Ari Shavit's Countdown: The quiet American option
Israel needs covert U.S. backing for any attack on Iran, warns this week's interviewee, who remains unnamed.
The tall, quiet gentleman now sitting across from me in a Jerusalem cafe made a major contribution to Israel's existence.
His name is hard to find in any archive. There is no Wikipedia entry under his name. And he certainly hasn't made any appearances in the gossip columns or celebrity news coverage. But this bespectacled, soft-spoken, long-faced pensioner is one of the most incredible heroes in Israel's history. He worked in a special place for 27 years, first as an engineer, then as chief engineer, and finally as director general.
With calm, cool intelligence, he modestly dealt with the most sensitive issues for the Jewish state. But this Jerusalem-born engineering genius was never after money or fame. He took the bus to the most important meetings at the most secret institutions. Even now, he is only willing to speak with me on condition that his name is not published. For he is not the issue. The issue is the issue. And the issue is a fateful one.
After sipping his coffee and nibbling at a pastry, the anonymous engineer tells me that the situation is quite serious, to say the least. "Iran's nuclearization is unacceptable for three reasons. Firstly, a nuclear Iran will give Hezbollah and Hamas a nuclear umbrella that will embolden our enemies and encourage aggression, and lead to ongoing and intensive friction on Israel's borders. Our lives will become a living hell.
"Secondly," he adds, "a nuclear Iran could provide the terrorist organizations connected to it with dirty bombs that could contaminate extensive areas and water sources. This would be a disaster for Israel. Thirdly, a nuclear Iran would cause other states in the region to go nuclear and lead to an array of nuclear powers in the Middle East. This multipolar nuclear system will not be stable. It will create a new strategic situation that Israel will not be able to accept or live with.
"But on the other hand," continues the anonymous engineer in a pensive tone, "Iran will soon go nuclear. From following the openly reported material, my professional estimation is that the Iranians are now less than a year away from the point of no return that will lead them to manufacture a first nuclear bomb. It's very unlikely that the international sanctions will stop them within this period of time. It's very unlikely that the cyber-warfare of which the Americans are so proud will stop them within this period of time. I don't believe that an American president will order a strike on Iran just before or after an election.
"So the dilemma facing Israel in the short term is the dilemma that your column has focused on these past few months: [Iranian] bomb or [Israeli] bombing. And in grappling with this dilemma, the thing that tips the scale is the third point that I cited before: the danger of a nuclear Middle East.
"It's possible that Israel can live with a nuclear Iran. In principle, it is possible. But can Israel exist with a number of nuclear superpowers in the Middle East? Can we exist within a multipolar nuclear system? I don't think so. When I think about this scenario, I have a hard time sleeping at night."
Devil in the details
So then, you agree with Yehezkel Dror, I say to this sage and sober Jerusalemite as he shares a sweet almond croissant with me. What you're saying is that, in the cold, hard analysis, the conclusion is that Israel must strike Iran and simultaneously offer peace to the Arab world. "Prof. Dror's proposal contains a lot of political wisdom," says my interlocutor. "The main points of his analysis are correct. But the devil is in the details.
"In my view, Dror's proposal contains a diplomatic flaw and an operational flaw. Diplomatically, it would be better to come out with a limited peace initiative toward the Palestinians, rather than a comprehensive peace proposal for all the Arab states that would open many Pandora's boxes and bring Israel into a minefield. Operationally, you can't forego cooperation with the Americans from the outset. The attack on the nuclear facilities in Iran will be fateful. If it succeeds it will significantly set back the manufacture of the Iranian nuclear bomb and also enhance Israel's deterrent capability. If it fails, god forbid, the reverberations of the failure could be catastrophic.
"So we have a supreme obligation to ensure that the chances of success are maximal and the chances of failure are minimal. In my opinion, to do this we need secret assistance from the Americans. Even if it's a blue-and-white operation, we need to ensure that red-white-and-blue capabilities will be integrated in it. Just as the Americans have assisted in the past with all sorts of operations with various allies without publicly admitting it, the same thing will have to happen here. The Israeli attack must be backed up by quiet American support and American high tech that will ensure its success."
There is no chance that what you describe will happen, I say to this man who has had experience dealing with the American strategic establishment in highly sensitive situations. U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu despise each other. Obama's America is an America that has had enough of wars. The Americans will not risk being exposed as having helped the Zionists attack an Islamic republic. The scenario you paint is quite creative and elegant, but purely fanciful.
"The mode of action I'm recommending may sound improbable," says the anonymous engineer who has done an improbable thing or two in his lifetime. "But I'm trying to calmly analyze the dilemma facing President Obama. On the one hand, he truly does not want to see a nuclear Iran. He understands that if Iran goes nuclear, he will bear the responsibility for it. On his watch the Middle East will go nuclear and the international regime limiting the proliferation of nuclear weapons will collapse. On the other hand, he does not want to attack Iran because it goes against his personal inclinations and his outlook on the world. He also cannot attack in the coming year because America will not go to war without a mandate from the UN, which cannot be obtained within the short time that is left.
"The only way out of this tough dilemma is covert American aid to Israel so that it can carry out a successful strike on Iran - one that the Americans can then denounce. If you add to that an Israeli peace initiative with the Palestinians, then Obama profits in three ways: He prevents Iran from going nuclear; he does not have to attack Iran; and he gets the peace process that he yearns for. And Israel also profits three ways: It increases the odds that this critical attack will succeed; it enhances the image of its deterrent power; and it creates for itself a political horizon.
"A successful strike would do much to shore up Israel's strategic situation in an unstable Middle East. So if the decision makers in Washington and Jerusalem are wise and careful, they should arrive at the conclusion that the blue-white-and-red option is the best choice. Hidden cooperation between the U.S. and Israel on this fateful matter will serve the vital interests of both, as well as the interests of the moderate forces in the Middle East and of the enlightened forces in the world."
Joint mode of action
The life story of the anonymous engineer is the story of Israel's old serving elite: modest childhood in Jerusalem; scholarship student at the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa; doctorate in England. When the system took note of the rare talent of this outstanding academician, it made sure to sweep him up. Before long, it trained the electrical engineer to be a leader of its flagship project. In time, the tall, reticent character became a key pillar of the system. Eventually, the prime minister appointed him to head the system.
In wartime, he endured some very tense days. But all along the way, he believed in the combination of boldness and wisdom. As he still does. In his assessment, when it comes to Iran the balancing point between boldness and wisdom is finding a joint Israeli-American mode of action.
"One of the biggest problems with the world's present leadership is that it doesn't try to solve deep problems, but instead pushes them off," says the anonymous engineer. "Which is how we've gotten to where we are with the Iranian issue. But there's no point in crying over spilled milk now. Time is very short. The Iranians are about to cross the critical point.
"There is hardly any chance that the sanctions will work or the United States will take action within such a short time," he continues. "But for the Israeli strike to be successful, it has to postpone Iran's nuclearization by at least five years and it must be virtually immune to failure. Therefore, the rule of 'For with wise advice thou shalt make thy war' has to be adopted. The attack on Iran mustn't be thought of as an expanded edition of the strike in Iraq in 1981. The risk must be reduced to the minimum.
"This critical operation must be a multistage operation in which the ones leading it have alternatives and guarantees in the event that the objective is not achieved with the first blow. For this, sophisticated American weaponry is required. For this to happen, the United States has to give us the weaponry, instruct us not to use it and condemn us after the fact for having used it.
"The possibility that an Israeli strike on Iran will fail disturbs me greatly. Even if the likelihood of failure is small, the implications of failure are very dramatic. Therefore the U.S. and Israel must rise above all their diplomatic disputes and personal tensions and work together. Only covert American support for the Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities will ensure its success and liberate us - and the world - from a nightmare."