We're currently going through one of the periodic events of Israeli politics, like those of other democracies, where players past and present are sniping at one another while claiming the high ground for themselves.

The occasion is an interview in which Ehud Barak (former head of the IDF, Prime Minister, and Benyamin Netanyahu's Defense Minister), said that he and Netanyahu proposed attacking Iran, but that then head of the IDF worried that the military could not do what was needed, and too many other ministers voted against the proposal.

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Along with some Israelis expressing shock that Barak would reveal details about such a sensitive issue discussed in a limited forum supposed to be highly secret, others are saying something like "it's the same old Barak." He's been well known for an ego even larger than most among people who reach high position in competitive settings like the IDF and the Israeli politics. He is as arrogant as he is brilliant, as well as being an infighter who aspires to leave none but himself standing on the field of dispute.


Some see this as Barak's campaign to promote a book about to be published. Or a first step in an effort to comeback politically. Yet he would seem to have left nothing but enemies in his previous affiliation to the Labor Party, little chance of competing with Bibi and others in Likud, and not too many high fliers who would risk running with him in a new party.

Looking closer at what Barak reported, some of the details don't make sense. If what he said was true, i. e., that Netanyahu supported and may even have made the proposal to attack Iran, it doesn't jive that two ministers close to Netanyahu (Moshe Ya'alon and Yuval Steinitz, known as Bibi's puppy dog) would cast the votes to kill it.

It's not the first time, and may not be the last, that we hear about Israel contemplating an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Discussions have typically ended with something like an agreement that Israel could do a great deal of damage, but would not end once and for all Iran's nuclear ambitions and capacity. Generally it's been said that the destruction would delay the inevitable by some years, bring a rain of missiles on Israel from Iran as well as from Iran's ally Hezbollah in the north, from Iran's occasional friends Hamas in the South, and multiply the Iranians' incentives to produce a bomb and use it against Israel.

With the passage of time, it also appears that Iran's dispersal and burying more of its nuclear facilities deep underground lessens the damage that an attack could produce.

All that is true, but leaves aside yet another issue that may be even more potent as a reason for Israel avoiding such an attack.

What Israel lacks--by a great magnitude--is a capacity to deal with Iran after whatever damage an attack produced.

Israel's military capacity is considerable, but its capacity to control what it destroys is limited. The country is too small in resources and population to do more than destroy, and then to sit back and see what comes next. What it lacks is what the US was able to do in Germany and Japan from 1945 onward, i.e. to occupy for years, remaking the governments, changing the countries it destroyed, and bringing them to peaceful coexistence.

Israel has tried occupation in Lebanon, Gaza, and the West Bank, and wisely concluded that it is not within the country's capacity.

Since those learning experiences, national policy has been to hit hard in response to significant provocations, then to withdraw and let the losers lick their wounds and consider the costs of further provocations.

It isn't perfect, but it's what Israel can do reasonably well, and it defines a crucial parameter with respect to Iran.

Critics squawk that it doesn't solve anything.

True.

Experience with Gaza is that it takes only weeks or months for some group within that loosely governed slice of the Middle East (approximately 25 kilometer long and 6 kilometers wide) to start firing rockets toward Israel. Chances are that almost all missiles that succeed in leaving Gaza's airspace will land in an empty field, but the pressure on Israelis living near Gaza and on the government is considerable.

But that pressure has been defined as tolerable when compared to continued occupation, with the likelihood of daily attacks on soldiers and high intensity criticism in international forums.

Likewise Lebanon, which Israel invaded in 1982 in response to aggression by Palestinians who seized parts of hat country for themselves. The IDF occupied Beirut and points north, withdrew under pressure to an area along the border meant to prevent attacks against Israel, then withdrew finally in 2000, some say like a dog with its tail between its legs.

Israel's actions in the West Bank are more nuanced.

Israel has reached a considerable degree of cooperation with Palestinian security personnel since the end of the intifada that began in 2000 and petered out sometime in 2004 or 2005. The US and Jordan were involved as sources of funds and training of the Palestinians.

In the nature of these things, we don't know precisely, but there seems to be a sharing of intelligence, frequent Israeli interventions to seize bad guys suspected of planning or implementing acts of violence, and Palestinian arrests of some bad guys. Palestinian leaders often curse Israel and threaten to end the cooperation, but Israel keeps it sweet by focusing on the seizure of individuals associated with Hamas and other movements that oppose the political status quo in the West Bank.

Individual Palestinians in the West Bank security service have gone bad and participated in attacks against Israelis, but that is among the costs of doing business with Palestinians.

It should be needless to point out that Iran is much bigger than Lebanon, Gaza, or the West Bank, more populous, more impressive in its technological, industrial, and military capacities, and much further away. What Israel cannot do by way of solving its problems with Palestinians or other Arabs, it certainly can't do with the Persians.

Yet it is not without its capacity to hurt Iran a great deal, via Israel's own technology as well as planes made in the US and missile-capable submarines from Germany.

On the assumption that the Iranians accompany their theological and political bombast with sufficient degrees of rationality, that should be enough to keep both of us alive and claiming success.


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