Is Israeli Military Action Against Iran Worth the Risk?

Netanyahu and Barak might just be preparing the public for a possible attack on Iran, but Israel's behavior has already sent the region into a spin.

Three issues lie at the heart of the controversy about whether Israel should attack Iran: necessity, legitimacy and capability. No one disputes that Tehran's nuclear project is progressing slowly, despite the West's efforts to curb it altogether. The unknown element is when the Iranians will acquire the capability to arm surface-to-surface missiles with a military warhead. Estimates range from 18 months to three years from when spiritual leader Ali Khamenei decides the country should have the bomb.

The legitimacy question is clearer: The international community is largely opposed, even if some Arab states would be happy to see an Israeli attack, as WikiLeaks revealed. Israel's leadership is split. Three generations of security and defense branches are vehemently against. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are in favor, though the depth of their commitment and their opinion on the timing are not clear.

Netanyahu with Barak - Emil Salman - 14082011
Emil Salman

The forum of eight is split. Netanyahu will have a hard time mustering a majority in both the cabinet and the security cabinet, the only bodies authorized to make the final decision. As for capability, the Israel Defense Forces is obviously engaged in preparations for the mission.

In the past few years, particularly since Netanyahu returned to the Prime Minister's Office, there have been occasional reports on leaders' satisfaction with the air force's progress. It has even been claimed that the U.S. administration noticed the preparations, and that this is what drew its great concern over a potential Israeli attack.

The danger here is of a self-fulfilling prophecy. An Israeli attack will complicate relations with Egypt, whose transitional government is less hostile to Iran than Mubarak's regime was, and will also jeopardize the peace with Jordan, whose territory Israeli planes might cross. In response an attack will draw Iranian missiles and massive rocket volleys by Hezbollah and Hamas, and Syrian President Bashar Assad also may choose to join the fray in an attempt to suppress his country's popular uprising.

Advocates of an attack have to consider whether the Israeli home front is prepared to be hit by thousands of missiles and rockets carrying 300-400 kilogram warheads. Estimates in the foreign media state an Israeli attack will delay the Iranian nuclear project by four years at most. Does that kind of success - in the best case - justify the risk, when it is clear the Iranians will rehabilitate the project, this time openly, as soon as the planes have completed their mission?

Consider a report that appeared in the Guardian this week. British security sources cite the same reasons one hears in Israel about the need to strike Iran's nuclear project, because time is running out. So if Britain and the United States might take part in an operation, why does Israel have to rush in alone?

The proponents of an attack recall Israel's bombing of the Iraqi reactor in 1981. Prime Minister Menachem Begin acted against the advice of many top defense personnel and politicians, and he was proved right. Saddam Hussein's lack of nuclear weapons facilitated the American campaign in the two Gulf wars. In 1981, Israel did not coordinate the attack with the United States. At that time, however, there was no American military presence along the attack route.

case until the end of December, when U.S. President Barack Obama intends to withdraw most American troops from Iraq, but will also be true afterward, with the Americans deployed in the region, particularly in the Gulf. Wide-ranging, precise coordination seems necessary.

Those in Israel who do not fear a potential crisis with the United States say Obama is leery of clashing with Jerusalem (and losing the Jewish vote ) in an election year. According to this argument, Obama recognizes Israel's right to defend its sovereignty, and will restrain himself in such a clear-cut case of self-defense. But American elections almost always turn on domestic issues, plus there may be immediate consequences of an Israeli attack for the world oil market. If fuel costs rise sharply, U.S. consumers will be hard hit, adding to Obama's problems. Israel needs to take this into account, too. Under these circumstances, will U.S. military aid be guaranteed after an attack?

Next week, the International Atomic Energy Agency will publish a report expected to be highly critical of Iran's nuclear activity. An Israeli threat to attack could serve the United States and Britain in their efforts to have the UN Security Council impose crippling new sanctions on Iran.

The Iran hysteria is not only useful to whip up an international campaign against Iran; it is also convenient for Netanyahu, because it diverted media attention from the social protest movement this week. This is a dangerous game. Netanyahu and Barak might be preparing public opinion for an attack, but Israel's behavior has already sent the region into a spin, not to mention the operational harm to the air force. It is far from clear, however, whether Netanyahu will enjoy sweeping public support if he chooses a preemptive strike, which will be perceived as a war of choice.

Since retiring as head of the Mossad in January, Meir Dagan, for his part, has spoken out publicly several times against Netanyahu and Barak's policy, and has warned against a "stupid" air attack on Iran. At first, during the current furor, Dagan kept silent. That did not stop Likud ministers and MKs from accusing him of committing "field-security offenses" and blaming him for leaking ostensibly secret information about Israel's plans.

On Wednesday, in a speech in Tel Aviv, Dagan referred to the Iran issue only in passing, though afterward he responded to the criticism. If he is investigated, he said, "I will divulge things that the finance minister and his friends [said] in regard to field security. I have a good memory."

If Dagan speaks out more sharply and more urgently against an attack, we can assume it is not due to a momentary caprice. And what if there's a blunter attempt to shut him up? He likely knows where some political skeletons are hidden.

Gaza will wait

The tension on the Gaza border dissipated by midweek due to a lack of public interest, even though just days earlier there were threatening headlines about a new military operation in the Gaza Strip. Israel and Hamas are treading very warily.

Palestinian groups now have proven able to fire rockets into Metropolitan Tel Aviv, and every military crisis in Gaza may spark a severe crisis in the rickety relations with Egypt. All this means Israel will think twice before venturing on another Cast Lead-type operation. Hamas prefers to preserve its primary achievement: transforming the Strip into a Muslim Brotherhood bastion. It is not anxious to endanger this, even if it has to allow Islamic Jihad (and even its own militants ) to let off steam every once in a while, to prove it has not abandoned the path of resistance.

Even Islamic Jihad knows the rules of the game, notwithstanding Iranian encouragement to the contrary. After 10 of its activists were killed last weekend, the organization gradually resumed its restraint. Because there is no clear and orderly hierarchy, the process took until Tuesday.

The latest round of blows and counter-blows began on October 26, when Islamic Jihad fired a rocket into the Rehovot area. It was apparently not a Grad Katyusha, as was initially reported, but a new rocket with a relatively long range, probably manufactured in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian groups have carried out their own test firings during periods of quiet in the past, in which case they launched the rockets westward, into the Mediterranean. This time it was "live" fire, into Israel.

Last Saturday, Islamic Jihad tried to repeat the exercise. Several bomb-making and launching personnel met next to the ruins of the Israeli settlement of Atzmona, in the southern Gaza Strip. Israel feared that this time the new rocket would be fired eastward, toward Be'er Sheva. Based on information from the Shin Bet security service, the air force struck and killed five Jihadists.

The rest is a scandal. Apparently, despite the expected counter-attack, no one thought to inform the Iron Dome antimissile crews. When Islamic Jihad attacked - and worse, when the organization retaliated by firing rockets at Ashdod and Ashkelon a few hours after the bombing - the Iron Dome batteries had not been deployed. This was followed by a series of technical failures and an operational mistake that prevented proper use of the systems. The battery in Be'er Sheva reacted more rapidly and intercepted a rocket on Saturday evening. The first successful intercept in Ashdod took place only the next morning. The result: a volley of missiles fired at the south, one civilian killed, questions about Iron Dome's performance and nearly a full-scale confrontation - which did not happen thanks in part to Egypt's intervention.

When the tension with Hamas abated, Netanyahu deliberately heated up things with the Palestinian Authority. On Tuesday, the forum of eight decided to punish the PA for being accepted as a full UNESCO member by accelerating construction of 2,000 homes in the settlements and halting tax transfers. Thus Netanyahu fell into line with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who is constantly eroding the prime minister's standing on the right, certainly after the Shalit deal. Haaretz recently reported that Netanyahu is looking for ways to legitimize outpost construction.

The prime minister is facing a series of house demolitions in three outposts, whose timing was dictated by the High Court of Justice. This will take place amid intensifying right-wing extremism, which can no longer be ignored. There will almost certainly be violent clashes with the security forces and some "price tag" actions. Even if the deliberations about attacking Iran are postponed for a few months, the winter will not be boring.