Differing views on the degree to which Iran's nuclear program poses a threat to Israel and the effective strategies for combating that threat were on display Sunday at the Herzliya Conference, with the fault line being drawn largely along the Mediterranean Sea.
While both Israeli and European experts called for economic sanctions to be placed on the Islamic state, their agreement ended there.
Israeli panelists, including politicians and military experts, sounded alarmist views on Iran's growing nuclear stature and expertise, and said military action to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb is a viable option. Their European counterparts, however, generally expressed less concern, preferring the diplomatic track and opining that an attack on Iran would likely not be effective.
"We are just at the beginning of a long confrontation and we must keep our heads cool," said Phillipe Errera, the deputy director for the French Foreign Ministry's center for analysis and prevision. The path of "defeatist" attitudes, he said, was causing people to look at the Iran situation in the extremes - either accepting the pariah country as a nuclear force or rushing to a military solution.
"We have moved a good way forward since 2003," Errera said. "Multilateralism may be maddening and slow but it is indispensable."
Sir Michael Quinlan, a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, went a step further, saying that even if Iran went nuclear, attacking it would not be the correct move. A military option would not prove sustainable in the long-run, he said, adding that the prospect of "Iran using a nuclear bomb on Israel is absurd. Although, I can say that sitting safely in the UK."
Rather than planning an attack on Iran, Israel should support the UN Security Council in putting together a basket of aggressive economic sanctions against Iran. Ultimately, he said, Israel must "look reality in the face" and realize that the international community does not regard Iran's nuclear program in the same "unacceptable" terms as Israel does.
With members of the crowd hissing, Quinlan further suggested that if Israel wanted to seriously diminish future nuclear threats, it should be prepared to negotiate the status of its own nuclear program "once it existed in secure and settled borders, accepted by all neighbors in an agreement underwritten by the UN Security Council."
Responding to Quinlan, Maj. Gen. (res.) Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, told the conference that "history prevents us from ignoring people who say publicly what they want to do to us."
"We can't leave even one millionth of a chance that they can think they have a bomb and we do not," said Ben-Israel, who heads the security studies program at Tel-Aviv University.
Stopping Iran's nuclear program via an Israeli air strike would mean paying a high price in terms of increased terror attacks from Hizbullah and other groups Iran uses as a deterrent to Israel, he said. But "when we weigh the risks" of more terror compared to a nuclear Iran, Ben-Israel said, "we should clearly see what wins in the equation."
According to Dan Schueftan, the deputy director of Haifa University's National Security Studies Center, an American air attack was the only
"viable military option."
"If you can sustain it for weeks and months, you can run the price to a point that Iran will not want to pay it in the long run," said Schueftan, who is also a senior fellow at the Shalem Center. Israel, he said, could only knock out a few of Iran's nuclear facilities in a quick strike, buying time, but not dealing a deathblow to the program.