As is its habit, the Israeli media missed this week's big story. While our television channels, mass circulation dailies and publicly funded radio stations were scope-locked on the tragedy of children in Gaza killed and injured because they were being used as human shields by the terrorists pummeling Sderot and the Western Negev with rockets and mortars, the world took a step toward nuclear confrontation.
This week the crisis was fomented not by Iran but by its ally North Korea, as Pyongyang made loud preparations ahead of the test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Unlike previous missiles tested, the Taepodong-2 has a 15,000 km range capable of hitting the West Coast of the United States.
North Korea's latest strategic gambit is highly significant for Israel. Its import stems from its relevance for Israeli strategists tasked with crafting a policy to contend with Iran's nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programs. If Israel draws the proper lessons from the current crisis with North Korea, it will take the necessary steps to better position itself against Iran's developing threat. By so repositioning itself, while enhancing its national security, Israel would strengthen the forces in the US and Europe calling for the jihadist, genocidal Iranian regime to be confronted rather than appeased.
An international storm broke out as soon as North Korea's preparations to launch its Taepodong-2 missile and thus directly threaten America became known. For the first time, the US activated its ground based missile defense shield. The US Navy conducted the largest naval carrier group exercise since the Vietnam War, off the coast of Guam. Three carrier groups participated.
US Ambassador to Japan Thomas Scheiffer said that from America's perspective, "All options are on the table" if North Korea launches the missile. On Thursday, two former senior defense officials from the Clinton administration published an op-ed in The Washington Post urging the Bush administration to launch a cruise missile attack against the missile on its launch pad.
On Wednesday, Japan - which has been operating under the threat of North Korean missiles since Pyongyang tested a Taepodong-1 missile over Japan in 1998 - deployed ships and planes toward North Korea to closely monitor developments. For their part, the South Koreans - who have lived under the threat of destruction at the hands of North Korean artillery pointed at Seoul for the past several decades - announced the cancellation of former president Kim Dae Jung's planned visit to the North. Unification Minister Lee Jong Seok said that a missile launch would force Seoul to curtail food aid to North Korea.
North Korea Wednesday demanded that the US agree to conduct direct negotiations with it to defuse the crisis it had fomented. As Han Song Ryol, North Korea's UN deputy chief of mission, put it to a South Korean reporter, "We know that the US is concerned about our missile test launch. So our position is, why don't we try to resolve this problem through negotiations?"
US President George W. Bush rejected North Korea's demand for direct talks. The US position is that if Pyongyang wishes to speak with the US it should return to the six-party talks with the US, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea that it abandoned last November.
By Thursday afternoon it appeared the North Koreans had softened their stand and their manufactured crisis was ending with a whisper. Yet even if this is the case, when the events of the week are analyzed, it is not clear that North Korea lost this round.
TO APPRECIATE why it is difficult to know who is emerging as the winner of the latest confrontation, the uniqueness of the current crisis must be fully grasped. Until this week, North Korea's threat to the US was indirect. It threatened America by threatening its allies, forces and interests in Asia. Now it is directly threatening the US mainland. Whereas until now the US focused on defending its allies and interests, now it must also defend its own territory, which from what now on should be considered to be under direct threat from Pyongyang.
There are three clear and complimentary goals that North Korea seeks to achieve by directly threatening the US. First, it seeks to capitalize on Bush's political weakness. One can almost hear the conversation in Kim Jong Il's bunker: "Why should the Iranians be the only ones to cash in on Bush's decision to make the Europeans love him?" If Bush now seeks to be relevant by appeasing axis of evil members, the thinking goes, then far be it for North Korea to let Teheran be the only beneficiary of the policy shift.
Second, Pyongyang is trying to exploit the weaknesses in the US alliance with South Korea. For the past several years, Seoul has adopted anti-US positions in the hopes of appeasing Pyongyang and strengthening its ties with China. This week the US placed great pressure on Seoul to cancel Kim Dae Jung's visit to Pyongyang. It is not unreasonable to assume that Pyongyang took his visit into account when it timed the launch of its latest provocation. If Seoul had not bowed to US pressure and canceled the visit, North Korea could have exploited it to announce in Kim Dae Jung's presence that it was canceling its planned launch. By doing so it would have weakened the position of US officials who insist on refusing North Korea's demand for direct talks.
Lastly, by directly threatening the US North Korea is maneuvering to improve its international position. Specifically, Pyongyang wishes to force the Americans to accept its status as a nuclear power. While the stalwart positions taken this week by Japan and South Korea indicate that for the time being Pyongyang has failed to achieve its first two goals, it may well have made progress toward achieving this latter aim.
In his statement in Vienna on Wednesday, Bush said, "It should make people nervous when non-transparent regimes who have announced they have nuclear warheads, fire missiles."
Although he took a clear stand against the planned missile launch, Bush did not threaten North Korea's nuclear arsenal, indeed he may have given it de facto recognition. If the US does agree to discuss the ICBM issue with North Korea in the six-party talks rather than limit those talks to Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal, Pyongyang could use this development to foment a breach in the US alliance with Japan and South Korea. The two Asian allies could perceive the US move as tantamount to abandoning them to their fates.
THERE ARE many notable similarities between the ways North Korea and Iran engage the world. Both manufacture international crises to squeeze concessions out of the US and its allies in exchange for neutralizing their manufactured crises. Both seek to exploit all differences of opinion between Western nations to strengthen the voices of appeasement at the expense of the voices calling for them to be brought to account for their behavior.
Iran and North Korea both wage war against near and distant foes. Pyongyang threatens South Korea, Japan and the US. If it manages to unravel their alliance, it will be able to threaten each far more effectively.
Iran campaigns against Israel, the US and the EU. From Teheran's perspective, if it can place the world's undivided attention on its war against Israel, it will be able to deter the US and Europe from contending with the fact that it is also working to undermine their security. Teheran has to this end worked assiduously to hide the fact that its Shihab ballistic missile program is directed mainly against Europe and the US, and not against Israel.
Iran does not need guided or ballistic missile systems to attack Israel. Today Iranian forces directly control Hizbullah's arsenal of missiles, mortars and rockets along Israel's border with Lebanon. Last December when Iran took command of the Palestinian campaign against Israel in Gaza, it gained a significant presence along Israel's southern border.
If Israel does nothing to prevent it, in all likelihood we will soon see Iranian forces deployed along Israel's eastern border with Syria. The defense pact signed this week between Syria and Iran paves the way for the introduction of Iranian forces in Syria, across from the Golan Heights. MK Yuval Steinitz, a former chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, explains that such an Iranian deployment "goes along with the trends we are now seeing regarding the beefing up of the Iranian presence along our border with Lebanon."
Moreover, if Prime Minister Ehud Olmert implements his plan to give Judea and Samaria to Hamas and Fatah, Iranian forces will be deployed on the outskirts of the Dan Region, the Sharon Plain, the lower Galilee and Jerusalem. All in all, today Iran has no need for sophisticated ballistic missiles to attack Israel.
THIS WEEK the Northern Command brought reporters to the border with Lebanon to show them that Iranian forces now command Hizbullah outposts located 20 meters from the border. The commanders stipulated that Israel will not be the first side to open fire along the border. It is quite possible that such restraint is misguided.
Israel would do well to follow the example set this week by Japan and South Korea. While both countries let the US lead the international response towards North Korea, they both also took reasonable, unilateral steps aimed at ensuring their own security from the unique threats North Korea poses toward each of them. Israel must also take steps to secure itself from the unique threats Iran poses toward it, while leaving the US in charge of managing the international community's confrontation with Teheran.
If Israel were to seize the initiative against Iran and its terrorist proxies in Gaza and Lebanon while preventing their deployment across from the Golan Heights and in Judea and Samaria, it would be accomplishing two goals at once. First, it would be diminishing the most immediate Iranian threat it faces today while enhancing US options for dealing with Tehran's ballistic missile arsenal and nuclear program. Second, by dealing with the Iranian threat that endangers Israel alone, Israel would be increasing international awareness of the fact that the Shihab missile program is not first and foremost a threat to Israel, in spite of Iran's attempts to portray it as such.
A poll published at the beginning of the month revealed that 63 percent of Dutch citizens believe that Islam is incompatible with modern European life. More than anything else, this poll demonstrates that as the threat of global jihad becomes more tangible, citizens of the Free World will have less of a tendency to try to appease jihadist forces. By weakening the immediate threat Iran now poses to Israel, Jerusalem will force Europe and the US to understand more clearly just how real Iran's threat towards them actually is.