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MIDEAST: Remark Raises Oil Price, and Temperatures

Peter Hirschberg

JERUSALEM, Jun 10 2008 (IPS) - As Transportation Minister, one might have expected that Shaul Mofaz would have given greater consideration to the impact his comments would have on the already galloping price of a barrel of crude oil. Maybe he did. But with the scent of elections in the air in Israel, the international ramifications of his comments were apparently not uppermost on his mind. Far more narrow political calculations clearly were.

In the shrillest comments yet by an Israeli leader on Iran’s nuclear programme, Mofaz told the weekend edition of Israel’s top-selling Yediot Ahronoth newspaper that “if Iran continues its nuclear weapons programme, we will attack it.

“The sanctions are not effective,” he continued. “There will be no alternative but to attack Iran in order to stop the Iranian nuclear programme.”

The remarks by Mofaz, who is a former army chief, had an immediate impact on oil prices, sending the cost of a barrel soaring nine percent to an all-time high of 139 dollars.

Mofaz’s remarks drew international criticism. Even the U.S., Israel’s major ally, reacted with circumspection. White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said that while the U.S. understood that Israel was “very concerned about their future and their safety when they have a neighbour in their region – Iran – that says they want to wipe them off the map,” the Bush administration was “trying to solve this diplomatically.”

In Israel, the criticism was far less muted. Political leaders and defence officials slammed Mofaz, accusing him of harming Israel’s strategic interests and of being motivated by personal political goals. “Turning one of the most strategic security issues into a political game, using it for the internal purposes of a would-be campaign in Kadima, is something that must not be done,” Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai told Israel Radio.


With Prime Minister Ehud Olmert under intense pressure to stand down in the face of corruption charges, the ruling Kadima party is considering holding primaries to choose a new leader, and Mofaz is considered one of the frontrunners. In Israel, his comments were seen in this context – as an attempt to paint himself as tough on security as he gears up for a leadership battle in Kadima ahead of a possible national election later this year.

Just days before his Iran outburst, Mofaz took a hard line view on peace with Syria, declaring that he opposed ceding the Golan Heights, which were captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, in exchange for a comprehensive peace treaty with Damascus. Syria could not be trusted, he said, and giving back the Golan would amount to having Iran, Syria’s strategic ally, on Israel’s border.

Just three weeks ago, Olmert announced that Israel and Syria were renewing peace talks after an eight-year hiatus. In recent months, the Israeli Prime Minister has also said that he believed Iran would not gain nuclear capability, and he has intimated that diplomatic efforts could ultimately prevent it from doing so.

While Israeli leaders have never dismissed the military option with regard to Iran, their references to the use of force have generally been oblique. The remarks by Mofaz, who was born in Iran and came to Israel as a young boy, sparked strong reaction not just because of their strident nature, but also because he is a former chief of staff, a former defence minister and is currently a member of the security cabinet, which makes him privy to highly sensitive defence information. What’s more, he is in charge of Israel’s strategic dialogue with the U.S., which means he has been at the centre of discussions between the government and the Bush administration on Iran.

Government officials, speaking anonymously, said Mofaz’s threats did not reflect official Israeli policy. Angry defence officials said his remarks could make it even more difficult for Israel to convince more countries to ratchet up sanctions against Iran. Both Israel and the U.S. believe Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons, while Tehran insists its nuclear programme is aimed solely at producing civil nuclear power.

With the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities having become increasingly remote, many believe this reduces the chances that Israel will go it alone and launch an attack. Iran’s nuclear facilities are well-protected and are spread out across the country, which raises questions about Israel’s ability to launch an effective strike without the U.S., that could severely damage Iran’s nuclear programme.

But Israel has gone it alone in the past. In 1981, Israeli planes destroyed a nuclear reactor former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had built in Osirak. Just nine months ago, Israel bombed and destroyed a target in Syria which the U.S. said was a nuclear facility.

For Mofaz, the immediate target is the party leadership. But rather than portraying himself as Mr Security, he might have ended up painting himself as an irresponsible leader who exploits sensitive strategic issues for narrow political gain.

Writing in the daily Haaretz newspaper, political analyst Yossi Verter said that Mofaz’s comments had “single-handedly caused the sharpest one-day increase in history in the price of a barrel of crude: 11 dollars. On one hand, that is impressive productivity; on the other, it is scary. What is he planning for us during the real campaign? A world war? A clash of Titans?”

 
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