Iran - an attack is still possible
Anyone who listens attentively to the declarations of the country's leaders will conclude that Israel has come to terms with Iran's transformation into a nuclear power. This has not been stated explicitly, and no formal decision has been made. But the past few weeks have seen a change in the statements coming out of Jerusalem: The government appears to have begun to prepare public opinion for the reality of life in the shadow of the Iranian bomb. Expectations of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, to put a stop to their activity for at least a few years, are fading.
The most pronounced change is visible in Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Last Passover eve he said in an interview with Haaretz: "I want to tell the citizens of Israel: Iran will not have a nuclear capability." In a Rosh Hashanah interview last week with Yedioth Ahronoth, he sounded a lot less resolute and emphasized Israel's weakness in the face of Iran and the failure of the international diplomatic effort.
"What we can do with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese, we cannot do with the Iranians," Olmert said on the eve of his departure from office. "The assumption that if America and Russia and China and Britain and Germany do not how to deal with the Iranians, we, the Israelis, know - that we will take action - is an example of the loss of proportion. Let's be more modest, and act within the bounds of our realistic capabilities."
He did not elaborate, but only hinted at operations carried out by Israel "in order to kick-start the international campaign" against Iran. What happened between Passover and Rosh Hashanah? The U.S. administration made it clear to Israel that it objects to an attack on Iran. The possibility that the United States itself will attack Iran appears to be negligible, in light of the severe economic crisis and American military entanglement in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Budgets are needed now to rescue Wall Street, not bring down Iran's uranium enrichment facility in Natanz.
In this situation, the Americans do not want an Israeli operation liable to drag them into an unwanted confrontation. Olmert, then, simply internalized the American message and is now offering justifications for it. It was not Israel that failed to stop the Iranian bomb but the entire international community. Israel's efforts at prevention gained time but did not eliminate the threat. That is the role of the big powers, and they have a different agenda. Interestingly, Olmert's assessment is identical to that of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who told CNN that America is incapable of attacking Iran and Israel is too small to mount such an operation.
The result, as reported to the cabinet by Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz, the head of the research section at Military Intelligence, is that Iran "is hurtling toward a nuclear bomb" and has already accumulated two-thirds of the fissionable material needed for one weapon. Experts say the window for stopping Iran will close at the end of 2009. What will Israel do when Iran "crosses the threshold"?
According to Foreign Minister and prime minister-designate Tzipi Livni, Israel will continue to exist even with an Iranian bomb. "Israel can live and Israel will live. The doomsday approach, which says that we are goners, is wrong," she declared ahead of the Kadima primary. Like Olmert, Livni is pinning hopes on the mobilization of the international community, on tougher sanctions, but admits that the achievements so far have been meager.
Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit, a member of the security cabinet and the minister in charge of overseeing the secret services and Atomic Energy Commission, adopted, as usual, a sharper tone. "Israel must on no account attack Iran, speak of attacking Iran or even think about it," Sheetrit said in an interview with Yossi Verter in Haaretz more than a month ago.
Even Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, who talked about attacking Iran as a realistic option, softened his public stance as the primary drew near. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has not spoken publicly on the subject, but there is nothing to suggest that he is enthusiastic about an attack.
This approach is accepted by most strategy experts. They believe that an Israeli attack on Iran will exact a steep price for an achievement that will be temporary at best. The minority opinion maintains that Israel must eliminate nuclear threats in the region and that an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities will buy another four or five years.
In addition to the moderate statements by Olmert and other ministers, other indications support the evaluation that an attack on Iran is no longer in the cards. Washington rejected an Israeli request for offensive weapons and authorization to overfly Iraq, though the administration did agree to deploy an advanced early-warning system in the Negev to strengthen Israel's defensive capabilities against Iranian surface-to-surface missiles. For the first time in its history, Israel will host a permanent American military presence on its soil. The deployment of the defensive shield in Israel would appear to be the administration's compensation for blocking the attack.
There is no visible deployment by the political-security establishment for a war with Iran, as there was before the attack on the Syrian reactor in the summer of 2007. At that time warnings were voiced about "a war in the summer," and the security cabinet met frequently ahead of a possible escalation in the north. This past summer it was difficult to identify intensive discussions ahead of a dramatic move such as an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, even under a different cover.
The government crisis and change of leadership also work against such a decision. Becoming reconciled to a nuclear Iran has a price: Israel will have to beef up its deterrent capability. A few hours before tendering his resignation, and after already taking leave of his ministers, Olmert convened a meeting in which he approved budgets for developing and procuring special means. This was the foundation for his assertion that Israel is "the strongest country in the Middle East." The budgets were needed to maintain that advantage.
All the indicators noted above can also be read the other way around: Israel is planning and preparing to attack Iran and is simply trying to achieve a surprise. The Iranians are also aware that the window of opportunity for an attack is closing, and that the moment they acquire enough fissionable material for a bomb or two, they will be immune. In that situation, it is better to lull them with reassuring statements than threaten them and prompt them to take countermeasures, such as strengthening their air defenses or armoring their nuclear facilities.
The talk by Olmert, Livni and Barak about the need for sanctions and international diplomatic activity affords Israel justification for an attack. We gave the big powers an opportunity to act and sat by quietly, but our patience is wearing thin.
The deployment of the U.S. radar system can be read as the military strengthening of Israel in the face of Iran. Before attacking the facilities in Iran, Israel is bolstering its home-front defenses against the missiles Iran will fire in response. This heightens Israel's freedom of action and reduces the risk. The United States will not attack Iran but is making it clear that it stands by Israel in such a campaign.
Even the absence of security-cabinet discussions is not a coincidence. The cover of "deployment for a Syrian attack" was successful last year, but an attempt to reprise it would be too transparent. The government shuffle and Olmert's departure can be a better cover for backroom decisions.
Which of the scenarios is right? That will become clear in the weeks ahead, in the transition period between the U.S. presidential elections and the swearing-in of the new president - between November 5 and January 20.
President George W. Bush will be free of the electoral threat while still retaining his full powers. He will then be able to order an attack on Iran or authorize an Israeli operation, as he agreed to the bombing of the suspect reactor in Syria. He will thus wipe the slate clean for his successor and make it easier for him to conduct contacts with Iran from a position of strength rather than from a situation of accepting the Iranian bomb.