A week ago, a senior Israeli official had an American guest over for a late-night chat. Because the guest is intelligent and influential, the official, after offering whiskey and serving coffee, cut straight to the chase.
There's no time, the Israeli official said. By 2013, Iran will be deep inside the zone of immunity. Iran's ongoing fortification and dispersal of its strategic facilities means that by then, even if Israel does strike, Tehran's nuclear program will survive. Once that happens, all those in Israel who oppose a strike will go from arguing "not yet" to throwing up their hands and saying "it's too late." That's why it's totally clear that for Israel, 2012 is a critical year. It's either now or never.
The senior Israeli official described relations between Israel and America as excellent. Unlike in the past, there are no intelligence disputes or rhetorical gaps. From both a diplomatic and a military perspective, the Obama administration has done much more to confront Iran that the Bush administration. And the president himself, the official said, is so impressive - level-headed, tough, and on the ball.
But a realistic view of the situation shows that there are understandable differences between Washington and Jerusalem on the Iranian issue. While for America, a Shi'ite bomb is a strategic problem, for Israel it's an existential problem. While America could act against Iran next year, Israel can act only this year.
Anyone who doesn't look at life through rose-colored glasses should understand that it's unrealistic to expect the U.S. president to promise the Israeli prime minister that he will stop Iran via a military operation at some point in the future. Thus precisely because of the close relationship between the two allies, Israel must be prepared to accept the fact that on this fateful issue, it must act alone, without consulting anyone.
Israel, the official said, will respect the United States and take its interests into account, but it will not wait for the United States to give it a green light to act. Nor will Israel inform the Americans of such an operation in advance.
The Israeli official said he sees Iran as a paper tiger. Its ability to carry out a direct strike on Israel's home front is limited. Its control over Hezbollah and Hamas is not total. If Lebanon allows the Shi'ite militia to attack Israel from its territory, it will end up with no power stations and no airports.
Gog and Magog? Those fears are quite exaggerated. The United States really has nothing to worry about. Since Iran's supreme concern is to avoid drawing America into the war, it will have no interest in attacking American targets. The chances that Iran will do anything against America are small, and Iran's ability to harm America is almost nil.
True, oil prices are likely to soar dramatically. But even that spike won't last for very long, because Saudi Arabia will quickly increase its output. In a few weeks, the market will calm down and businesses will be back on track. Looking back, everyone will thank Israel and recognize that in its own way, it solved a problem that the world was unable to solve.
Quietly but firmly, the Israeli official repeated the mantra that there are three parameters for an Israeli operation: ability, legitimacy, and the feeling that the knife is almost at its throat. And right now, the knife is at its throat, the official said: As far as Israel is concerned, 2012 is the year of decision.
Israel isn't bluffing, he added. Israel is telling the United States the truth.
We don't have to talk in terms of Auschwitz, but everyone must understand that the Jewish state cannot leave its fate in the hands of others. That's not why we came here. That's not why we established this state. What's at stake is a fundamental question of sovereignty. Only if we are independent and strong can we protect ourselves and be a worthy partner to our allies.
As the American guest went out into the stormy Tel Aviv night, he was agitated and upset. Had he really heard what he thought he heard? Had the senior Israeli official been telling him bald-faced lies, or had he been sharing the sensational truth?
By the end of the year, the American guest will know. By the end of the year, we'll all know.
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