Text size

"I promise that if I am elected, Iran will not acquire nuclear arms, and this implies everything necessary to carry this out," Benjamin Netanyahu said before the elections. In other speeches Netanyahu described Iran's nuclear program as "an existential threat for Israel," and warned that it risked a second Holocaust. Does his return as prime minister necessarily bring Israel nearer to war with Iran?

In political circles the view is that yes, Netanyahu as prime minister brings Israel closer to war with Iran. Politicians in touch with Netanyahu say he has already made up his mind to destroy Iran's nuclear installations. People close to him wonder how the public would receive a joint decision by Netanyahu and Ehud Barak to attack Iran, and whether the move would boost the two men's popularity. The basic assumption is that diplomacy and sanctions will not gain a thing, and the only way to stop Iran's nuclear program will be by force, which only Israel is motivated to apply.

This is also the assessment of the international media, who consider an Israeli strike against Iran a near certainty. European governments are practicing evacuating their citizens from Iran in case a "third party" strikes the nuclear installations. Israel's veiled threats "that no option should be lifted from the table," which were meant to push the international community to intensify pressure and sanctions on Iran to prevent war, have had the opposite effect. The international community has become convinced that Israel will act on its own, so it does not need to do a thing.

Inside Israel's security-strategic community, opinions are divided. Experts estimate that the air force can reach Iran and strike the nuclear installations. Such a strike would give us three to four years which, if properly utilized, would allow for diplomacy to prevent the nuclear project's resumption. Some observers note that after the bombing of the Iraqi reactor in 1981, critics of the attack claimed that Saddam Hussein would be able to rebuild in three to four years, but this never happened.

However, despite our operational capabilities - which remain unproven - many defense experts say an attack against Iran is "too big a mission for Israel." They raise two main arguments: concerns that Iran's response will be harsh and start a general war, even if the operation fails, and more importantly, the United States' determined opposition to an independent Israeli operation. This view is held by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The defense experts say that without a green light from Washington, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to send in the air force.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert hoped to neutralize Iran's nuclear program differently, and we can assume that Israel managed to delay the project by a few years; maybe even a decade. But that sort of activity has been exhausted. The Iranians have overcome the difficulties and managed to cross the "technological threshold" of enriching uranium, according to the head of Military Intelligence.

About a year ago, Olmert and Barak presented then-president George W. Bush with a list of requests that were meant, according to commentators, to make an Israeli air strike on Iran easier. Bush was frightened and the administration issued strong messages calling on Israel not to take action. Since then, reports have appeared in the foreign media of long-distance training by the Israeli air force in Greece, and of air strikes in Sudan, along with calming U.S. intelligence assessments that Iran was not close to having a bomb. Olmert changed his position, and after promising that "Iran will not have nuclear capabilities," he explained that there are limits to Israel's capabilities.

Netanyahu is counting on Barack Obama, and on their meeting next month, where he will tell Obama that history will judge his presidency over the way he handles the Iranian nuclear program. The question is whether Netanyahu's abilities to be convincing and his sophisticated English will allow him to alter Obama's agenda: preventing Pakistan and its nuclear arms from falling into the hands of the Taliban and Al-Qaida, while trying to buy quiet from Iran. It is doubtful whether even an Israeli proposal to pull back from the Golan Heights and evacuate settlements in the West Bank will lead Obama to bomb Iran, or let Netanyahu order an attack. Israel will have to try to reach an understanding with Obama centered on dealing with Iran.

All this suggests that the rise of Netanyahu to power increases the chances of war with Iran, but the "point of no return" has not yet been crossed.