ahmadinejad - AP - December 6 2011
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo by AP
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Imagine a resident of the island of Oahu in Hawaii peering out at Pearl Harbor on January 1, 1941 and worrying about the long-term effects of the year-long strike of plantation workers at Ahukini; or an analyst at a World Trade Center insurance firm concerned at the start of 2001 about spiraling malpractice rates; or a journalist in Honshu province analyzing the obstacles to maintaining Japan’s economic recovery on New Year’s Day, 2011, less than three months before the tsunami arrived.

There’s a big difference, of course. For all of these imaginary observers, the catastrophe came as a complete surprise, but with Israel and Iran’s nuclear programs, it is a clear and present danger visible to all, discussed and dissected day in and day out in newspapers, think tanks and intelligence forums throughout the world. Therefore, let’s dispense with looking back at 2011, and concentrate on the day of reckoning that will arrive, by all indications, over the course of 2012.

Now it’s true that for many years, Israel has been setting deadlines that have come and gone. In 1997, the well-informed Labor MK Ephraim Sneh, chairman of a secret Knesset subcommittee on defense planning and strategy, confidently predicted that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons “within 18 months.” Since then, each and every ensuing year has been designated by Israeli politicians and military experts as the one in which Iran will reach its goal - unless Israel makes its decision.

Small wonder, then, that those who suspect Israel of “warmongering” have compared it to Aesop’s boy who cried wolf, though they tend to omit the ending of that famous fable, when the wolf actually comes and devours the entire flock of sheep that the boy was tending. Similarly, when the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat declared that 1971 would be “the year of decision” between war and peace, Israeli analysts wavered between taking him seriously and scoffing at his bravado. When he repeated his threat in 1972, no one paid much notice. When he said it again at the beginning of 1973, most Israelis were already regarding him as an Arab comedian, complacently going on with their business until the day Egyptian and Syrian troops breached Israel’s borders and nearly brought about “the destruction of the Third Temple,” as Moshe Dayan fretted on the third day of the Yom Kippur War.

“The nice part about being a pessimist is that you are constantly being either proven right or pleasantly surprised,” George Will once wrote, and there are many Israelis, including this one, who would like nothing better than to be proven absolutely wrong about Iran. There could still be unexpected regime change. Harsher sanctions might convince the Ayatollahs to reverse course at the very last minute. A highly successful operation in the ongoing clandestine war might strike a debilitating blow that would postpone the Iranian effort for several more years.

But if none of the above materialize, the oft-predicted, make-or-break point-of-no-return is inexorably approaching. Israel and the U.S. will soon be called upon to decide between a preemptive military strike and coming to terms with Iran as the world’s tenth nuclear power. It is a gross understatement to describe this as a choice between a rock and a hard place, between the plague and cholera, as the Hebrew saying goes, between being damned if you do and damned if you don’t, between one set or another of potentially catastrophic consequences. Like many others, I have often asked myself what decision I might make if I were the prime minister of Israel, but I usually wind up thanking God that I’m not.

In the moment of truth, if left with no other choice, I believe that Israel will choose the military option. Realizing this, and acknowledging that a nuclear Iran is a clear and present danger to its own national security, the United States may take upon itself to carry most of the burden. From Israel’s point of view, the latter scenario is immeasurably preferable to the former, but in both cases, the cure might be just as bad, or perhaps even worse, than the disease itself, as so many of Israel’s security chiefs, in the army, the Shin Bet and the Mossad, have argued in recent years.

Iran and, no less importantly, the increasingly unpredictable Syria, have hundreds of long range, high yield ballistic missiles capable of delivering many tons of TNT as well as chemical and biological warheads to any point in Israel; Hezbollah has at least 40,000 short and medium range missiles that could inflict heavy damage on Israel’s north; Hamas in Gaza, though not in that league, could also launch scores of less destructive but no less traumatizing missiles into Israeli cities south of Tel Aviv while creating mayhem on the borders as well; and West Bank Palestinians, as well as some Israeli Arabs, could very well decide to join such an offensive jihad themselves.

The physical and psychological destructive potential of such an all-out onslaught should be enough to temper the enthusiasm of even the most gung-ho supporters of an attack on Iran. It’s not that Israel would not survive such an attack, but there should be no doubt that it would be changed forever, and even this bleak outlook ignores a scenario in which Israel feels compelled to threaten, and perhaps even employ, its reported doomsday arsenal.

And 2011 was, lest we forget, a year of disappointments and setbacks in the strategic, diplomatic and political arenas, as a result of which Israel would enter this fateful confrontation in a most disadvantageous position: having burned its bridges – or had its bridges burned, whichever way you view it – with the region’s two main powerhouses, Turkey and Egypt; surrounded by an Arab world in which the old authoritarian regimes that were capable of containing popular rage have been either removed from power or are lying in fear of their own masses, from Morocco to Bahrain, with Iraq, and, more worryingly, strategically crucial Jordan, in between; lacking even a semblance of a peace process with the Palestinians, which may have served to blunt Muslim animosity and to minimize European disaffection; projecting an increasingly insular, unyielding and even arrogant image at a juncture when international support is at its most critical.

And while both the Israeli public and world Jewry will undoubtedly unite in support of Israel and rally to its defense, the current polarization and venomization of political discourse between left and right, religious and secular, conservatives and liberals, and yes, Israel and the Diaspora, may, in the longer run, begin to take its toll.

The dangerous ramifications for Israel – and for the U.S. - of a nuclear Iran have already been dissected at length, even if one assumes that Iran is not an irrational state and would be deterred by Israel’s first or even second-strike potential. A military attack, by either Israel or the U.S., might lead to no less catastrophic consequences, even when one relies on an assumption, contested by many experts, that such a strike could achieve its military goals.

If you’re an optimist you might believe that a successful attack would weaken Iranian-inspired Muslim extremism and usher in a new era of moderation and rationality. In the Middle East, however, as right-wing prophets of doom have often proven, pessimism and realism are often interchangeable.

“The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true,” goes another famous quote. It may not seem that way right now, but this might very well be the best it’s going to get for several years to come. So enjoy it while you can, and have a happy new year.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev