Netanyahu Sounds Iran Nuclear Alarm - Again - but Attack Not on Horizon

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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Every summer, Israel's warnings about the Iranian nuclear threat have reemerged like clockwork. According to many reports, the ritual was based on Israel's indecision over an aerial attack on Iran. The timing also involved the periodic discussions in the American administration and the UN Security Council over whether to ratchet up sanctions on Iran, and weather conditions above the nuclear sites - which, according to foreign experts, allow for an effective attack only before the arrival of winter.

This time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's recent statements - including the one last week that Israel "will not wait until it is too late" - come in a slightly different context.

That Netanyahu prefers security questions as a way of avoiding oppressive economic matters cannot be ignored. But the prime minister truly views Iran's threat to Israel as being as serious as all the others put together. He is certain it was only his strong stand that has made the United States take the lead in imposing extensive sanctions in recent years. Netanyahu believes he needs to keep a credible military threat hanging over Iran if he wants the international community to impose a convenient compromise for Israel on the ayatollahs.

When it turned out, as predicted, that many in the West saw Hassan Rohani's election as Iran's president as license to stop worrying about the Iranian nuclear threat, Netanyahu reiterated his warnings. But there are greater obstacles than ever on Netanyahu's route to any potential attack.

First, it is hard to be persuaded of the seriousness of his intent to attack after he did not make good on his threat for three years running. Second, not only do America and the rest of the world object to an Israeli attack, there is also domestic opposition to one at this time. And so, talk of an attack seems more likely to come up again only in the spring of 2014, after the next round of talks between the world powers and Iran has been completed.

A new Israeli claim has been presented in recent days that, with the new centrifuges Iran is now installing, it can easily skip from 3.5 percent uranium enrichment to the 90 percent enrichment needed to make a nuclear bomb. This is a significant claim, but it is difficult to see the Americans buying it at this point.

Even if Israel pushes as hard as it can, it might end up having to agree to a compromise with the Iranians, if one is indeed attained. Indirect evidence of this direction can be seen in the multiyear program that the Israel Defense Forces presented last year. Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz spoke of a window of opportunity in the military threat against Israel, which allows him to cut units and reduce training for a limited time. Renewed discussion of Iran distracts attention from increased tensions between Israel and Syria.

Voices in the Israeli media scolded the American administration last week for a leak accusing Israel of being behind the July 5 attack on the coastal city of Latakia, Syria, and the depot storing Yakhont antiship missiles.

These claims ignore a basic fact: If Israel did indeed attack Syria on July 5 - for the fourth time this year, as the international media says - it was Israel and not the United States that increased the risk of war. The Israeli reasoning is familiar: Syrian President Bashar Assad wants to give advanced weaponry to Hezbollah to thank it for its support against the rebels. The weapons will change the balance in Lebanon, and Israel is within its rights to thwart the move.

The Israeli action (if it indeed took place) seems to have been based on two assumptions. First, Assad does not want a direct confrontation with militarily superior Israel and, as long as both sides deny the action, Assad is not humiliated and can hold back. But Israel is playing with fire. Assad could reach breaking point and decide to attack, in revenge for the breach of his sovereignty, even if he pays a price. Second, the claims supporting the attack on the Yakhont missiles cite the threat to Israel's offshore gas rigs. But what if Assad decides to fire one of his remaining missiles at the gas rig in response to the attack, or "just" fire one of his less precise missiles at an air force base in the north. Will Israel embark on the first gas war?

Another point missing from the discussion is provocation of the Russians. According to reports from Syria, Russian weapons systems were hit in two of the four attacks. Moscow supports Assad's murderous regime and helps Israel's enemies without pangs of conscience. But if Russia decides that the last attacks are a provocation, it could, under extreme circumstances, encourage Assad to respond. Under less extreme circumstances, it could continue to ignore Israel's entreaties not to supply Assad with new S-300 antiaircraft systems.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu illustrates his concerns over Iran's nuclear ambitions during a UNGA address, Sept. 27, 2012.Credit: AP
The suspected uranium-enrichment facility of Fordow near Qom, 156 km southwest of Tehran, seen in this September 27, 2009 satellite photograph released by DigitalGlobe on September 28, 2009.Credit: Reuters

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