Israel does not want to see Iran obtain a nuclear weapon. Israel also does not want a war with Iran that could become long and destructive. What can Israel do? It is faced with two strategies - one offensive, one preventive.
The offensive strategy calls for arming fighter jets that would bomb nuclear installations in Iran with the goal of delaying the development of the Iranian bomb by a few years. This is in the hope that the hiatus would continue indefinitely and the menacing project would be stopped in its tracks. The working assumption behind the offensive strategy is that "the world" has come to terms with an Iranian nuclear weapon and will not take action against it beyond verbal gestures devoid of content.
Those who favor bombing liken Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain for the U.S. president's efforts to try to appease an Iranian Hitler. They believe that Israel must rely solely on itself and act alone, just as it did in 1981 against the Iraqi nuclear reactor and - according to foreign press reports - in 2007 against the Syrian reactor. A successful bombing is supposed to boost Israel's deterrent capability and restore its image as the region's strongest military power.
The drawback in the offensive strategy stems from its predictability. It is so predictable that Iran has made extensive efforts to neutralize it. The nuclear installations have been scattered and fortified against attack, and tens of thousands of Iranian missiles and rockets - which are capable of hitting Israel's population and commercial centers as well as its air force bases - have been deployed close by. The discovery of the uranium enrichment plant in Qom this past weekend highlighted the dilemma inherent in attacking Iran: Perhaps other sites have yet to be revealed, sites that serve as back-up installations for those that will be bombed. And who would dare attack a city considered one of the holiest in Shia Islam and risk a furious religious uprising throughout the region?
The preventive strategy strives to avoid a direct confrontation whose results are likely to be mixed and whose damage would be tangible. This strategy is designed to buy time while delaying the Iranian nuclear project until either the United States takes action or the regime in Tehran is weakened. The preventive approach's advantage is that it is cheaper than a war and allows for a confrontation with Iran without disrupting the normal flow of life in Israel, save for a larger defense budget. Yet preventive measures alone cannot prevent Iran from getting the bomb, and its success depends on external factors - the extent of American determination and the Iranian opposition. The preventive route also exacts a price at home because it is a nerve-racking process. The actions are covert in nature, creating the impression that the government is doing nothing to save Israel from this awful danger.
So far Israel has chosen the alternative - preventive diplomatic steps. Advocates of this approach say that it has succeeded in delaying the Iranian bomb by a few years at a low diplomatic and security cost to Israel. Yet its usefulness is gradually eroding as Iran gets closer to the bomb. Under these circumstances, Israel is trying to show that its patience is wearing thin. It is trying to persuade others that if "the world" does not act, it will embark on war against Iran on its own. To strengthen the credibility of the message "Hold me back," a strike force has been amassed while the military preparations are being reported in the foreign press with unprecedented frequency. The force buildup is also important for deterrent purposes in the event Iran obtains nuclear weapons, the Americans attack its nuclear installations and Israel bears the brunt of a counterattack.
Yet as the buildup continues, the temptation to use force grows. As Israel becomes more self-confident, its rhetoric escalates and the domestic pressure "to show them" - or as the prime minister likes to say, "not to come out suckers" in light of the infuriating, incendiary speeches of Iran's president - swells. This is the Iranian paradox: Creating an offensive option does not widen the government's room to maneuver. Rather, it narrows it while pushing Israel to abandon the preventive strategy and to attack.
In recent months, it seems Israel's preventive strategy is paying dividends. The Iranian regime has lost some of its strength following the rigged presidential election and subsequent repression of the opposition, while Obama has taken a tougher public stance against Iran. It is in Israel's interest to see both trends gain momentum - Iran's weakening and America's determination. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's challenge in the coming months will be to withstand the burgeoning pressures to attack Iran, keep his composure and not become frightened at his own speeches warning of "a second Holocaust" while adhering to the preventive strategy. This is the most effective way, one that will give incentive to the West to rein in the Iranians without risking harm to Israel.
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