Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to the Likud party, May 6, 2012. Photo by AP
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A worker hangs a poster of Benjamin Netanyahu over one of Ehud Barak in Jerusalem, 2009. Photo by AP
Moshe Milner / GPO
From left: Benny Gantz, Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Benjamin Netanyahu at an IAF ceremony, 2011. Photo by Moshe Milner / GPO

"I'm terribly confused. For the first time, after many years of experience, I feel I have a better grasp of the calculations that are motivating the enemy than of our own." Thus an experienced intelligence analyst who spent many years in the inner sanctum of Israel's security system.

Realities in the Middle East have changed drastically during the past two years, he observed. It seems that for the first time in a very long time, there is nothing Israel can really do to curb threatening developments - from the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to the potential collapse of the Assad regime in Syria. Yet in one area, Israeli action can have significant, dramatic repercussions, ones that will influence life in the region as a whole - and that area is Iran.

In recent weeks I've held discussions with five retired defense establishment officials, each of whom held a top post. In fact, between them, they held virtually every major command post that one can imagine in the Israel Defense Forces. The talks were held separately (some of these figures loathe one another, due to disagreements which are personal, not strategic in nature). The troublesome thing about the conversations was their consistent, uniform tone: All these interlocutors are very worried about what they perceive as the prime minister's, and the defense minister's, increasing inclination to attack Iran.

None of the five has publicly voiced opposition to such an attack, nor did they always see eye to eye about specific details of the Iranian issue. Most of them take exception to the outspoken statements by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet security service head Yuval Diskin, who expressed opposition to oppose bombing Iran under any circumstances (Dagan), and characterized the Netanyahu-Barak position on this subject as being irrational and "messianic" (Diskin). What unites the five is doubt about the timing: An attack during the next two months, they say, without international backing and in defiance of American preferences, would bring more harm to Israel than good.

At the end of 2011, Ehud Barak introduced into international discourse about Iran's nuclear program the concept of Tehran's "immunity threshold." This idea, devised originally by the IDF's Intelligence Corps, refers to the regime's desire to establish vital components of its nuclear program in various fortified sites that will essentially be safe in the event of external military attack. Now, it seems that, with respect to that scenario, the point of no return may have already come and gone: The Iranians have developed sufficient production capability and knowledge regarding how to respond to attacks, to be able to provide their nuclear program with a kind of insurance policy.

Barak's assessments implied that by the end of 2012, Iran will have passed the immunity threshold. Indeed, such protection against an Israeli attack is being attained relatively quickly. The U.S. Air Force, with its enhanced attack capabilities, might have a few more months than Israel to launch a crippling strike against Iran's program.

Delivering a speech at a Defense Ministry reception on Independence Day last April, Barak elaborated on the details of the immunity threshold concept. Thereafter, however, it seemed to vanish from Barak's public pronouncements; in a fairly assertive speech he delivered on Wednesday at the National Defense College, he had nary a word to say about the idea.

Some people believe that the concept is no longer germane, because months ago, Iran passed the threshold and now hosts well-protected nuclear facilities. The Iranians have moved a large number of uranium enrichment centrifuges to the underground facility at Fordo, near the holy city of Qom, which helps render an air attack against the nuclear program useless, these experts contend. What remains for Israel to do, they suggest, is to consider carrying out an aerial attack as a display of its deterrent powers, not as a substantive strike intended to decapitate the Iranian program.

The brilliance of the minds behind the operative planning in Israel should not be belittled. If we consider past operations attributed to Israel in this area, it seems plausible to argue that Israel would be able to pull off an operational success this time as well, in Iran. Yet the positive strategic dividends of such as an operation would be limited. Moreover, they could be offset by a number of dangers: from a rift in relations with Washington to, in extreme circumstances, a regional war.

Cynics would argue that the immunity threshold concept serves an utterly different goal: The Iranian threat bolsters Barak's own political immunity, since he has survived by being known as Netanyahu's right-hand man on sensitive security matters.

Duan-Iran deal

In the middle of this past week, the political arena was rattled by the so-called Duan-Iran deal, by the prime minister's effort to lure four MKs from the Kadima party (including MK Avi Duan ) to join the government, together with former MK Tzachi Hanegbi. This political jockeying was associated by some media outlets with the Iranian issue: Netanyahu, they suggested, initially declared that early elections would be held, and then suddenly brought Kadima into the coalition in May, for the purposes of paving the road to an attack on Iran. According to some analysts, Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz quit the coalition in mid-July due to his reservations about an attack on Iran (this issue was arguably more important to him than the crisis about conscription of Orthodox men to the IDF ). Furthermore, pundits say, Hanegbi was going to join the coalition so as to help give Netanyahu the sweeping support for a strike that Mofaz was supposed to have garnered.

This scenario has many loose ends, however. Mofaz presented himself publicly as a vehement opponent of a unilateral Israeli attack. So why would Netanyahu rely on him as a potential supporter of just such a strike? This strategic explanation of recent occurrences in the political arena also overlooks the extent to which sheer political survival affects the thinking of figures such as the prime minister and also Mofaz - especially at moments when they consider signing a coalition agreement between parties. And the benefits (strategic, moral, political or otherwise ) to be accrued by Hanegbi's inclusion in the government remain hard to fathom.