Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Why crunch time is coming for Israel and Iran

Why crunch time is coming for Israel and Iran

Those who claim Israel will take its biggest gamble since its independence in an operation that could at best gain time and at worst leave Israel as an isolated and weakened country, might be right after all
On their way? 

By Emanuele Ottolenghi 

In recent months, expectations of a coming Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear installations have become increasingly hyped in the media and the public domain. There is now a well-established assumption among policymakers and analysts that Israel is considering this option and may indeed carry it out before long -- an assumption that public utterances by Israeli leaders have reinforced.

Opposition to an attack notwithstanding, one can easily gauge a sense of impending doom in the words of Israel's Prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defence minister, Ehud Barak.

And one should take these words seriously -- not just as boisterous rhetoric aimed at forcing others to take action, lest Israel attacks anyway. Israel, after all, is the only country in the world that has ever dared launch a pre-emptive strike against an adversary's nuclear facilities. In fact, it has done so twice, first in Iraq and later in Syria. If one is to judge Israel by precedent, the words of its leaders should be taken neither as bluff nor as empty threats.

On the other hand, Israel's pre-emptive strikes -- Iraq 1981 and Syria 2007 -- occurred early on, before the reactors were operational, against one single target, and with a much lower degree of operational hazard than an operation against Iran would entail. In Iran's case, it might be just as sensible to assume that Israel may be too late.

The debate about a possible Israeli strike, naturally, intersects with a number of policy dilemmas that Israel must face: first, the discussion over Iran's nuclear timeline, one which is at the very heart of Israel's strategic dialogue with the United States; and second, the relationship between Israel and the US -- especially at a time when the impression is that the Obama Administration and Jerusalem are on different pages on this crucial issue.

Might Israel risk its most important friend's support when the chances of success are judged to be slim by most military analysts? Might it be too reckless even for an Israel facing an existential threat to jeopardise its most important strategic relationship during the season of US presidential elections, when a few weeks' wait could spare the kind of fallout that Israel may come to regret?

On the other hand, missing the October window of opportunity for an attack is not just about postponing it for a few weeks -- the first moonless night after US Presidential elections is in mid-November, and by then weather conditions above Iran's skies may make an Israeli operation too risky to succeed until Spring 2013. By then, Iran might cross one of or both of Israel's thresholds -- either by entering what Barak called "a zone of immunity", or by actually acquiring nuclear-weapons' capability. Israel will be too late. It will have to rely on American benevolence to fix the problem -- or find a way to live under the shadow of Iran's nuclear capability.

For Israel, containment is not an option for two reasons that go beyond the possibility of Iran launching a first strike. The first is that the mortal threat posed by Iran will destroy the Zionist appeal for world Jewry and for the Israelis themselves. As Daniel Gordis, a senior vice-president at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, wrote in Commentary Magazine:

'What must be understood is that the threat to Israel is not that Iran will one day use the bomb. No, Iran merely needs to possess the bomb to undermine the central purpose of Israel's existence -- and in so doing to reverse the dramatic change in the existential question of the Jews that 62 years of Jewish sovereignty has wrought."

The second is that an emboldened nuclear Iran would wreak havoc on the current regional balance of power in a way that is inimical to Israel and that would, due to Iran's nuclear arsenal, severely constrain Israel's options. Emily Landau, from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, recently discussed the prospect of nuclear deterrence vis-a-vis Iran, noting that: "The problem is that a potential nuclear attack is not the major cause for concern with regard to Iran becoming a nuclear state."

And, she continues:

"How does one contain Iran from consolidating its hegemonic hold over the Arab Gulf States due to their fear of their now much stronger neighbour? Does it even make sense to talk about containment in such a scenario? And how will the US contain Iran from having a seriously negative impact on Israel's ability to defend itself in a war provoked by Hezbollah or Hamas, with the backing of Iran?"

It is not to be excluded then, elections or not, that the Israeli establishment may reach the conclusion that delaying that moment significantly, possibly at the price of a risky military operation, is a gamble worth taking. The impact a successful attack would have on the internal stability of the regime is actually not as clear as some assume it to be. But one can expect a number of dramatic pyrotechnics, alongside the perfunctory public condemnations by Arab states, Non-Aligned Countries, most, if not all members of the European Union, and possibly even the United States.

First, Iran will most likely unleash its proxies against Israel – Hezbollah is the Iranian nuclear programme's first line of defence after all. Secondly, Iran will launch terror attacks against Jewish targets overseas. Third, Iran may retaliate directly against Israel with its missile arsenal. Fourth, Iran may choose to attack US forces in neighbouring Iraq and Afghanistan or in the Gulf. Fifth, Iran may decide to punish those Arab countries that were seen to have turned a blind eye to Israel, by allowing Israeli fighter jets to cross their airspace en route to their deadly mission. And finally, Iran may seek to seal the Strait of Hormuz, artificially concocting a new oil crisis.

Whatever else may be said of the accuracy of predictions and of the assessments about the pros and cons of an Israeli attack then, this is perhaps one of the hardest dilemmas any Israeli Prime minister has faced since the decision not to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt and Syria on the eve of the 1973 War.

And herein lies the crux of Israel's domestic dilemma, in terms of deterrence, when it comes to Iran's nuclear quest.

On the one hand, Israel feels compelled to knock on every nation's door and alert them to the dangers of a nuclear Iran. It feels the need regularly to inform the world through public utterances that Israel views Iran as an existential threat. It must respond to the ugly Holocaust denial rhetoric coming out of a regime that seems intent on acquiring the tools to perpetrate the very same crime whose historical truth it seeks to deny.

Hence the comparisons with Nazi Germany and with 1938 -- and the implicit suggestion that Israel is being put in the same position as Czechoslovakia but will do its utmost to avoid that fate.

This posture is not without disadvantages by the way, because the projection of an image of an erratic, unpredictable Israel that could do something "crazy" propels "saner" governments into action. It's a bit like the great scene from Mel Brooks' 1974 movie, Blazing Saddles, where the newly arrived black Sheriff -- confronted with the town's readiness to lynch him -- points a gun to his own head and threatens the entire town with executing the hostage if they do not drop their guns, and gets away with it.

For Israel, the occasional muscle flexing and seemingly erratic behaviour serves the purpose of telling the international community that, to avoid an Israeli pre-emptive strike, they must hold Israel back -- and the only way to do so is to increase non-military pressure on Iran.

Israel has other purposes as well. It is the homeland of the Jewish people, and it is still animated by the aspiration to promote strong Jewish immigration, Aliyah, to Israel.

That Iran could seriously wipe Israel off the map is not exactly the greatest selling point to prospective immigrants, especially from the Western world. Israel needs to project a completely different image to them -- it must convey a sense of safety and security and a promise that though the threat may be existential, Israel's resourcefulness will keep it in check -- which is one reason why threatening military action cannot be done indefinitely without eventually acting upon the threat. Again, do not take Israel's statements as banter.

Israel is also an economy that relies on the export of sophisticated manufactured products and significant foreign investment. If Israel conveys the sense that the country faces an impending doomsday scenario, Microsoft, Intel and other giants that are investing heavily in Israel's high tech miracle might be turned off.

Similar considerations apply to Israel's educated elites and its growing and increasingly mobile upper-middle class. Israelis could leave the country in droves if jobs, passports or visas are available and sufficient financial resources allow them to do so. As Ehud Barak told Jeffrey Goldberg in September 2010: "The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality... Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people would want to come here!"

So, quite apart from having to confront a serious strategic threat that will alter the balance of regional power for decades to come, Israel must seek to reassure its own friends and citizens that despite the threat, Israel has the means to contain and counter it in ways that will not diminish the quality of life and the opportunities Israel has to offer. It is not an easy proposition, but it is one that Israeli policymakers need to grapple with in the coming weeks.

Short of a decision to strike Iran militarily, Israel will have to think of creative ways to ensure that it defends itself against the risks of nuclear escalation, that it maintains old and seeks new friendships to isolate and weaken Iran, that it gains assurances and guarantees from allies about a joint, combined set of defence measures from which Israel can benefit and is still able to project enough power to deter any enemy from assuming that, under the shadow of Iran's nuclear umbrella, they can now act with a higher level of impunity against Israel than ever before.

All of this, of course, may eventually turn out to be irrelevant -- Iran's regime may implode, President Obama may attack. There are compelling reasons to see both options as having entered, in recent months, into the realm of the credible.

But Israel cannot afford to build its policy and its backup plan on these two assumptions -- and besides, neither is realistically going to happen until November. Which is why it is reasonable to assume that crunch time is coming, and those who claim Israel will take its biggest gamble since its independence in an operation that could at best gain time and at worst leave Israel as an isolated and weakened country, might be right after all.