IN 2009, When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, he made a solemn
promise: Iran would not become a nuclear power on his watch.
the radical Shi’ite regime in Tehran from producing nuclear weapons is, he says,
“the central mission of our times.”
In his view, a bomb in the hands of
fundamentalists calling for Israel’s destruction raises the specter of a second
Even if the Iranians don’t use the bomb, he fears the very
fact that they have it could lead to a mass exodus of Jews from an Israel under
nuclear threat, weakening the state and compromising the Zionist dream. He sees
his prime historic role as preventing any of this from happening. The difference
between the Nazi times and now, he says, is that if the world does not stop
Iran, Israel will.
The agonizing dilemma over how to stop the Ayatollahs
has led to deep tensions between Israel and the United States. It has also
sparked fierce public debate in Israel among political and military leaders,
past and present, dividing cabinet ministers, generals and Mossad chiefs. Most
see military action as a last resort to be contemplated only if sanctions and
diplomacy fail; others insist that bombing Iran could actually stabilize the
Middle East by setting back the radical cause indefinitely.
too is committed to stopping the Iranians, US President Barack Obama does not
see the prospect of a nuclear Iran in the same apocalyptic terms as Netanyahu
does. True, a nuclear Iran would hurt vital American interests in the Middle
East, but Iran is a long way from American shores.
strategists in Washington argue that the American super-power could easily
tolerate a balance of fear with Iran the way it did with the much more powerful
After painful, protracted campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US
seems to have little stomach for another military imbroglio.
Plans to cut
the US defense budget by a huge $450 billion over the next ten years could also
be a factor if and when Obama comes to consider military
Jerusalem’s concerns All of this preys on the minds of
decisionmakers in Jerusalem.
In the short-term, Obama does not want to be
sucked into a war that could send oil and gas prices soaring and snarl America’s
fragile economic recovery before the presidential election in November. He fears
that if Israel strikes Iran, the US could be dragged in to finish the job.
Moreover, it would inevitably trigger large-scale Iranian retaliation against
American targets in the Middle East and beyond, further hurting his reelection
In a major address to the American Israel Public Affairs
Committee, AI PAC, in Washington in early March, Obama tried to allay Israeli
concerns, insisting that for him containment of a nuclear Iran was not an
“I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I
will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States
and its interests,” he declared.
Nevertheless, there remains a huge
disparity between Israel and the US on the time frame for military action.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Iran must not be allowed to reach “breakout
point” with enough nuclear material and equipment stored underground to make a
bomb or, as he puts it, to enter a “zone of immunity” in which it cannot be
stopped even by force. He says there is less than a year left to act.
American position is that military action should not be taken until and unless
Iran actually decides to build a bomb, and that the Iranian leadership, while
keeping the nuclear option open, has yet to take a final decision.
is dissension and debate in the political hierarchy,” US National Intelligence
Director James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee in late
The Americans believe the need for military action is still at
least two or three years away. According to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta,
it would take the Iranians about a year to build a nuclear device once a
decision is taken, and another year or two to adapt it to a delivery
There is also a mutual credibility gap. The Americans fear Israel
may take precipitate, destabilizing, military action; the Israelis worry that if
they wait the Americans might not come through for them in time. “The US has
promised not to allow Iran to have the bomb, but can Israel rely on this
promise? That is the key to what Israel may decide to do,” Amos Yadlin, former
head of military intelligence, now Director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for
National Security Studies, observed at an INSS conference in
The early March summit between Obama and Netanyahu in
Washington was called to craft a more coordinated strategy: Obama wants a
commitment from Israel not to attack until after the current round of sanctions
and diplomacy have been given a fair chance. Netanyahu wants a commitment from
the US to use force if sanctions and diplomacy fail.
choice Netanyahu faces one of the most difficult choices any Israeli prime
minister has had to contemplate. A strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities
could lead to regional conflagration, tens of thousands of missiles and rockets
raining down on Israeli population centers and war on several fronts. But with
no attack, Iran could go nuclear on his watch.
Does Israel really have an
effective military option? Does the air force have the capacity to inflict
significant damage on Iranian nuclear facilities spread across a huge country,
protected in deep underground bunkers? If such a strike merely delays Iranian
nuclear plans, would it be worth it? And is Israel prepared for massive Iranian
retaliation? In late February, Pentagon analysts quoted in “The New York Times”
challenged Israel’s capacity to mount a successful operation.
pointed out the huge distances the attacking planes would have to fly across
hostile territory, the multiple sites they would have to target and the thick
concrete bunkers they would have to penetrate. And they questioned whether the
2.5-ton GBU- 28 bunker-buster bombs Israel has would be heavy enough to do the
Israeli military thinkers acknowledge the objective difficulties but
argue that, with the out-of-the-box improvisation and planning the Israel Air
Force is renowned for, they can be surmounted. Former IA F commander Eitan
Ben-Eliyahu flew as a fighter escort in the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear
reactor at Osirak, and, later as air force chief until 2000, began building the
IA F’s long “strategic” arm with Iran in mind.
“I have no quarrel with
the account in ‘The New York Times,’ but you can introduce dozens of
improvisations and creative ideas and get much more out of the basic conditions
than would seem possible at face value,” he tells The Report. “On the eve of the
1967 Six Day War, no one thought the IA F would be able to achieve what it did.
And anyone who opened a map and took out a pencil and a ruler would have seen
how difficult it was to carry out the attack on the Iraqi reactor.”
Ben-Eliyahu’s view, the ultimate success of any military operation in Iran – no
matter who carries it out – will depend to a large extent on the follow-up
“At some point you get international players
intervening: the UN, the Security Council, the Quartet and so on. And it is very
important to coordinate all of this at a very early stage,” he
In late February, Yadlin spelled out what Ben-Eliyahu and
others in the Israeli military establishment have in mind. Writing in “The New
York Times,” he argued that if the international community imposed severe
restrictions on Iran after an attack, it could keep it from going nuclear
“After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian
reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed.
This could be the outcome in Iran too, if military action is followed by tough
sanctions, stricter international inspections and an embargo on the sale of
nuclear components to Tehran. Iran, like Iraq and Syria before it, will have to
recognize that the precedent for military action has been set, and can be
repeated,” he wrote.
Bottom line: A military attack that would defang
Iran could, in the longer term, actually stabilize the Middle East, he
The naysayers Not all Israeli strategic thinkers are as
Three men once most closely involved in Israeli efforts to
stop Iran – former Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan (2002-2011), Efraim Halevy
(1998-2002) and Danny Yatom (1996-1998) – all see a lone Israeli military attack
as a last resort, to be avoided if at all possible.
Speaking at the
Hebrew University last May, Dagan famously derided an Israeli strike as “a
stupid idea” – it might not achieve its goals, it could lead to a long war, and
worse, it could give Iranian leaders justification to build a nuclear weapon.
They would be able to argue that they had had no intention of going nuclear, but
since they had been attacked by a presumed nuclear power, they had to build an
Indeed, in Dagan’s view, precipitate Israeli action
could break up the current anti- Iranian consensus, leading to less pressure on
Tehran, not more. Dagan holds that there is still time: last year he estimated
that Iran would not have a nuclear weapon before 2015. Although he has never
spelled it out, his approach seems to be based on sabotage operations – like
explosions in nuclear plants, clandestine insertion of faulty equipment,
spreading computer viruses and assassination of nuclear scientists – to delay
the Iranian nuclear program, while helping to build a broad USled international
coalition to stop Iran by sanctions, if possible, and by force, if
Israel should do all it can to avoid taking a military
Yatom insists that a nuclear Iran is intolerable not only for
Israel, but for the entire world order. He too believes that if it comes to
military action, it should best be led by the US. But he is adamant that if the
international community fails to nullify the Iranian threat, Israel will have no
choice but to take military action on its own. “I believe what Obama, Panetta,
Clinton and Dempsey have said: The US will not allow Iran to have nuclear
weapons. But if they fail to keep their word – Israel will be fully entitled to
exercise its right of self defense,” he tells The Report.
that as steep as the price for hitting Iran may be, it will be less painful than
living with an Iranian nuclear threat.
If Israel attacks, he anticipates
that Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza will join the Iranians in firing
rockets and missiles at Israeli population centers, but warns that Israel’s
response will be of a different order from anything seen in the
“Civilian facilities and infrastructure will have to be hit.
Innocent civilians may be hurt. But we will have to deliver a crushing blow so
that the barrage of rockets against us will stop,” he declared at a conference
at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies last
Halevy says Israel should recognize that it is a regional power
and act like one. He says the country is too strong to be destroyed and the
Israeli people should not have existential fears about Iran or anything
Domestically, the Israeli leadership should be instilling
confidence and, on the international stage, acting from a position of strength.
That means refraining from attacking Iran until all other options have been
truly exhausted. A premature Israeli strike against Iran could have adverse
regional repercussions that could last for decades, he warns.
contrary, Israel’s strategy should be to work with its allies to convince the
Iranian regime to change course without force coming into play. In Halevy’s
view, this is achievable since the Iranian regime is dedicated primarily to its
own survival and will likely back down if it feels threatened by even more
crippling sanctions. Israel should be using its international connections to
ratchet up pressure on the Iranian regime, while preparing a military option if,
and only if, all else fails.
Paraphrasing the great Chinese military
thinker Sun Tzu, Halevy tells The Report: “If we can win the battle with Iran
without firing a single shot, that will be the greatest victory.”
of destruction If it comes to a shooting war, Israel will face an estimated
200,000 rockets and missiles in enemy hands in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.
According to Military Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi, most have a range of up
to 40 kilometers (25 miles), and there are a few thousand with ranges of between
100 and 1,300 kilometers (60-800 miles). All of northern and central Israel is
within range of Lebanon, Syria and Iran while rockets from Gaza threaten most of
Israel’s active missile defense systems – the Arrow, Patriot
and Iron Dome (Magic Wand/David’s Sling will only be operative in 2013) – will
be severely tested. Besides the difficulty of dealing with multiple missile
attacks, active defense is also extremely expensive. Each Arrow missile costs
around $2.7 million and each Iron Dome projectile around
Israel’s likely response will be to hit back harder and more
extensively than in any previous campaign – no easy task when fighting
simultaneously on several fronts.
Yet although large numbers of enemy
missiles and rockets can be expected to get through, preparations on the Home
Front are far from satisfactory.
A quarter of the population do not have
ready access to bomb shelters. An estimated $256 million is needed to produce
gas masks for the 40 percent of Israelis who do not have them. “Although the
government set up a special ministry to deal with the Home Front, it did not
give it budgets or authority,” Zeev Bielski, chairman of a parliamentary
subcommittee for monitoring emergency readiness, tells The Report. “The Home
Front,” he says, “is being criminally neglected.” •