Giora Eiland
Giora Eiland. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Giora Eiland is one of the most misleading people I know. With his gray hair and sleepy expression, he looks like a drab civil servant who toils away deep inside the box. But as soon as Eiland opens his mouth, the things he says are always surprisingly original. There is no area in which his thinking is square or conventional. There is no matter on which his insights are bland and routine. The general who once served as head of the Israel Defense Forces Planning Directorate (2001-2003‏) and head of the National Security Council (2003-2006‏) is one of the most ingenious and prolific thinkers the IDF has ever produced. Eiland will always place four or five options on the table and thoroughly plumb the meaning of each one. Although a former military man, this computer engineer from Kfar Hess thinks in creative and multidimensional diplomatic terms. Speaking with him at his modernist office in Ra’anana, I can’t help but enjoy the razor-sharp precision with which he analyzes Israel’s predicament with Iran.

“The choice between a bomb and bombing is a choice between the plague and cholera,” says Eiland. “An Iranian nuclear bomb holds four main risks. The first risk is the most dramatic: Under certain circumstances Iran could launch a nuclear missile at Israel. If a nuclear bomb were to fall in Gush Dan, Israel would not be directly destroyed, but the implications would be intolerable. The likelihood that such an event will happen is low, but not nonexistent. The combination of the low likelihood and the grave implications is one that will be difficult for Israel to withstand.

“The second risk,” says Eiland coolly, “is a lot less dramatic, but the likelihood of it happening is much higher − a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The same goes for the third risk − a worsening of Israel’s strategic position in regard to conventional warfare. Once Iran goes nuclear, any confrontation on our borders will take place under an Iranian nuclear umbrella. If, during a war with Syria or Hezbollah, the Iranians threaten us and simultaneously raise the alert level of their nuclear missile system, we will be deterred and be compelled to consent to terrible compromises. As a result, Israel’s regional deterrent capability will be weakened and it will be forced to contend with more and more conventional clashes that will spill its blood.

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And complicating the situation even further will be the fourth risk: that an Iranian nuclear bomb will spur a radical tidal wave in the Muslim world. The message that will reverberate from Indonesia, Malaysia and India all the way to Egypt, Algeria and Morocco will be that Islamic determination has triumphed. That victory over the West is possible. The militant atmosphere that will arise in the Islamic countries as a result will have serious implications for the West as well as for Israel.”

That’s all very well, I say to the thinking officer, but what about the dangers inherent in an Israeli bombardment of the Iranian nuclear facilities? Wouldn’t such a bombing be even more dangerous than the Iranian bomb?

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The former National Security Council head doesn’t hesitate for a moment, and goes straight from a detailed description of the plague to a detailed description of the cholera: “An Israeli strike in Iran also holds four risks. The first is that the operation will fail. The fear is that even if we hit the target we won’t penetrate it, and even if we do we’ll cause only minor physical damage; and even if we cause major physical damage the ultimate result will not be successful. If we lose 10 planes and we have 10 pilots in captivity and our whole big threat culminates in a whimper, our situation will not be good. If this is the result, we will immediately find ourselves facing the second danger: a terrible erosion of our regional deterrent capability, which will encourage all sorts of sharks to attack the Israel that issued a threat and failed to carry through and is now bleeding in the water. A third danger: Whether or not the strike succeeds, it will give the Iranians the best pretext for openly striving to obtain nuclear weapons and assemble atomic bombs within a short time. The Iranians will say that this was not their intention at all. That they only wanted nuclear power for peaceful purposes. But after Israel attacked them, they have no choice, and they also have full justification and they are going to immediately manufacture nuclear weapons. The fourth danger is that in response to the Israeli attack, Iran will attack in the Gulf, and will attack American targets and thereby raise the price of oil to $200 a barrel. If that happens, the world will be furious at Israel and the international community will take firm action against Israel. The implications could be far-reaching − from close inspection of Dimona to UN economic sanctions against us.”

At this point I need a little break, and Eiland obliges. He teaches me that Israel wasn’t supposed to arrive at a choice between the plague and cholera. The right way to contend with the Iranian challenge was through diplomacy, he says. The only serious diplomatic solution was the Russian solution. Only U.S.-Russian cooperation could have encircled Iran in a ring of sanctions that would have vanquished it. But U.S.-Russian cooperation requires that Washington pay Moscow in a number of vital areas. Neither Republican Washington nor Democratic Washington was prepared to pay such a price. And thus it happened that for the past seven years, the United States has not ceased to provoke Russia. George Bush’s administration and Barack Obama’s administration both criticized Vladimir Putin again and again, as if there were no Iran. This major American miscalculation meant that the diplomatic option versus Tehran was never seriously put to the test. A lot of useless moves were made just for show, but the one real move was never made. And so we’ve come to the place where we stand today. Thus Israel has ended up in a corner where it may have to choose between bombing and the bomb.

So how does one make that choice, I ask the man who was Ariel Sharon’s national security adviser. If and when the matter is brought before the Forum of Eight and put before the cabinet, what should the ministers do?

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“On decision day,” says Eiland, “the political echelon must demand that the military echelon offer a firm and clear yes to each of the following four questions: 1. Is the intelligence we have good enough? Do we know exactly what is to be found where? 2. Can we bring a critical mass of an attack to the locations that intelligence is giving us? 3. Do we know for certain that the explosive materials the attack brings to the correct locations will indeed penetrate what they need to penetrate and cause significant damage? 4. Will the overall outcome of the attack cause the Iranian nuclear program to be halted? Will it buy us a window of time of at least a number of years?

“The optimal timing for a military strike was in 2007-2008,” says the former Planning Directorate head. “But even today, in my estimation, the answers to the first questions are good. But the answer to the fourth and decisive question is much less so. This is because the question is not solely military, but military and diplomatic combined. If there is international support for an Israeli attack, Iran will find it very hard to rebuild its nuclear capability afterward. But if the Israel attack is perceived as rash and illegitimate, Iran will actually get a boost and will quickly attain military nuclear capability. If that happens, then the Israeli strike will end up hastening the assembly of the Iranian nuclear bomb. Israel will come out the loser on both ends.”

Giora Eiland gives Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak very high marks for the way they have handled the campaign against Iran in the past three years. He thinks it was right to get equipped for, train and prepare a serious military option. It was also right to give the international community the impression that Israel is about to employ the military option at any moment. These two objectives could not have been achieved without pressuring the heads of the military and the Mossad and instilling in them a sense of urgency. Eiland also does not rule out the possibility that in certain circumstances it would be right to actually use the military option, but he does not sound very keen on it. He attaches the utmost importance to the diplomatic circumstances and to international legitimacy. He asserts unequivocally that if the president of the United States orders Israel not to attack, Israel must not attack.

Let’s make some order here, I say to Eiland. You’re saying that the odds of stopping Iran by diplomatic means are quite low. Right?

“Right.”

And you’re saying that the odds of President Obama attacking Iran are also quite low. Right?

“Right.”

And you’re saying that in order for a successful Israeli attack on Iran to be carried out, a diplomatic situation that does not exist at the moment is required. Right?

“Right.”

So, then − it would appear that Iran is soon about to become a nuclear power.

Eiland is quiet. He understands full well the implications of my question, as well as the significance of his answer. Now he takes his time, weighs his words carefully and finally says, “If a surprising diplomatic solution is not found, and if a military strike is not carried out during the coming year, this amounts to de facto acceptance of a nuclear Iran. In order for Israel to attack, the political echelon must receive from the military echelon very good answers to the questions I listed before, and it must make certain that the political conditions are ripe for an attack. The likelihood that all of these conditions will be fulfilled is not zero but it is much less than 50 percent. And so the likelihood that Iran will become a nuclear power is quite high. It is over 50 percent.”