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Since its birth in 1948, Israel has launched numerous preemptive military strikes against its foes. In 1981 and 2007, it destroyed the nuclear reactors of Iraq and Syria, operations that did not lead to war. But now, Israelis are discussing the possibility of another preemptive attack -- against Iran -- that might result in a wider conflict.
The public debate in Israel about whether Jerusalem should order a strike on Iran’s nuclear program is surprisingly frank. Politicians and policymakers often discuss the merits of an attack in public; over the past year, for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have sparred regularly and openly with former Mossad director Meir Dagan, the most prominent opponent of an Israeli operation. But much of the conversation is focused on whether Israel should strike, not on what might happen if it does -- in other words, the result on the “day after.”
Indeed, the analysis in Israel about the possible effects of a bombing campaign against Iran is limited to a small, professional elite, mostly in government and behind closed doors. This intimate circle that does consider scenarios of the “day after” concentrates almost exclusively on what an Iranian response, direct or through proxies, might look like. This is not surprising, given that Israel must worry first and foremost about the immediate military implications of an Iranian counterattack. But in doing so, Israeli policymakers are ignoring several of the potential longer-term aspects of a strike: the preparedness of Israel’s home front; the contours of an Israeli exit strategy; the impact on U.S.-Israel relations; the global diplomatic fallout; the stability of world energy markets; and the outcome within Iran itself. Should Israel fail to openly debate and account for these factors in advance of an attack, it may end up with a strategic debacle, even if it achieves its narrow military goals.
Israeli officials have thought extensively about how the first moves of a military conflict between Jerusalem and Tehran might play out. Ephraim Kam, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and deputy head of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), reflected the general consensus in the security establishment when he wrote in the Institute’s 2010 strategic assessment that Iran may respond in two possible ways to an Israeli operation: missile strikes on Israel, either directly or through allied organizations such as Hezbollah or Hamas; or terror attacks, likely on Israeli targets abroad by Iranians or those proxy groups.
A direct Iranian response would involve a missile barrage from Iran onto Israeli territory, similar to the volley of rockets launched at Israel by Iraq during the first Gulf War. Only one Israeli citizen died then, and it seems that Israeli officials estimate that the damage of a similar Iranian strike would be greater, but still limited. This past November, Ehud Barak, referring to possible direct and proxy-based Iranian retaliation, said that “There is no scenario for 50,000 dead, or 5,000 killed -- and if everyone stays in their homes, maybe not even 500 dead.” Barak’s calm also reflects Israel’s previous experience in preempting nuclear threats. Iraq did not respond when Israel destroyed its nuclear facility in 1981, disproving the doomsday predictions made by several Israeli experts prior to the strike, and Syria remained silent when Israel bombed its nascent reactor in 2007.
Israeli policymakers also do not seem particularly concerned about the prospect of a proxy response. They recognize that Hezbollah, as it did in 2006, can target Israel with a large number of rockets. Yet in an interview with Ronen Bergman in The New York Times late last month, several Israeli experts argued that, regardless of a potential battle with Iran, the probability of an extended conflict with Hezbollah is already high. According to this logic, an attack on Iran would merely hasten the inevitable and might actually be easier to sustain before, not after, Iran acquires nuclear weapons. In addition, the new constraints now operating against Hezbollah -- the ongoing revolt in Syria chief among them -- might even limit the ability of the organization to harm Israel in a future conflict. Indeed, over the past several months, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, has emphasized the group’s independence, saying on February 7 that “the Iranian leadership will not ask Hezbollah to do anything. On [the day of an Israeli attack on Iran], we will sit, think, and decide what we will do.”
Meanwhile, the Israeli security establishment remains confident that Iran and its proxies will have trouble staging large-scale attacks on Israeli or Jewish targets abroad. Iran and Hezbollah have done so successfully in the past, most notably in response to Israel’s assassination, in 1992, of Hezbollah’s first secretary general (they are strongly suspected to have directed suicide bombings against the Israeli embassy and the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994, respectively). Israeli experts such as Kam agree that similar attacks could occur again in the wake of a strike on Iran, but argue that Tehran’s ability to respond is limited, likely due to its own handicaps and the restrictions posed by the post-9/11 global effort against terrorism. They gained support for their theory in mid-February, when, according to preliminary evidence, Iranian agents staged clumsy, botched attacks on Israeli targets in Georgia, India, and Thailand, injuring only one person in New Delhi and ending in humiliation in Bangkok, with one operative accidentally blowing off his legs.
Balanced against these threats is the expected benefit of an Israeli bombing campaign. According to Bergman, the Israeli defense community estimates that it can inflict a three-to-five-year delay on the Iranian nuclear project. But in its optimistic estimation about the success of an attack and about Israel’s ability to deter any response, it has failed to address, at least publicly, several crucial factors.
Although Israel has buttressed its home-front preparedness since its 2006 war with Hezbollah, it seems that it must do much more to ready the country for the rocket and missile attacks that it is expected to endure after a strike against Iran’s nuclear program. In a move that Israelis are now sardonically mocking, the former minister for home front defense, Matan Vilnai, left his post in February to become Israel’s ambassador to China. Before departing, Vilnai staged an angry outburst during a Knesset subcommittee meeting on February 7 over the lack of homeland preparedness, creating such a stir that the chairman had to end the meeting. Data presented at the session reveal the source of Vilnai’s frustration: a quarter of all Israelis do not have the most basic physical shelter needed to weather sustained rocket fire. Gas masks, a basic safety measure against a chemical attack, are available to only 60 percent of the population. And Vilnai’s former ministry lacks the bureaucratic muscle to win the resources and funds necessary to improve the situation. When the Netanyahu administration established the ministry early last year, the Israeli journalist Ofer Shelah called it “the big lie” because it “has no authority, no independent budget, and no ability to affect national priorities.”
The lack of readiness within Israel is all the more worrisome in light of the fact that Israeli analysts have spent little time discussing an exit strategy. An Israeli strike might follow a version of the previous attacks against the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs, which did not lead to conflict. Or, following the example of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, it might spark a prolonged war. That operation, intended to remove the threat of armed Palestinian groups within two days, instead lasted 18 years, and contributed to the evolution of a new enemy in Hezbollah. Similarly, Israel’s incursion into Lebanon in 2006 had no clear exit strategy and lasted an unexpected 33 days, ending in confusion. Without serious public discussion about the possibility of a long war with Iran, Israel could enter an extended conflict unprepared to provide for and defend its citizens.
Israeli leaders have also failed to address in public the effect of an Israeli strike on U.S.-Israel relations. There is, of course, much conversation about whether the United States and Israel agree on the need for a strike, and, if so, when it should occur. So far, it seems, Jerusalem and Washington remain united in their opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, but are not yet in agreement about the time for military action; indeed, Israel has refused to commit to warning Washington in advance of an attack. Should Israel bomb Iran, it could easily provoke a crisis even if it did first warn the United States, especially if the Obama administration has to intervene. Once again, Israeli strategic thinking on the issue is likely informed by the 1981 bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor. The attack infuriated the White House, which condemned it and, in punishment, suspended the delivery of some aircraft to Israel. Yet Washington retroactively approved of the strike and restored and even strengthened its relationship with Jerusalem -- a process that Netanyahu may expect to repeat itself. The prime minister might also be calculating that, in an election year, Obama would prefer to avoid openly criticizing Israel after an attack.
In addition, the broader diplomatic impact of an Israeli strike has also received little open attention. The former Mossad director Meir Dagan has raised the possibility that an attack might disrupt the existing international pressure on Iran, which is now beginning to place severe strain on the regime, and make it harder for that coalition to re-form in the event that Iran restarts its program. On the whole, however, Israeli leaders have not confronted that possibility, seeming to place faith in the efficacy of the three-to-five year delay that they hope a strike will achieve.
Also largely missing from Israel’s public analysis is the question of how a bombing campaign would affect worldwide energy markets. As a small country with a limited global perspective, Israel rarely needs to consider the international impact of its actions. The few Israeli analysts who have looked into this question have tended to underplay Iran’s intention, and capability, of acting on its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. Last month, for example, Amos Yadlin, the former director of Israel's military intelligence, and Yoel Guzansky, the former head of the Iran desk of Israel’s national security council, argued in a paper for the INSS that it is highly doubtful that Iran would block the waterway.
That lack of perspective extends to what might happen inside of Iran after a strike. The public discourse about an attack rarely includes any consideration of whether a bombing campaign would galvanize Iranians to rally around the current leadership, ruining any chance of the regime change that might ultimately be necessary to end the threat of a nuclear program. Israel remains unwilling to estimate whether a strike would hurt or help the cause of the dissidents; its failure to predict the Arab Spring has humbled its proclivity for making such forecasts.
And so there is a gap in Israel's debate about Iran. Although Israeli experts focus heavily on the immediate implications of the “day after,” they neglect, with a few exceptions, the broader repercussions of an attack. Ironically, then, at the core of the elite, scientific calculations regarding an attack on Iran and its aftermath stands a certain kind of fatalism. It is based on the traditional trust that Israelis place in their leaders, and on their sense that open conversation might in fact harm Israeli interests. But the lack of public debate may, in the event of an attack, leave Israel handicapped both in its ability to strike and to defend itself.
In particular, a lack of open discussion leaves the Israel Defense Forces as the primary source of information and analysis on a strike. The IDF, given its narrow focus on the military aspects of an attack, may fail to fully consider its potential political and diplomatic impact. A more public debate might strengthen those in the bureaucracy who are urging the Israeli government to weigh those other factors as carefully as the military planning. The elevation of those voices could then prevent Israeli leaders from operating on the basis of limited information and faulty assumptions. If history is any guide, Israeli policymakers could benefit from such an expansion of the conversation. Israel’s disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982 began with a war plan that the public had not vetted. The operation ended after overwhelming pressure from civil society, a process that took nearly two decades. To avoid a similar strategic blunder in confronting Iran’s nuclear program -- either as a result of an attack, or a failure to do so -- Israel should give the public a stake in the debate about the “day after” much sooner than that.
Read more of the Foreign Affairs' package: The Iran Debate -- To Strike or Not to Strike?