Here’s the good news: unless something extreme and dramatic happens, we will not be seeing Israeli F-35s or F-15s taking off in the next couple of years to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Here’s the bad news: Iran is continuing to advance toward a nuclear weapon at an unprecedented pace, and in a few years’ time Israeli F-35s and F-16s might need to take off and attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities.
This might seem contradictory, but it is not. Iran remains the threat it has been for 20 years, constantly straddling the nuclear threshold while toying with the West. Its strategy has remained the same: advance its program while trying to pay the lowest price possible. Something like a dance – one step forward and another backward, and vice versa.
Here is another piece of bad news: Israel does not currently have an effective military plan in place against Iran’s nuclear installations. The good news there is that in the near future, all is expected to change.
Here is where the situation gets complicated. On the one hand, Naftali Bennett was not wrong after becoming prime minister when he said that his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, was so focused on speaking against Iran that he neglected to take action to stop it.
The fact is that Netanyahu’s strategy failed. The Israeli defense establishment pretty much agrees that while the 2015 nuclear deal, the JCPOA, was a bad pact, convincing Donald Trump to withdraw from it in 2018 did not achieve the desired result. Not only did Iran not cave to the sanctions nor return to the negotiating table, it insisted that if America pulled out of the deal, it could also violate it.
That it has. Iran currently has about five tons of low-enriched uranium, 85 kg enriched to 20% fissile purity, and another 10 kg enriched to 60 kg. Under the JCPOA, Iran is not supposed to have more than just a couple of hundred kilos of low-enriched uranium.
According to Military Intelligence, Iran could decide to take all of that low-enriched uranium and use it, within two months, to create enough fissionable material for a nuclear weapon, what is referred to as SQ – a “significant quantity.”
In IDF simulations, such a move is referred to as a “declaration of war,” but it does not mean that Israel will need to go to war immediately. Even with a SQ of military-grade uranium, Iran would still need to take the gas and turn it into uranium metal, a highly complicated process that – together with assembling a warhead installed on a ballistic missile that could reach Israel – would take at least two years.
The problem is that Israel fell behind. In 2010 and 2012, Israel had a plan in place to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. It might not have been perfect or foolproof, but there was a plan.
Squadrons of the Air Force were trained and prepared. Pilots knew their targets and how they would get there. When the JCPOA, as bad as it was, came into existence, Israel shelved the attack plans.
While it had its problems, everyone in Israel knew – including the deal’s greatest opponent, Netanyahu – that with the nuke deal in place, the military operation was now off the table.
But like at the gym, when you build up muscle, and muscle memory, you have to maintain it. Pilots have to keep training, munitions have to undergo maintenance, and budgets have to be allocated.
When it seemed like the JCPOA was working, a decision was made in the government to stop those preparations. It was even brought to the security cabinet and approved by Netanyahu, as part of the IDF’s previous multi-year plan, called Gideon.
That seemed fine for a few years. Tehran continued its support of terrorism, but for the most part stuck to the deal. While the IDF still needed to be vigilant and watch Iran’s every move, it was able to invest its money elsewhere. As a result, the flexed muscle – the attack plan against Iran – was set aside.
But when Trump left the deal and Iran violated it as well, Israel did not respond accordingly. That should have been the wake-up call. But it wasn’t. Israel didn’t reinvest the necessary funds to get its attack plan sharpened for a possible strike.
In the IDF, officers blame this on what they refer to as the perfect storm – Iran’s violations happening alongside the beginning of Israel’s four-election cycle. This meant no state budget, which meant there was no way for the IDF to again prepare an attack option.
Today, with a budget on track to being approved in the Knesset, those plans can once again advance. They are also no longer the same as they were in 2012. Iran has had time to reinforce its nuclear facilities and to bolster its defenses. This presents challenges, but don’t forget that Israel’s technology has also improved. Israel did not have even one F-35 fighter jet with stealth capabilities in 2012. Today it has a fleet of 30.
Using the budget as an excuse for why the attack plan has fallen to the side is a bit populistic. During the nearly three years without a state budget, the IDF knew how to obtain extra funds, and how to divert money from any project deemed less important to others deemed more critical.
If Israel’s generals felt that a sword was being held to their neck by Iran, are we to honestly believe that the lack of a state budget is what held them back? A transition government was able to allocate billions of shekels to help Israelis get through the economic hardship brought on by COVID-19. Could it not have done the same if there was an emergency with Iran?
Naturally they could have, which means they didn’t feel a sense of urgency. Politicians might use Iran to express a sense of urgency or to put down one of their adversaries, but that populism does not always match the genuine nature of the threat.
While Iran is without doubt Israel’s greatest threat and potentially even an existential one, we cannot ignore that it is also used for political purposes when convenient – by politicians seeking to attack one another, or by the army to squeeze a bit more money out of state coffers.
Israel’s strategic predicament was evident in Bennett’s speech at the United Nations on Monday. While he said that Israel’s patience has run out, and that words alone will not stop Iran, he did not come out strongly against American efforts to return to the JCPOA, nor outline a clear plan of his own on what Israel will do when diplomacy fails.
Was the lack of a clear threat due to an understanding that Israel’s military option is not yet ready, or because Bennett did not want to be seen undermining the Biden administration’s efforts to reach a deal?
The answer seems to be somewhere in the middle, which is why Israel is currently focused on two parallel efforts: getting the military ready, and trying to convince the White House to present its own credible military threat.
Only those options, combined with tough sanctions, will stand a chance at getting the Iranians to stop, according to the IDF. And if all else fails, plans will be ready within the near future for whatever might be looming on the horizon.
On Monday morning, my brother-in-law Moshe Bina passed away.
Moshe was the oldest of my wife, Chaya’s, siblings. And his life was too short: he was 49, a husband to Rena, and a father to six beautiful children.
Books could be written about Moishie, as he was known in the family, the perfect example of what it meant to be devoutly religious with feet firmly on the ground.
Moshe was a top international tax lawyer in Tel Aviv, but never missed a day of learning, finishing the entire Talmud a few years ago. He attended minyan at shul every morning, but never missed a workout with his cycling group.
He was hands-on with life, with everything he did, someone who loved his family, his country and his people.
You know the kind of person to whom I’m referring. He was the guy you could call in the middle of the night, the guy who would drop what he was doing to come pick you up because your car broke down. The guy who would make sure the event you were planning would go off without a hitch; the guy who would never miss an opportunity to man the barbeque at the family picnic.
On Monday afternoon during the burial, I was standing on the road just below the gravesite when a car pulled up. The window rolled down and an older woman asked who was the rabbi being buried. I didn’t understand.
“It’s not a rabbi who died?” she asked. “It must be a rabbi since why else would so many people be here?”
“It’s not a rabbi,” I told her, acknowledging the massive crowd that came to pay their last respects. “It’s my brother-in-law, Moshe Bina.”
The woman would not let go. “But why so many people? Who was he?”
She wanted to know something that I could not put into words. The gathered crowd didn’t come for a rabbi or for some famous politician. They came because Moshe was special, and in his modest, unique way, had showed people how they too could make their lives just a little better.
It was an honor to have known Moshe and to have him in our lives. We will miss him.