There have also been calls by Netanyahu for the international community, particularly the US, to use military might in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In displaying that the US is also being threatened by Iran, he believes that responding through military means is “necessary”[28]. Both called for possible military action against Iran and in this sense, they do not differ too much from each other.

In speaking of such extreme actions, both have been quite vague about details. Olmert once stated, “There are many things that can be done economically, politically, diplomatically and militarily”[29]. Although he states the different options available to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, he is vague about specific actions. In looking at the available options in addressing Iran, Netanyahu was also vague. As leader of the Likud Party in late 2006, he said, “all ways must be considered” but did not chart their specific details[30]. This shows that Netanyahu and Olmert do not differ too much from each other for calling for action against Iran, they are both unable to outline the details.

Despite the calls for military action, it is still considered an extreme option. Until now, Israel has acknowledged sanctions as a viable short-term solution. Olmert does say that the international sanctions are only the first step, and should be intensified[31]. Netanyahu echoes similar support for sanctions and has called for other countries to follow America’s lead[32]. He feels that sanctions can only do so much and are not enough to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. While Olmert calls for the intensification of sanctions, Netanyahu believes these are not sufficient. Olmert was less willing than Netanyahu to opt for a military response to Iran’s nuclear threat.

Netanyahu has recently been more overt in his call for military action against the nuclear threat posed by Iran. This began even when he was leader of the opposition. During an interview with Army Radio, he hinted that Israel was militarily equipped and capable to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although he was vague about the specifics[33]. In New Orleans on 8 November 2010, he addressed the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America. In his speech, he declared that it was necessary to mount a “credible military threat” against Iran in order to avoid war[34]. This statement came about soon after the victory of the Republicans in the US House of Representatives. Some Republican politicians like Representative Eric Cantor and Senator Lindsey Graham had already started to talk of military action in dealing with Iran[35]. The similarity with Republican rhetoric could have made Netanyahu more comfortable and confident than Olmert in calling for a military response to Iran. In this case, Netanyahu has shown more openness than Olmert in expressing more drastic measures to deal with a nuclear Iran.

Conclusion

The recent Wikileaks revelation, with all its limitations, has exposed Saudi Arabia as another country in the region that is fearful of Iran’s possible nuclear threat. The Saudi king has even suggested that the US government destroy Iran’s nuclear programme[36]. This shows that Israel is not alone in its fear and the threat has indeed become internationalised. Olmert and Netanyahu have both been consistent in making the Iranian nuclear issue global. The Ahmadinejad presidency has caused further concern as he openly calls for the destruction of Israel. However, as can be seen, Olmert has been quite calm in condemning Iran. Although he labels it as a threat to Israel, he does not elaborate what this threat exactly entails. Netanyahu has presented the Iranian issue in bleaker terms by comparing it to Hitler’s Germany, and by doing so, adds a sense of urgency to protect Israel. In terms of stopping Iran’s nuclear programme, Olmert believed sanctions as necessary, and if anything, they should be intensified. Netanyahu has been more open about calling for military action against Iran. Despite coming from different political backgrounds, they are united in the calls against Iran and see it as a threat to Israel. They only differ in terms of approach and intensity.

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1 Avner Cohen, The Worst-kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), p.xx

2 Ibid, p.xxiii

3 Trita Parsi, Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United Sates, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007), p.266

4 Anoushiravan Ehtshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution, (New York: IB Tauris, 2007), p.109

5 Naomi Segal, “Netanyahu Takes Positive View over Election of Iranian moderate”, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 30 May 1997, www.jweekly.com, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

6 “Address by Minister of Foreign Affairs Levy to the United Nations General Assembly, 29 September 1997”, Meron Medzini (Ed.), Israel’s Foreign Relations: Selected Documents, 1996-1997, Volume 16, (Jerusalem: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1999), p.360

7 Fred Halliday: “Iran and the Middle East: Foreign Policy and Domestic Change”; Middle East Report (No. 220; Autumn 2001)

8 Ewen MacAskill and Chris McGreal, “Israel Should be Wiped Off Map, Says Iran’s President”, The Guardian, 27 October 2005, www.guardian.co.uk, (Accessed 20 February 2011)

9 Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, p.211

10 MacAskill and McGreal, “Israel Should be Wiped Off Map”, (Accessed 20 February 2011)

11 Anoushiravan Ehtshami and Mahjoob Zweiri, Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution, (New York: IB Tauris, 2007), p.114

12 “Sharon: Iran’s Nuclear Weapon Programme Nears Point of No Return”, CNN, 13 April 2005, http://articles.cnn.com/, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

13 “Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: ‘We Want Genuine Peace’, Der Speigel, 18 June 2008, www.spiegel.de, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

14 “Olmert: Iran ‘not as close as it pretends’ to nuclear capability, PM: International Diplomatic Pressure on Iran will in the End Keep Tehran from Attaining Nuclear Weapons”, Haaretz, 22 April 2007, www.haaretz.com, (Accessed on 21 February 2011)

15 Parsi, Treacherous Alliance, p.266

16 Ibid, p.267

17 “Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert”, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

18 Cohen, The Worst-kept Secret, p.xxiv

19 “Israeli PM in Nuclear Arms Hit”, BBC, 12 December 2006, www.news.bbc.ac.uk, (Accessed 22 February 2011)

20 “Olmert’s Party Considers Ballot Over Scandal”, Reuters, 30 May 2008, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

21 Peter Hirschberg, “Netanyahu: It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany; Ahmadinejad is Preparing Another Holocaust”, Haaretz, 14 November 2006, www.haaretz.com (Accessed 1 March 2011)

22 “CNN Larry King Interviews Benjamin Netanyahu”, CNN, 7 July 2010, www.youtube.com, (Accessed 22 February 2011)

23 “Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert”, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

24 Romesh Ratnesar, “Israel Should Not be on the Forefront of a War against Iran”, Time Magazine, 9 April 2006, www.time.com, (Accessed on 22 February 2011)

25 Hirschberg, “Netanyahu”, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

26 “CNN Interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 22 September 2009, www.mfa.gov.il, (Accessed on 21 February 2011)

27 Butcher, “Israel’s Ehud Olmert”, Accessed on 21 February 2011)

28 Hirschberg, “Netanyahu”, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

29 “Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert”, (Accessed 21 February 2011)

30 Hirschberg, “Netanyahu” (Accessed 1 March 2011)

31 Butcher, “Israel’s Ehud Olmert”, (Accessed on 21 February 2011)

32 “CNN Larry King Interviews Benjamin Netanyahu”, Accessed 22 February 2011)

33 Hirschberg, “Netanyahu”, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

34 Ron Kampeas, “With Republican Victory, Netanyahu has support on Iran”, 11 November 2010, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, www.jweekly.com, (Accessed on 22 February 2011)

35 Ibid

36 Ian Black and Simon Tisdall, “Saudi Arabia Urges US Attack on Iran to Stop Nuclear Programme”, The Guardian,8 November 2010, www.guardian.co.uk, (Accessed 1 March 2011)

 

Books

Cohen, Avner. The Worst kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010.
Ehtshami, Anoushiravan and Mahjoob Zweiri. Iran and the Rise of its Neoconservatives: The Politics of Tehran’s Silent Revolution. New York: IB Tauris, 2007.
Medzini, Meron (Ed.). Israel’s Foreign Relations: Selected Documents, 1996-1997, Volume 16. Jerusalem: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 1999.
“Address by Minister of Foreign Affairs Levy to the United Nations General Assembly, 29 September 1997”.
Parsi, Trita. Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United Sates. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.
Articles
Halliday, Fred. “Iran and the Middle East: Foreign Policy and Domestic Change”. Middle East Report. No. 220, Autumn 2001.
News articles (Websites)
Black, Ian and Simon Tisdall. “Saudi Arabia Urges US Attack on Iran to Stop Nuclear Programme”. The Guardian, 28 November 2010, www.guardian.co.uk.
Butcher, Tim. “Israel’s Ehud Olmert: “All Possible Means” must be used to stop nuclear Iran”. The Telegraph, 4 June 2008. www.telegraph.co.uk.
“CNN Interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu”. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 22 September 2009. www.mfa.gov.il.
“CNN Larry King Interviews Benjamin Netanyahu”. CNN, 7 July 2010, www.youtube.com.
“Interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: ‘We Want Genuine Peace’. Der Speigel, 18 June 2008. www.spiegel.de.
“Israeli PM in Nuclear Arms Hit”. BBC, 12 December 2006, www.news.bbc.ac.uk.
Hirschberg, Peter. “Netanyahu: It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany; Ahmadinejad is Preparing Another Holocaust”. Haaretz, 14 November 2006, www.haaretz.com.
Kampeas, Ron. “With Republican Victory, Netanyahu has support on Iran”. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 11 November 2010. www.jweekly.com.
MacAskill Ewen and Chris McGreal. “Israel Should be Wiped Off Map,
Says Iran’s President”. The Guardian, 27 October 2005. www.guardian.co.uk.
“Olmert: Iran ‘not as close as it pretends’ to nuclear capability, PM: International Diplomatic Pressure on Iran will in the End Keep Tehran from Attaining Nuclear Weapons”. Haaretz, 22 April 2007, www.haaretz.com.
“Olmert’s Party Considers Ballot Over Scandal”. Reuters, 30 May 2008. www.reuters.com.
Segal, Naomi. “Netanyahu Takes Positive View over Election of Iranian moderate”. Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 30 May 1997. www.jweekly.com.
“Sharon: Iran’s Nuclear Weapon Programme Nears Point of No Return”. CNN, 13 April 2005. http://articles.cnn.com/.
Ratnesar, Romesh. “Israel Should Not be on the Forefront of a War against Iran”. Time Magazine, 9 April 2006. www.time.com.
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