It is possible that years ago, the problem of Iran's nuclear project could have been solved by one tough blow and with relatively minimal risk. At that time, the project was dependent on one facility: the uranium conversion plant in Isfahan.
If it had been bombed, Iran would have lost large quantities of raw material for uranium enrichment, and its nuclear program would have been set back years. But nothing happened, and the Iranians went ahead and dispersed their facilities and materials into fortified bunkers that would be far more difficult to hit.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised to do everything in order to prevent the Iranians from acquiring military nuclear capabilities, but if he fails, he can pin the blame on his predecessors, who flinched from attacking at the propitious moment. Perhaps that is what National Security Adviser Uzi Arad was getting at when he blamed previous governments for leaving Netanyahu "scorched earth" in advance of further confrontation with the Iranian threat.
People who spoke about the Iranian nuclear project with Netanyahu after last February's election, but before he took office, got the impression that he is determined to act against Iran and for this reason returned to power. He described the nuclear project as an existential threat to Israel - as the potential second Holocaust of the Jewish people.
In the face of international apathy regarding the Iranians in recent months, he frequently praises U.S. President Barack Obama for his diplomatic moves to thwart the Iranian threat, and talks about the importance of encouraging opponents of the regime and independent Internet sites in Iran.
In every public reference to the subject, Defense Minister Ehud Barak emphasizes that "all the options remain on the table." For his part, former prime minister Ehud Olmert relied on the advice of Mossad chief Meir Dagan, head of the "forum for the political prevention of the Iranian nuclear project." Olmert and Dagan believed the Iranian bomb could be delayed by a few years by diplomatic or other means, without incurring the tremendous risks entailed in a war. Barak, in contrast, sought even then to cultivate an option within his field of responsibility.
In May 2008, when then-U.S. president George W. Bush visited Israel, Barak (who was defense minister at the time) and Olmert met with him at the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem. They smoked cigars and talked about the Iranian threat. Barak surprised Olmert - whose relations with him were strained - by asking Bush to discuss military matters. Bush refused. Some time later, when he met with Barak in Washington, the president told the minister: "You really gave me a scare" (the actual wording was less diplomatic).
When Netanyahu took office, however, Israeli officials even gave foreign media briefings and leaked details about an attack in the works.
Struggles over power
Today Barak and the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, believe that Israel needs to create capabilities to deal with every scenario. Their stance is partly explained by considerations related to a struggle over power and influence. The defense establishment received a large budget increase for deployment in the face of the Iranian threat, and if that money is to be invested in the IDF and not elsewhere, the army has to persuade the political echelon that it can do the job. If it is impossible to deal with Iran, it would be better to invest the money in secret operations.
This is also an inter-organizational struggle: If the Iranian nuclear project is described everywhere - including in a speech that the director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin, gave this week at the Institute for National Security Studies - as the No. 1 threat to Israel, the identity of the person who formulates the response to it is of crucial importance. Once the army presents a plan to solve the threat, Ashkenazi will be in the game, too, and not only Dagan, whose relations with the chief of staff have turned hostile in the past year.
Ashkenazi has a professional duty to prepare the IDF, to the best of his ability, for the possibility of launching an attack on nuclear sites in Iran. In military forums a frequent comment is that "history will not forgive us" if it turns out, after policymakers ask the IDF for a response to the threat, that the General Staff has not done its homework.
There has been more than one instance in which strategically important decisions were made mainly because the defense establishment put forward a persuasive operational solution that fired up the imagination of the political leaders. Prime examples are the assassination of the Fatah terrorist Raed Karmi in 2002, the assassination of Hezbollah secretary general Abbas Musawi and the plan to assassinate Iraqi President Saddam Hussein (Operation Bramble Bush), which was curtailed mainly because of the "Tze'elim 2" training accident (the last two cases, by the way, took place in 1992, while Ehud Barak was IDF chief of staff).
It is also hard to ignore the part played by the air force "lobby," consisting of past and present pilots. Many seem to have a "can do" mentality: If there are bombs, a flight route and targets, all that needs to be done is to move the munitions from point A to point B. Their enthusiasm and persuasiveness can be infectious.
The preparations under way in Israel have a mirror image in Iran, which this week tested a long-range missile and signed a defense pact with Syria. Every few weeks a senior Iranian official threatens a painful and destructive response if Israel dares to attack.
But despite the growing tension around the world, senior experts on security and strategy believe that there is little likelihood of an Israeli attack. In not-for-attribution conversations, they say Israel will not act without a green light from the White House. An Israeli attack on Iran would imperil key U.S. strategic interests - its intended military presence in Iraq until late in 2011, the supply of oil, the stability of the Persian Gulf regimes - and therefore will require authorization from Obama. It is very doubtful that Netanyahu will be able or will want to act alone, leaving Israel exposed to Iran's harsh response without a protective American military and political umbrella.
Year of decision
Maj. Gen. (res.) Giora Eiland, a former head of the National Security Council, said this week that in his view, Israel will have to decide in the year ahead whether to attack or not. "The question of a decision on attacking Iran's nuclear capability is liable to be very much not theoretical but very practical in 2010," Eiland said at the same conference at which Yadlin spoke. According to Eiland, an Israeli attack will be feasible only in the event that a crisis occurs in nuclear-related talks between Iran and the great powers, followed by a cessation of negotiations altogether and the failure by the United States to cobble together an international coalition against the Iranians.
Another retired major general, Prof. Isaac Ben-Israel, who was a Kadima MK in the previous Knesset and advised Olmert on security affairs, noted at the same conference, "If there is no choice, Israel can set back the Iranian nuclear process."
Iran can be expected to retaliate against such an attack with Shihab missiles. Ben-Israel, who specialized in operations research in the air force and took part in planning the attack on the Iraqi reactor in 1981, estimated that Israel would be hit by about 80 Iranian missiles - twice the number that Saddam Hussein fired at Tel Aviv, Haifa and Dimona during the 1991 Gulf War. According to Ben-Israel, the Iranians would also make use of Hezbollah, which serves them to deter Israel from attacking their nuclear facilities: "Hezbollah has more missiles than it had during the Second Lebanon War, but the number of missiles that will be fired at Israel will not be much larger than it was then." (In 2006, some 4,200 Hezbollah missiles and rockets struck Israel, killing 54 people.)
Even if Obama agrees to an Israeli attack, the real dilemma that will confront Netanyahu, his colleagues in the forum of seven and the heads of the army and intelligence, will lie in assessing the benefits vs. the damage. Israel will survive an Iranian missile attack and a rain of rockets from Lebanon. But an attack also carries strategic costs, which will only be aggravated if the operation against Iran does not succeed: Israel will be denounced as a militant and aggressive state, the price of oil will soar, America and its allies in the gulf are liable to be adversely affected - and worst of all, Iran will be perceived as the victim of Israeli aggression and will obtain international legitimization to renew the devastated nuclear project. Israel will also have to gamble on whether Syrian President Bashar Assad will join the war on the side of Iran, or will follow custom and sit on the sidelines.
Only on paper
Another critical question in this discussion concerns the deployment on the Israeli home front. In the wake of the Second Lebanon War, the political and military echelons understand how exposed the civilian population is to a massive missile and rocket attack. The summer of 2010 has already been earmarked by the IDF as an in-principle target date for completion of repairs on essential lacunae. But despite the massive media coverage given to the multilayer defense system against missiles, it is worth recalling that most of its components still exist only on paper. In every scenario of warfare projected for the years ahead, many more missiles will be fired at Israel than can be intercepted by its anti-missile system.
In the face of all the risks and damage, what will Israel gain from an attack? A three- to five-year delay in the manufacture of the Iranian bomb, according to the optimistic estimate. Is that worth the certain price that will be paid and the risk entailed in a complicated air mission so far from home? Do Netanyahu and Barak have what it takes to make that decision? It's not certain. And these doubts lead the experts to assess that Israel will agonize and will talk about a strike, but will do nothing. In their view, it is more reasonable that the U.S. and Iran will continue their dialogue, with "controllable" crises erupting from time to time. As long as Obama sees to it that Israel does not feel isolated and abandoned in the face of the Iranian threat, Netanyahu will not dare attack.
Understanding this, Obama dispatched 1,500 soldiers to Israel for a missile-defense exercise about two months ago, and he continues to operate the sophisticated warning radar that Bush stationed in the Negev. The president prefers to reassure Israel on the Iranian front and exact concessions from Netanyahu on the Palestinian front. The question that is apparently not now under discussion between Jerusalem and Washington is the stage at which Iran will agree to stop its nuclear project under international pressure. Will this be a case of Iranian nuclear brinkmanship, with Tehran just a decision away from a bomb, or will Iran gamble and go the whole way? Even then, it's likely there will be enough experts in the administration and in American research institutes who will recommend that Israel take a deep breath and adapt to the new situation. In other words, learn how to stop worrying and love the bomb.
Despite the experts' assessments - and as MI head Yadlin hinted this week - no scenario promises that the year ahead will be quiet and tranquil. Most of the wars in the past broke out by surprise, because of mistaken risk assessments or seemingly irrevocable political commitments. The same could happen between Israel and Iran.
Prof. Yehoshafat Harkabi was director of Military Intelligence in the second half of the 1950s. Some officers in the present General Staff continue to view his books, notably "Israel's Fateful Hour" and "Nuclear War and Nuclear Peace," as relevant guidelines even today. "What is special about our situation in Israel is that we cannot allow ourselves a process of learning by trial and error," Harkabi wrote in 1986 in the last chapter of "Israel's Fateful Hour." "We cannot allow ourselves the calamities of mistaken policy, lest we are unable to turn around and start over. Our great weakness is that it is very doubtful whether we will be able to backtrack from the wrong path ... Many countries can adopt foolish policies and will suffer accordingly, but without experiencing any great ill, whereas we are permitted only narrow margins of error" [unofficial translation]. Harkabi quotes the British military historian Basil Liddell-Hart: "An important difference between a military operation and a surgical operation is that the patient is not tied down. But it is a common fault of generalship to assume that he is."
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