Israel Isn't Likely to Strike Iran's Nuclear Program - This Time

Israel's belligerent talk is likely to be just that - talk. But that doesn't mean the regional upheaval couldn't make the nuclear threats facing us much, much worse.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

You don't need to visit Sheldon Adelson's casinos in order to bet that the Israel Defense Forces will not be sent on a large military operation against Iran - "not at this time," as politicians would quickly add. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Winston Churchill from Jerusalem, has not started to prepare either his country men or his colleagues for the blood, toil, tears and sweat. His belligerent talk has thus far frightened Israelis more than the Iranian regime.

Nearly all countries oppose Iran having a nuclear bomb, but not a single one - especially the one that would need to approve an Israeli operation - believes an IDF operation this spring is a necessary evil. It isn't that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have despaired of launching one. In order to launch a campaign, they need approval from more than half the 14 ministers belonging to the ministerial committee on security affairs. If the Yisrael Beiteinu ministers were to leave the government should Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman be indicted, there would be 12 ministers left on the body. Then, Netanyahu and Barak will need to pull five more ministers onto their side in order to block those considered opponents of an attack.

Members of the Iranian army's air force re-enact Ayatollah Khomeini's arrival to Iran in 1979, in February of this year.Credit: Reuters

If Lieberman or Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) are forced to step down - the latter in the wake of the state comptroller's report on the Carmel fire disaster - the government may fall. This, too, would not prevent an attack on Iran, unless Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein were to block such a move, in the way that his predecessor Elyakim Rubinstein blocked Barak from diplomatic moves prior to the 2001 election. The government, charged with avoiding a leadership vacuum, does not have the authority to launch "dramatic, fateful changes with global scope unless there is no alternative, such as deploying the IDF in a defensive war," he wrote.

From the outside, even the strongest proponents of readying for action against Iran say such a posture is necessary in the name of deterrence, not because they are counseling for an actual attack. In the Wall Street Journal this week, former Democratic senator Charles Robb of Virginia and retired general Charles Wald called upon the Obama administration to give Israel bunker-busting bombs and refueling aircraft to extend its air force's reach, in order to "help convince the Iranians to pursue a diplomatic solution."

Eyes on Egypt

Sometime in the late 1970s, a delegation of senior Iranian officials visited Israel. They were members of the Shah's regime, of course. Relations were at a high point, and the two sides were discussing, among other projects, jointly developing ground-to-ground missiles, as documents seized at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran later indicated.

Israel was not deterred by the Shah's delusions of grandeur, which included Iran becoming a nuclear power. A young official at the Foreign Ministry, David Danieli, briefed the Iranian delegation on Iraq's nuclear program.

The Iranians were attentive to events in Iraq even as heads in Tehran were beginning to roll. When Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, it took only 10 days for Iranian Phantom jets to bomb the Iraqi nuclear reactor on the outskirts of Baghdad, although they failed to destroy it.

Now, as deputy director general of Israel's Atomic Energy Commission, Danieli spends much time engaged in diplomacy intended to halt Iran's nuclear efforts. What is now a verbal standoff with Iran may boil over into physical aggression. Yet, given the belligerent statements by Israeli ministers and their American counterparts' more restrained responses, it seems like this is yesterday's news.

Today's story is more Syrian and Egyptian than Iranian. The Iranian nuclear program, notwithstanding the timetables cited by Israeli spokesmen, has cast a dark shadow over the region. But the time limits are artificial. There is still time to address the issue.

Iranians walk past a mural depicting members of the Basij paramilitary force.Credit: AP

Even though Netanyahu, the Israeli Churchill facing off against the Persian Hitler, has been saying for years that "it is now 1938," 1939 still isn't here. Barak said a few months ago that Bashar Assad would soon fall. It is only a matter of time, blood and an overt show of helplessness by Washington and its allies.

The half-hour meeting between Hillary Clinton and Avigdor Lieberman on Tuesday included a "wide-ranging discussion," reported U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. The topics included Washington-Jerusalem relations, Iran, Egypt, Syria, contacts with the Palestinians, Turkey and Iraq. Reporters were amazed: seven subjects in 30 minutes? "Half an hour, 40 minutes," Nuland said, adding, "Highly efficient humans, both of them."

Egypt may yet partner with Iran, presenting Israel with the most intricate security problem it has ever faced. Over the past two weeks, it became clear that American military and civilian aid for Egypt, in place since the peace treaty was signed with Israel, isn't enough to keep Egypt from persecuting U.S.-backed individuals and non-governmental organizations.

One of the people being sheltered at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, after Egypt announced its plan to bring criminal charges against 16 Americans and 24 others involved in U.S.-funded democracy education efforst there is the son of Ray LaHood, Obama's transportation secretary. Yet, pressure from the Pentagon and the White House to resolve the crisis has been to no avail. When push came to shove, the assumption that poor, hungry Egypt wouldn't dare to clash with the United States proved unfounded.

If this continues, the consequences could be far-reaching, and could include Egypt kicking the Multinational Force and Observers (which includes an American infantry battalion ) out of Sinai. Anwar Sadat turned Egypt from a Soviet base into an American base. When Jimmy Carter launched an ill-fated attempt to rescue the American diplomats in Tehran, the planes took off from Egypt. The two militaries have a biannual exercise, "Bright Star," designed to forge a professional and ideological familiarity between officers.

Relations peaked when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait IN 1990 and threatened to advance into Saudi Arabia. In response, an Egyptian division and a Syrian division were dispatched to take part in a pan-Arab force under Saudi command to stop Iraq. Then, on the advice of U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, President George H.W. Bush cut short the victorious march on Baghdad. Powell explained that America's intention was to weaken Iraq but not dismantle it, in order to preserve it as a counterweight to Iran and Syria, and to avoid the quagmire of an American occupation of Iraq.

Powell did not foresee the second Iraq war, led by the former president's son, which would include an actual occupation. Powell was secretary of state when that happened. Condoleezza Rice, who replaced Powell in the State Department, saw Hosni Mubarak's Alexandria as the racist Alabama of her own childhood. In June 2005, exactly four years before Barak Obama's speech there, Rice came to Cairo in order to challenge the region's established order, criticizing the longstanding American policy of, in her words, "pursuing stability at the expense of democracy."

Indeed, the stability has been undermined. As for democracy, it is not yet clear whether military or ethnic tyranny will disintegrate into anarchy or a different form of tyranny, that of fanatic Islam or a new military cult. In tribal countries, where cruelty, massacres and blood vendettas are common, democracy will not arise quickly.

Using the same logic of her speech in Cairo, Rice persuaded Bush to force Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert to allow Hamas to take part in the 2006 Palestinian Authority elections. This preceded Hamas' violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, Operation Cast Lead, and the freeze in Israel's relations with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

On top of this came Obama's own crime - the 2009 Cairo speech. He presented himself not as the leader of the world's most powerful superpower, but as an apologetic American confessing his egregious faults while gnawing away at the Mubarak regime's foundations. It would be intriguing to hear the next speech by an American president or secretary of state, as a guest of the new Egyptian ruler.

American hypocrisy

The Obama administration's hypocrisy has been exposed through statements declaring that the situation in Libya last year was not like the situation in Syria now. That is true. Things in Syria are much more serious. The pretext for military intervention against Muammar Gadhafi was his arrogant statements against his opponents in Benghazi, which could have been interpreted as a massacre threat, the best kind to nip in the bud.

Meanwhile, Assad has showed that he does not talk, he merely massacres thousands of people. Obama's ideology has not changed, but the criteria have: not alone, not by military force nor by arming the rebels ("There are too many weapons in Syria," say Obama's sanctimonious spokesmen ), and of course not without Russia.

Washington implied this week that Turkey - from which thousands of Armenians fled to Aleppo in the early 20th century, and which annexed the Alexandria region - might invade Syria and overthrow Assad. But Obama won't publicly encourage this. He will have to wait until it is over and done with before bestowing his blessings.

A new, weaker Syria, under Turkish influence, would undermine the Iran-Hezbollah-Hamas constellation, somewhat ease the threat posed by Iran to the Gulf states, and delay the fall of Jordan's Hashemite regime. But it also might create an alliance between Iran and Egypt, presuming the generals let an elected government take control.

That would be even worse than the Syria-North Korea nuclear ties, exposed in 2007. Israel would not know how to respond were Iran to give Cairo nuclear know-how and equipment. Until now, Israel has attempted to block hostile Muslim states from going nuclear. All it took was one good wallop every 25 years or so, first against Iraq and later against Syria, or so the foreign sources say. Israel would have trouble combating progress in two places at once, especially when one happens to be its large neighbor with whom it has a peace treaty.

Under Mubarak, Egypt was already trying to cast Israel as as great a nuclear threat as Iran. Danieli and his colleagues are still explaining at International Atomic Energy Agency meetings why we first need comprehensive peace before it will be possible to demilitarize the region.

Meanwhile, Israel will face a tough choice. If it does in fact consider nuclear arms in the region to constitute an existential danger, and there is no military way to go from state to state and destroy said weapons, then what does it prefer: Nuclear for everyone, or nuclear for none?



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