Courtesy Reuters

Letter From Tel Aviv: Netanyahu’s Iranian Dilemma

The Limits of the Military Option Against Iran

At a recent symposium at Tel Aviv University, Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the former chief of military intelligence, described Israel's public perception of the Iranian nuclear threat as "distorted." His view -- which is shared by many in Israel's security and intelligence services -- is that Israel is not Iran's primary target, and therefore, Israel must not attack Iran unilaterally. Members of the audience took issue with his analysis. One woman, speaking with a heavy Farsi accent, said of the Iranian regime, "They're crazy, and they will drop a bomb on us the moment they can. We need to deal with them now!"

Her sentiment reflects the public mood in Israel, where many are convinced that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to annihilate them and is willing to risk the destruction of his own country to do so. For most Israelis, the question is not whether Iran will attack but when. Polls consistently show that Israelis are overwhelmingly in favor of striking Iran's nuclear facilities. A recent survey commissioned by Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies found that three out of four Israelis believe the United States will not be able to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and one in two supports taking immediate military action.

It is impossible to separate such convictions from their historical context. The fear that Jews -- having escaped the furnaces of the Holocaust -- could face annihilation in Israel has always haunted the public psyche. Long before Ahmadinejad's outbursts, therefore, Israelis were already attuned to hearing echoes of the Wannsee Conference in Tehran's inflammatory rhetoric. Historical comparisons between Tehran and Nazi-controlled Berlin are common, as is linking the Allied forces' refusal to bomb the concentration camps with the present international reluctance to take effective action against Iran. In April 2008, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, made such an explicit comparison in a conversation with Stephen Hadley, then national security adviser in the Bush administration. "Ahmadinejad is a modern Hitler," Netanyahu told Hadley, "and the mistakes that were made prior to the Second World War must not be repeated."

But this visceral fear of Iran among the public and elected politicians is not shared by the intelligence community. Experts on the Iranian regime are quick to point out that Ahmadinejad does not call the shots in Iran; the real power lies with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme religious leader. Furthermore, these experts note, throughout its 30 years of existence, the Iranian regime has shown pragmatism and moderation whenever its survival was at stake. And the Iranians clearly understand that a nuclear attack against Israel would lead to a devastating Israeli counterstrike that, among other things, would mean the end of the revolutionary regime. Finally, the Mossad and the Military Intelligence believe that the real reason the Iranians are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons -- aside from the obvious considerations of prestige and influence -- is to deter U.S. intervention and efforts at regime change.

Despite its assessment of Iran's motives, the Israeli intelligence community nonetheless believes that everything must be done to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. To begin with, Israel cannot afford to risk nuclear weapons falling into the hands of someone less pragmatic than Khamenei; given its tiny size, Israel would be unlikely to recover from even a single nuclear blast. This makes the risk of relying on the rationality of the Iranian regime intolerable. In addition, a nuclear Tehran could provide assistance to terror organizations -- especially those active against Israel -- without fear of reprisal. Lastly, an Iranian bomb would draw key regional players such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia into a regional nuclear arms race.

But ultimately, the intelligence community believes that Israel's military options are limited. No matter how great a success in tactical terms, even under the rosiest scenario, an air strike against Iran's nuclear installations would set its nuclear program back by only two or three years. Moreover, intelligence suggests that Iran would retaliate to such a strike by using its proxy forces -- in particular, Hamas and Hezbollah -- to unleash a wave of terrorist attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world.

Israel's isolation on the question of Iran haunts both the public and the experts. If anything is to be done to thwart the nuclear ambitions of the regime in Tehran, Jerusalem will have to do so unilaterally -- and bear the consequences. As Ariel Levite, the former deputy director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, told a closed forum in April 2007, "The worst scenario of all would be if the president of the United States tells us: 'If you want to attack, then go ahead and attack. I won't stop you. But if you do attack, you will pay the price. It's up to you.'"

Israeli policymakers, then, are left to parse exactly how far President Barack Obama is willing to support Israel in its efforts to counter the Iranian threat. For the moment, Obama has made it clear that his focus is on talking with Iran. An Israeli attack would seriously undermine any hope of substantive dialogue. But the parameters of this dialogue are largely unknown, which makes Israel worried. Does the administration have clearly defined criteria for success? How will it decide that talks have failed, and how long will it tolerate a lack of progress? And perhaps the most worrisome question of all: Is a successful outcome of dialogue, as judged by Washington, compatible with Israel's security needs?

For now, Washington wants Israel to sit on its hands, and Israel has apparently agreed to do so. It is clear to all in Jerusalem that if Israel were to launch an unauthorized attack while the possibility of dialogue is still alive, the Obama administration might retaliate punitively, both diplomatically and economically. Indeed, some government officials in Jerusalem believe that any Israeli attack, even after diplomacy has failed, would require explicit American authorization.

Others, however, especially in Netanyahu's inner circle, believe that the statements made by members of the U.S. administration, including Obama himself, provide the wink and the nod that Israel needs in order to take action farther down the road. This, at least, is the impression that many in Jerusalem were left with after Netanyahu's visit to Washington last May, when neither Obama nor Secretary of Defense Robert Gates contradicted Netanyahu's assertion that Israel has a right to defend itself from an Iranian nuclear threat. The United States, Jerusalem believes, is actually pleased to see the Israeli military option on the table and is content to use it as leverage in future negotiations with Iran. The most direct U.S. request to hold off on any military action was made by CIA Director Leon Panetta on a trip to Israel just before Netanyahu's arrival in Washington -- but, according to Israeli sources, he only referred to the next seven months. Israeli officials close to Netanyahu see only two conditions for future unilateral military action by Israel: that Jerusalem provide prior notification, and that it not ask Washington for an explicit nihil obstat.

Netanyahu himself still appears to be undecided. He has repeatedly stated over the years that Israel cannot countenance a nuclear Iran. In an interview I conducted with him in late 2007, he said: "We need to prepare for a situation in which we have failed and Iran has succeeded in acquiring a bomb. Against lunatics, deterrence must be absolute, total. The lunatics must understand that if they raise their hand against us, we will hit them in a way that will eviscerate any desire to harm us."

Some political analysts believe that this sort of language reflects Netanyahu's profound personal convictions and his sense of duty as a national leader. Others maintain that his tough-guy rhetoric is just a façade, part of his political persona. Netanyahu has probably learned from his highly controversial stint as prime minister in the 1990s. Fiascos such as the failed 1997 attempt to assassinate the Hamas leader Khaled Mashal in Jordan humiliated Netanyahu and taught him that there are inherent dangers to wielding power. This, presumably, will make him think twice about sending the Israeli Air Force to Iran.

And yet campaign promises, if repeated often enough, have a tendency to create their own momentum. Public pressure to act is considerable. Netanyahu knows that a successful Iranian nuclear test could destroy his political future. Moreover, the immediate political environment in which Netanyahu operates is conducive to authorizing a preemptive strike. His senior coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has made threats against Iran on numerous occasions. And, unlike many of the country's mid-level intelligence analysts and security officials, the current leaders of the Mossad and the Shin Bet believe in solving problems by force.

As Iran approaches nuclear weapons capability -- sometime in 2010, according to current Mossad estimates -- an increasing number of people in Netanyahu's circle will adopt the view that Israel needs to take action and that the United States will be understanding of Israel's needs. And if the Obama administration is not so understanding? Israel may decide that the existential danger posed by a potential second Holocaust warrants risking even a serious rift with the United States. Ultimately, the fear of a nuclear-armed state whose leader talks openly of destroying Israel may outweigh the views of the country's intelligence experts.

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