‘No circumstance whatsoever’ in which Israel can tolerate a nuclear Iran, says foreign minister

We should have attacked in 2001, says Avigdor Liberman, and all the talk and inaction today are weakening Israel’s deterrent capability

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: Flash90)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman (photo credit: Flash90)

Israel should have attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2001, Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said on Friday, and intimated that he continues to see an imperative for Israeli action today.

“I sounded the alarm in 2001,” he said. “We knew in 2001 that they intended to move all their nuclear facilities underground and to disperse them. But in 2001, the right decisions were not taken,” Liberman, who is also a deputy prime minister, said in an interview on Channel 2 News.

What was vital now, Liberman went on, was to stress that “the intelligence information makes it clear: Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran.” Anyone who thinks a nuclear Iran would be remotely comparable to the current reality of a nuclear Pakistan, India, and North Korea, “doesn’t know what he’s talking about. There is no circumstance whatsoever under which Israel can tolerate a nuclear Iran.”

Asked whether that meant Israel should attack Iran’s nuclear facilities in the near future, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are reported to advocate, Liberman said he still felt the same today as he did in 2001 but dodged a more explicit answer. He said that this specific discussion was not one that should be held in the media, and that the ongoing public airing of the issue was enormously damaging to Israel.

“The constant chatter is destructive and undermines our deterrent capacity. We have climbed so high up a tree, that inaction now has a price,” he said.

Talk of a possible strike continues to be highlighted in the Hebrew media, with the same news program on Channel 2 on Friday night dominated by a lengthy examination of Israel’s home front readiness for a possible Iranian-orchestrated retaliation to an Israeli attack. The report said more than two million Israelis had no bomb-shelters available — almost a quarter of the national populace — and that two and a half million were without gas masks.

Liberman, in the same interview, reiterated his recent stinging criticism of the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, calling him a “political terrorist” and saying that Netanyahu had indulged Abbas for far too long.

He said Abbas was preparing the ground for a unilateral bid for UN recognition of Palestine later this year by relentlessly delegitimizing Israel. Abbas seeks “to have Israeli solders prosecuted for crimes against humanity” at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, to have Israel “branded an apartheid state” and to encourage boycott action against Israel. “Israel has every right to ask whether he has legitimacy,” the foreign minister said.

The comments marked Liberman’s third such attack on Abbas this week. On Thursday, he had also described Abbas as a “political terrorist” who is unable and unwilling to make peace with Israel, and defended a controversial letter he wrote to world leaders earlier this week in which he called for new elections to oust Abbas.

“Abu Mazen is a man of terrorism,” Liberman told Israel Radio, using Abbas’ nom de guerre. “He engages in political terrorism and I say clearly: the political terrorism that Abu Mazen engages in is more dangerous for us than the armed terrorism that [Hamas’s Gaza Prime Minister Ismail] Haniyeh and all the other Hamas leaders are involved with. It’s much more dangerous, because everything Abbas does is legitimized by Israel.”

On Monday, Liberman sent a lengthy letter to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in which he attacked the Palestinian leadership and called for new elections in the Palestinian territories.

“Due to Abbas’s weak standing, and his policy of not renewing negotiations, which is an obstacle to peace, the time has come to consider a creative solution, to think ‘outside the box,’ in order to strengthen the Palestinian leadership,” he wrote. “General elections in the PA should be held, and a new, legitimate, hopefully realistic Palestinian leadership should be elected.”

‘It’s the Palestinians’ right to choose their leadership. If it will be a realistic leadership, we will engage with them in negotiations. If it’s Hamas, we know we’re dealing with an enemy’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu distanced himself from Liberman’s letter, saying it did not reflect the government’s position on the question. Israel does not interfere in the internal affairs of its neighbors, an official in Prime Minister’s Office said, and Netanyahu did not endorse the message it conveyed.

The Palestinian Authority also condemned Liberman’s statement.

Liberman seemed unperturbed Thursday. “In every act of negotiations, there are two basic questions: Can the other side deliver the goods, and what are its intentions?” he said. “We are negotiating with Abu Mazen and we expect him to honor his commitments. The first question is whether he is able to do so — a man who doesn’t control the Gaza Strip and for years has been incapable of arranging elections in the PA? Would he be able to honor his commitments toward us, if he ever made any?”

Asked if he doesn’t fear that new Palestinian presidential elections will bring Hamas to power, as happened in parliamentary elections of January 2006, Liberman said that he did not seek to interfere in internal Palestinian issues. “It’s the Palestinians’ right to choose their leadership. If it will be a realistic leadership, we will engage with them in negotiations. If Hamas is elected, we know that we’re dealing with an enemy,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at a peace conference in Washington, D.C. on September 2, 2010. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas at a peace conference in Washington in 2010. (photo credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/Flash90)

Israel needs to face reality, however unpleasant it may be, the foreign minister and deputy prime minister said. Trying to maintain the current calm at any cost would hurt Israel in the long run, therefore Jerusalem should establish a clear, principled policy toward the Palestinians, he said. “Today we are trying to be on both sides of the fence so we can feel we’re part of the game. Abbas is a partner but also an enemy — it doesn’t work like that. In the big picture, we stand to lose from this. We can’t just sit around and do nothing. We need to initiate. We try only to maintain the status quo, and this works against us.”

Liberman further said that the fact that he and the prime minister have different views is the fault of the current government system, which is based on a coalition of different parties. He is not obligated to Netanyahu’s position, only to coalition agreements and cabinet decisions, he said. “There is no government position that contradicts what I said, that says we are committed only to Abu Mazen.”

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