Will Israel Attack Iran?

Don't Flash the Yellow Light: Mixed Messages from Washington Could Lead to Catastrophe in Iran

JERUSALEM -- Israel has been steadily ratcheting up pressure on the
United States concerning the grave threat allegedly posed by Iran,
which seems poised to master the nuclear fuel cycle, and thus the
capacity to produce nuclear weapons. The new Israeli prime minister,
Likud Party hawk Benjamin Netanyahu, has warned President Barack Obama that if Washington does not quickly find a way to shut down Iran's nuclear program, Israel will.

Some analysts argue that this is manufactured hysteria, not so much a
reflection of genuine Israeli fears as a purposeful diversion from
other looming difficulties. The Netanyahu government is filled with
hardliners adamantly opposed to withdrawal from, or even a temporary
freeze on, settlements in the occupied territories, not to mention to
any acceptance of Palestinian statehood. On his first day as foreign
minister, extremist demagogue Avigdor Lieberman, with characteristic
bluster, announced that Israel was no longer bound by the 2007
Annapolis agreements brokered by Washington, which called for
accelerated negotiations toward a two-state settlement.

Such talk threatens to lead the Israelis directly into a clash with the
Obama administration. In what can only be taken as a rebuttal of the
Netanyahu government's recent pronouncements, in his speech
to the Turkish Parliament Obama pointedly reasserted Washington's
commitment to a two-state settlement and to the Annapolis
understandings. So what better way for Netanyahu to avoid an ugly clash
with a popular American president than to conveniently shift the
discussion to an existential threat from Iran -- especially if he can
successfully present it as a threat not just to Israel but to the West
in general?

All of this adds up to a plausible argument against undue alarm over
the latest Israeli warnings about an attack on Iran, but it's flawed on
several grounds. There is a broad, generally accepted paranoia in
Israel about Iran, a belief that its leaders must be stopped before
they proceed much further in their uranium enrichment program. (This
view is not shared on the Israeli left, but it's now a ghost of its
former self.)

In an interview for TomDispatch, Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the
Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a specialist on
the Iran issue, commented, "Of course there are different opinions, but
there is a general consensus, among both security experts and political
leaders, from Labor to the right wing. This is not a controversial
issue: if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will pose a deep threat. It
will be the first time in our history that another country can deal a
major blow to Israel."

Kam hastens to add that, in his own view, the scenario Netanyahu
proposes -- that Iran is led by irrational fanatics who would nuke
Israel at the first chance, even knowing that an Israeli nuclear
counterstrike would be swift and catastrophic -- is false. "Iran is a
pragmatic, logical player," Kam says. He remains convinced that "even a
radical fundamentalist regime" wouldn't attack Israel, but he adds,
"This is just my assessment, and assessments can go wrong. I wrote a
study on wrong assessments, so I know something about this." In other
words, if Kam's claims about the Israeli consensus are correct, the
country's leadership takes it for granted that Iran is indeed hell-bent
on producing a nuclear weapon and is not inclined to take a chance that
a nuclear Iran will play by the MAD (as in mutually assured
destruction) rules hammered out by the two Cold War superpowers decades
ago and never use it.

This attitude reflects a longstanding Israeli strategic principle:
that no neighboring state or combination of states can ever be allowed
to achieve anything faintly approaching military parity, because if
they do, they will try to destroy the Jewish state. By this logic,
Israel's only option is to establish and then maintain absolute
military superiority over its neighbors; they will, so this view goes,
accept Israel's presence only if they know they're sure to be defeated,
or at least vastly outmatched.

This is the famous "iron wall," conceived by early Zionist leader
Vladimir Jabotinsky more than 80 years ago, well before the founding of
Israel itself. (Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist movement, which in
opposition to the Labor mainstream refused to accept any territorial
compromise regarding Zionist aims, such as partition. Although he and
his followers were for years shut out of the political leadership,
their views regarding Israel's neighbors became deeply lodged in the
public psyche.) If Iran were to acquire the capacity to build even one
nuke -- Israel itself is estimated to have 150-200 of them -- that iron
wall would be considered seriously breached, and the country might no
longer be able to dictate terms to its neighbors. Given Iran's support
for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Israel would then have to
recalibrate its strategy both on its northern front and vis-a-vis the

Recent developments in Israel could certainly give the impression of
a nation preparing for war: the Home Front command, one of four
regional divisions of the Israeli army, has just announced the largest
defense exercise in the country's history. It will last an entire week
and is intended to prepare
the civilian population for missile strikes from both conventional
warheads and unconventional ones (whether chemical, biological or
nuclear). Meanwhile, the country is accelerating its testing of missile
defense systems, having just announced the successful launch of the Arrow II interceptor.

Can Israel Go It Alone?

Would Israel really attack Iran without at least tacit approval from Washington? Could
Israel do so without such approval? At the very least, Israel would
need approval simply to get permission to fly over Iraq, whose airspace
is controlled by the U.S. military, not the Iraqi government in Baghdad. As columnist Aluf Benn put it in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz,
"Defense experts say that without a green light from Washington,
Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to send in the air force." Kam
adds, "In my judgment, it is somewhere between difficult to impossible
for Israel to do it alone, for both technical and political reasons."

Most analysts here believe that a solo Israeli attack would, at best,
set back Iran's nuclear program by several years -- not that this would
necessarily be a deterrent to Netanyahu & Co. It's widely believed
that, in their view, even a temporary delay in Iran's nuclear
capability would be an improvement on the current course. It's worth
recalling that Israel sought an explicit go-ahead from the Bush
administration for an attack last year, which President Bush --
presumably fearing massive conventional retaliation from Iran in both
Iraq and Afghanistan -- sensibly refused, a rare moment in his tenure
when he did not accede to Israeli wishes.

It's also clear that President Obama seeks to resolve the standoff with
Iran through diplomatic means. He's abandoned the confrontational
rhetoric of his predecessor and continues to extend peace feelers to the Islamic Republic. Tehran's response has been mixed, but at least a new mood of negotiation is in the air.

Israeli strategists, however, see this new mood as threatening, not
hopeful. Any U.S. rapprochement with Iran -- especially if carried out
on terms that acknowledge Iran's status as a regional power -- could,
they fear, undermine Israel's "special relationship" with Washington.
As Iran analyst Trita Parsi put it in a recent piece in the Huffington Post, Iran would then "gain strategic significance in the Middle East at the expense of Israel."

It's within the realm of possibility, for example, that Washington
could work out a grand bargain with Tehran terminating its policy of
regime change and ending sanctions in return for Tehran's vow never to
weaponize its nuclear program. Intrusive international inspections
would presumably guarantee such a bargain, but Tehran's national pride
would remain intact, as it would be allowed to retain the right to
enrich uranium and develop a peaceful nuclear infrastructure.

There has even been some recent slippage in Washington's language when
it comes to demands placed on Iran -- with an insistence on an end to
all nuclear enrichment evidently being replaced by an insistence on no
weapons development. To Israel, this would be a completely
unsatisfactory compromise, as its leaders fear that Iran might at some
point abandon such an agreement and in fairly short order weaponize.

Given Obama's new approach, it might seem that Israel is stymied for
now. After all, it's hard to imagine Obama giving the go-ahead for an
attack. Just this week, Vice President Joe Biden told CNN that he thought such an Israeli attack "would be ill-advised."

Other factors, however, play in the hardliners' favor: the Obama
administration's new special envoy for Iran, Dennis Ross, is himself a
hardliner. Last year, Ross was part of an ultra-hawkish task force that
predicted the failure of any negotiations and all but called for war
with Iran. Ross is a man who not only knows how to play
the bureaucratic game in Washington, but has powerful backers in the
administration, and his views will have plenty of support from
pro-Israel hawks in Congress.

The attitude of another key sector in decision-making, the high command of the U.S. military, may also be evolving.
Washington's dilemma in Iraq is not nearly as dire as it was two years
ago. The nightmare envisioned by the American generals running the Iraq
campaign in recent years -- that, in response to an attack on its
nuclear facilities, Iran could send tens of thousands of well-trained
commandos across the border and inflict grave damage on U.S. forces --
has faded somewhat. The Iraqi government's military has much better
control of the country today, with insurgent violence at far lower
levels. The Shiite Mahdi Army and Iran-connected "special groups" seem
to be mostly quiescent.

Of course, the situation in Iraq is still unstable, and any attack on
Iran could easily throw the country back into ungovernable chaos.
Still, given the role we know American commanders played in nixing such
an attack in the Bush years, the question remains: Has resistance to
such an attack lessened in the military? It's unclear, but an issue
worth monitoring, because American commanders were the most consistent,
persuasive voices for moderation during the Bush administration.

It should go without saying that an Israeli attack on Iran would
have disastrous consequences. No matter what Washington might claim, or
how vociferously officials there denounce it, such an attack would be
widely understood throughout the Muslim world as a joint U.S.-Israeli

It would, as a start, serve as a powerful recruiting tool for extremist
Islamist groups. In addition, an outraged Iran might indeed send
commandos into Iraq, aid armed Iraqi groups determined to attack U.S.
and government forces, shoot missiles into the Saudi or Kuwaiti
oilfields, and attempt to block the Straits of Hormuz though which a
significant percentage of global oil passes. Washington would certainly
have to write off desperately needed cooperation in the war against the
Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Any attack would only
strengthen the reign of the mullahs in Iran and reinforce the country's
determination to acquire a nuclear deterrent force that would prevent
future attacks. And keep in mind, Iran's nuclear program has
overwhelming public support, even from those opposed to the current

Given the Netanyahu government's visible determination to attack, an
ambiguous signal from Washington, something far less than a green
light, could be misread in Tel Aviv. Anything short of a categorical,
even vociferous U.S. refusal to countenance an Israeli attack might
have horrific consequences. So here's a message to Obama from an
observer in Israel: Don't flash the yellow light -- not even once.

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