By staking out a policy line on Iran reflecting the views of the Israeli national security leadership, Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz has undercut the Benjamin Netanyahu government's carefully planned strategy to get U.S. President Barack Obama to threaten war against Iran if it doesn't give up its nuclear program.
It could be the beginning of a process by which Netanyahu begins to climb down from a militarily aggressive policy that has provoked unprecedented dissent from high-ranking active and retired military and intelligence officials.
The new coalition government, which increased its majority in the Knesset from 94 to 120 seats, was billed by the government's supporters as a "war cabinet" that would strengthen Netanyahu's hand in using force against Iran should that decision be made.
But instead Mofaz has publicly contradicted the whole thrust of Netanyahu's strategy by downgrading the threat from Iran and suggesting that a peace settlement with the Palestinians is actually more important.
The role of Mofaz in suggesting a more moderate Israeli policy line on Iran is at least in part the result of more senior Israeli national security figures speaking out publicly against the Netayahu threat of war on Iran, according to Yossi Alpher, a former head of the Jaffee Center for Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and a special adviser to then prime minister Ehud Barak in 2000.
In April, both former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin and the present Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff joined former Mossad chief Meir Dagan in contradicting the official Israeli position that Iran was bent on obtaining nuclear weapons.
Alpher believes that the decision to bring Mofaz into the government reflects a policy adjustment by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to the views of the Israeli national security elite.
Alpher told IPS in an interview he believes the criticism by those senior military and intelligence officials of Netayahu's Iran policy had "reached a critical mass." "At some point it registered with Netanyahu and Barak," said Alpher.
Netanyahu and Barak wanted to show the national security chiefs that they were being listened to by bringing someone who reflects their views into the leadership circle, Alpher said.
The result of that decision may be a much deeper shift in policy toward Iran than Netanyahu and Barak wish to acknowledge. Ever since late 2011, the impression of a heightened threat of an Israeli attack on Iran has been central to the crisis atmosphere over the issue. It has been the premise on which Israel has tried to reduce progressively Obama's freedom of action on Iran with the ultimate objective of maximizing the likelihood of an eventual U.S. attack on Iranian nuclear sites.
The strategy of pressure on Obama was to be carried out through a combination of Israeli demands regarding U.S. diplomatic positions on Iran's nuclear program and pressure from the U.S. Congress at the prompting of the right-wing pro-Israel lobby organization AIPAC, which operates in close consultation with the Likud government.
The tandem of Israeli and Congressional targets of AIPAC would push for U.S. demands in the negotiations with Iran that would ensure their failure. Netanyahu would then seek to force a shift in Obama's red line on the Iranian nuclear program from evidence of intent to build nuclear weapons to evidence of determination to maintain a weapons nuclear capability. Allies of Netanyahu have suggested that the pressure on Obama to adopt a new red line would peak during the 2012 presidential election campaign.
Even after Mofaz joined the coalition government in May, the Netanyahu strategy continued to unfold according to plan. A resolution in the U.S. House of Representatives originating in AIPAC that rejected "any U.S. policy that would rely on efforts to contain a nuclear weapons capable Iran"... was passed 401 to 11 on May 18.
The Jerusalem Post reported June 7 that Israeli officials had revealed a three-pronged strategy to get Iran to halt its nuclear program: stiffening economic sanctions, getting the U.S. and the P5+1 to demand a halt to all enrichment, and "upgrading the threat perception inside Iran" -- an obvious reference to shifting Obama's position on the use of force.
Just before the Moscow round of talks between the P5+1 and Iran on June 18 and 19, a letter from 44 senators, evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, urged Obama to "reconsider talks with Iran unless it agrees immediate steps to curb its enrichment activity." That letter, also drafted by AIPAC, called for a shift from further talks to "significantly increasing the pressure on Iran through sanctions and making it clear that a credible military option exists."