Every time Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks about watches, I'm terrified. Not because I don't respect his prodigious knowledge about taking apart and reassembling watches, but because the amateur watchmaker and occasional pianist is the defense minister during one of the most dangerous and sensitive periods in the life of this country.
At this week's annual conference of the Institute for National Security Studies on the security challenges of the 21st century, Barak said that although there are differences between us and the United States about the ticking of the clock, it is clear that Israel will decide on its own if and when to attack Iran. "The Iranians are working to create a situation in which even the United States will not be able to stop the nuclear project," warned Barak, asking his listeners in the auditorium and all over the country "to get rid of the fear of making tough decisions." One of the reports from the conference described the tone of Barak's speech as "messianic."
Finally, a watchmaker remains a watchmaker. As someone who is a frequent visitor to the administration in Washington, takes credit for a billion dollars earmarked for special defense establishment operations, and is engaged in secret talks with the Americans, he did not give the impression that he would accept an understanding between the great powers and Iran to let it keep part of its nuclear capability under restricted conditions. Iran is working to create a situation where neither Israel nor the United States will be able to prevent the manufacture of the bomb. This moment is singled out by the chatterboxes among the leadership as the moment when Israel is likely to act.
Contrary to what is implied by Barak's words - that only Israel will decide who, what and how - President Barack Obama is still in control of the situation. He is not a pacifist as he is portrayed and is not afraid to use force. But he expects the circumstances to justify the use of force, not only because he is facing elections but also as a part of the overall considerations required of the leader of the world's greatest power.
To be sure, the Israeli defense minister, who may be at the end of his political life and has nothing to lose, cannot be allowed to get us into trouble with the entire world, and primarily with the United States.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak are operating like Siamese twins. About a week ago the prime minister said in private that although he prefers to let the Americans do the job, if it turns out that the international effort being led by Obama doesn't produce results, there will be no choice but for us ourselves to do what has to be done. "I am obligated to protect the Jewish people and the residents of Israel." Thus spake Bibi.
It makes no difference at present who is the leader and who is being led in this country, nor what truth there is to the insane and frightening threat that we will act on our own against Iran - shouldn't we listen to the warnings of Meir Dagan, Yuval Diskin and others about the consequences of such a military operation by Israel?
Some people are convinced a unilateral operation is not only possible but actually in the preparation stages. Important journalists are constantly being told by Barak and Bibi that it will be a terrible disaster if we don't act immediately, even on our own, even if we are roasted in no time by an atomic mushroom on our home front. In addition, the vice prime minister, none other than Shaul Mofaz, a former chief of staff and defense minister, implicitly justifies his hasty entry into the government by the Iranian nuclear threat.
But against the chorus of voices eager for a preventive war stand prominent former defense officials who say Israel would do well to show more patience for the sanctions being led by the United States and Europe against Iran, and not turn itself into a laughingstock by threatening to neutralize Iran's nuclear facilities entirely on its own.
The frightening of the public on the one hand, together with the official chatter on the other, have gone altogether too far. How will we make any progress if we are incapable of even conducting a clandestine war - say, involving cyberattacks? - without hinting that we are behind it. In any case, we shouldn't even dream of attacking Iran directly, something the world isn't yet daring to do without first exhausting every other option.
We should recall how we breathed a sigh of relief when neither the Americans nor the rest of the world claimed that it was because of Israel that the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed. If we attack Iran, not only will we get into trouble with the United States, not only will our home front be attacked, but we will create a situation in which no Jewish target in the world will be safe for generations. An Iran that's going nuclear is a regional and international danger. Let the rational world handle it in its own way.
We must not push our way in front. This is not the hour to be tinkering with time bombs.
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