The Nuclear Research Institute in Dimona.
The Nuclear Research Institute in Dimona Photo by Reuters
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Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Barak (left) and Netanyahu at the site of the attempted terror attack near the Egyptian border. Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A foul wind is blowing over Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with weekend gusts toward Caesarea. A wind of pugnacity. Before the eyes of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and in the spirit of the chants of which he is so fond ("They are frightened"; "There's no free lunch" ) - it's as if a new sign has been raised high, bearing the words: "Strike now!"

Iran's nuclear weapons are not the story. A vast majority of the Israeli public and its elected representatives quite reasonably do not have faith in the ayatollahs and the Tehran regime, nor do they believe that once the Iranians attain nuclear warheads, they will use them only for deterrence and prestige. The debate is over how to act before that moment arrives, and the extent to which an impulsive move might harm Israel more than it helps.

The question posed in the summer of 2012 is very specific: Should Iran be attacked at this time, prior to the November 6 U.S. election, in defiance of the clear stand taken by President Barack Obama and the American intelligence community?

The Pentagon's "Annual Report on Military Power of Iran," updated in April, ascribes to Tehran a security policy based on the elements of deterrence, subversion, threat of asymmetrical retaliation, a war of attrition and regional influence. When it comes to the nuclear realm, the drafting of the report is cautious: "Iran continues to develop technological capabilities applicable to nuclear weapons."

The Pentagon - which, as per federal law, carefully notates the cost of preparing the report ("approximately $22,000" ) - also emphasizes the term "technically capable" in another context: By 2015, it says, "Iran may be technically capable of flight-testing an intercontinental missile."

Anyone who reads this document can conclude that the Iranians, in their preparations for a conflict with an Israeli-American enemy, are suspending any decision on the production of nuclear weapons - which would necessarily be detected and would trigger a war against them - until such a time when they have achieved strike capability and deterrence, not only against Tel Aviv but Washington as well. It would be foolish for them to produce a nuclear warhead before they have a missile with the required range. And according to U.S. intelligence, that will only happen three years from now.

The modus operandi to be used against Iran, when the time comes, is the subject of professional controversy among American military planners. Last month, the American Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan W. Greenert - a former submarine officer - proposed investing more heavily in missiles that are high-precision and theoretically more expensive than theoretically inexpensive but actually more expensive missiles dropped from planes. According to his thinking, the bill should include the cost of training crews, of maintenance and of the logistics of bringing manned warplanes into launch range. The advanced American jets, Greenert noted, are also dependent on stealth technology, but in the next few years new developments are liable to eliminate this advantage (and in so doing, cast a dark shadow on the value of the F-35 fighter jets that Israel plans to buy ).

In an attack with precision missiles, the Americans are unlikely to lose a single pilot or aircraft, just as the Israel Air Force did not lose any pilots or aircraft in the attacks on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and the Syrian nuclear facility in 2007. Yet there is a substantial difference between the operational capacity to complete a specific mission, and the broad context of a prolonged conflict that would escalate into a barrage of ballistic and cruise missiles aimed at the West. Therefore, the American military is not recommending that Obama launch an attack, but rather that he restrain himself.

Since Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, a handful of generals and the directors of the Mossad and the Shin Bet security service are all aware of this data, the objections of the professional ranks to an Israeli attack do not reflect narrow-mindedness or even a fear that the opening salvo of the war might fail. Rather, it's the opposite - an absence of political and personal considerations - that is leading the elected officials.

The Dimona question

On September 6, 1963, an important political-security consultation was held in Israel. Among the six people who took part were the prime minister, Levi Eshkol, and two individuals who would go on to become prime minister - Golda Meir and Shimon Peres. Also present were the then-chief of staff, Tzvi Tzur, Education Minister Abba Eban, and former chief of staff Moshe Dayan, who was agriculture minister at the time. Dayan and Eban were present because of their past experience, whether in the IDF, Washington, D.C. or the United Nations.

Three security mavens - Dayan, Peres and Tzur - versus three civilians - Eshkol, Meir and Eban. Minutes of the discussion are preserved in the State Archives and were detailed years ago by Dr. Avner Cohen .

It was a most serious discussion, the revelation of which may make an important contribution to our own present discourse:

Eshkol: "What do we do when the entire Egyptian army is arrayed in eastern Sinai, and it costs money and is nerve-racking?"

Tzur: "If Nasser's 4th and 8th divisions were in Sinai, it would be best if we took the risk on ourselves and threw the first punch."

(By the way, the question of communication with the U.S. Sixth Fleet, which Israel had been assured would rush to its aid if it were attacked, was discussed in this consultation - five decades before ships equipped with Aegis antimissile defense systems were planned to take part in downing the (Iranian ) Shahab missiles. These systems will be showcased in the joint military exercise to be held in late October, to the greater glory of Barack Obama and the greater envy of Mitt Romney. )

In any event, a key issue in the 1963 discussion was Dimona. Said Tzur, decades before the Arab Spring: "Our situation is good, because right now there is a holy commotion in the arena. No one is speaking to his own brother. If there is any cause for anxiety as to what the future holds, it relates to the more distant future. It looks murky. Where are we going to be in the '70s? Then there will be a need for something nonconventional. We have to be careful not to find ourselves in a situation in which Dimona is the pressure point. It cannot be that they gave us $100 million a year for Israel's security, and we sold Dimona with it."

Dayan: "The most important thing in terms of security, which could shift our balance of security, is the finished product of Dimona. There is no substitute for it, and no other ingenious solution. I'm not talking about mechanism, but about finished product. So long as we have a chance of reaching it, we must not do anything that is liable to stand between us and it. It is not worthwhile talking to the Americans, because they'll tell us: 'Is your aim security or Dimona? Why do you care so much about Dimona?'"

Peres: "We can reach agreement on capability."

Dimona, Eshkol clarified, constituted deterrence, but not the only possible deterrence. If President John F. Kennedy were to say there was no reason for Dimona because the Arab states will acquire similar capability, then, added Eshkol, "[Israel must] provide other deterrence, like Moshe has been saying - all of the weapons they give to NATO, only without atomic warheads. The Egyptians have pinpoint missiles. We want them, too. We need parity. We have to demand something that safeguards us and deters our neighbors, such-and-such hundreds of missiles and other weapons. Which is why I say: deterrence vs. deterrence. Of course, even then I am not demolishing Dimona, I am waiting with Dimona. For instance, we will also tell [French president Charles] de Gaulle that we won't start making anything without his knowledge. When the matter is finished, I can afford to tell him."

Kennedy was assassinated two and a half months later. By the end of his term, Lyndon Johnson in 1968 agreed to sell Phantom jets to Israel, where they would be the weapon of both deterrence and choice of the late '60s and early '70s. Without forfeiting Dimona. Richard Nixon handed Meir a triple achievement - Phantoms, a blind eye to Dimona, and abstention from pressure to return the territories. The achievement was so great that it contributed to Anwar Sadat's decision to embark on the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

During that war, the DIA - the Pentagon's intelligence agency - ascribed limited future value to Israel's nuclear deterrence, which it say would not maintain its monopoly status forever. "In spite of the deterrent threat," it wrote, "the Arabs are liable to attack, as they will assume that Israel will not make good on the threat, or they will succeed despite Israel's use of nuclear weapons - perhaps with chemical or biological weapons. They might also reap the benefits of an international response to Israel's realization of its nuclear threat. And, of course, the deterrent effect of such an Israeli threat would be diminished if the Arab states would themselves have nuclear weapons."

From Johnson and Nixon to George W. Bush and Obama, leaving Dimona off the playing board is a presidential decision. But the one who permitted it to exist can also change its mind, should conditions change. For instance, if that were to be the price named by Russia and China for backing the stepped-up pressure on Iran to scrap its nuclear program. An American president whose declared vision is to work for a world more free of nuclear weapons, and who aspires to get even with someone who has expressly interfered in his reelection effort, is capable of altering his policy - particularly if the U.S. public becomes angry with the foreign country that entangled it in a war.

Attacking Iran despite Obama's objections would endanger Dimona. Has any express discussion of this matter taken place, in any framework? Do the cabinet ministers understand the consequences? Who authorized them to interfere, for the sake of two men's caprice, with the nuclear capability of Israel?