Ari Shavit's Final Countdown: Iran Is Here

Something went terribly wrong with the Netanyahu strategy of blocking Iranian nuclearization. The threat is as daunting as ever, but stopping it has become increasingly complicated.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

It’s clear: one way or another, Iran is going to change our lives. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, Israel will be forced to become a fortress state with high walls around it in order to stand fast in a nuclearized, radicalized Middle East that will pose a threat to its very existence. There will be no chance for peace and no prospect of normality: we will become as Sparta. If Israel tries to curb Iran by means of a military attack, it will find itself in a missile war that will strike at the home front as the home front has never been struck before. Israeli society will undergo a severe trauma for which it is unprepared, morally or mentally.

If it is the United States that finally stops Iran by the use of force, that move will likely exact high prices from Israel. To counterbalance a violent assault against a Muslim power, the United States will have to engage in political acts against the Jewish state which are liable to damage Israeli security assets. It follows that the question of Iran is not an abstract strategic issue but a question of real life. The answer to that question is going to influence the way of life and the course of life of each and every one of us. Iran is not out there somewhere, beyond the hills of darkness; Iran is here, in every bar in Tel Aviv and in every housing project in Be’er Sheva and in every moshav in the Galilee.

The problem of Iran is not an ideological problem and not a moral problem it is an attentiveness problem. There are no good people and bad people in the face of Natanz, only those who see and those who are blind. The far-reaching implications of the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear project were known a decade ago. Already a decade ago it was clear that Israel’s cardinal mission was not to arrive at a bomb-or-bombing crossroads. But Israel refused to internalize the Iranian challenge.

The strategic establishment addressed it and the intelligence community coped with it, but the broad public repressed it. As the Iranian threat did not entail an immediate price or concrete consequences, it remained amorphous. It was not part of the political debate or the public discourse. It had no concrete place in our concrete life. The psychological difficulty of looking head-on at Iran brought about a situation in which the good decade, in which it was possible to stop Iran without resorting to force, was allowed to slip by.

The attentiveness deficit was not confined to Israel. By the middle of the last decade, all the Western intelligence agencies were already quite familiar with the Iranian nuclear project. All the leaders in the West understood that Iran was seriously threatening the United States, Europe and the entire world order. But Western public opinion was not capable of coping with the challenge, either psychologically or conceptually. The Western elites turned their back on Iran.

The Western leaders therefore lacked a political context which would enable them to act with determination against Iran. Because the Iranian threat was not a tomorrow-morning thing, dealing with it was put off and fudged. No crippling sanctions were imposed on Iran in time. No deal was struck with Russia so that Iran could be subjected to a true political-economic blockade. Khamenei was not presented with a credible ultimatum of nuclearization or survival. For the past decade, Tehran has faced a weak and flaccid West which has been unable to block Iran’s nuclear project.

The attentiveness problems of both Israel and the West stemmed from the same source: the intoxication of success. For 40 years, the Israelis have lived quite a good life under the safety net which Dimona cast over them. For that very reason, they are not aware of the great debt they owe to Israel’s regional strategic monopoly. Nor are they aware of the jolting consequences liable to ensue if the monopoly is shattered.

The Americans and Europeans are in the same boat: for the past 67 years they have lived a life of peace and wellbeing under the safety net cast over them in the form of the West’s overwhelming nuclear superiority. For that very reason they are not aware of the great debt they owe to that situation of superiority, which ensures that they do not face a concrete nuclear threat. Nor are they aware of the jolting consequences liable to ensue if Western strategic superiority is undercut and a Shiite nuclear threat emerges, which will have a direct effect on the good life in Paris, Berlin, London and New York.

So, the Iranian nuclear issue is like a baobab tree. In its early stages of its growth there was no difficulty in chopping it down. But in the advanced stages there was no general mobilization to fell it. The disparity between Iranian stamina and Israeli and Western lethargy played into the hands of the Iranians. The disparity between the focus, tenacity and sophistication of the ayatollahs, and the lack of focus, lack of tenacity and the lassitude of the democracies allowed the clerics of darkness to get the best of the enlightened statesmen. As a result of the attentiveness deficit of Israel and of the West, there was no timely political prevention and no timely economic prevention.

Another result was that a belief developed in the power of clandestine prevention which was as naive as it was false. Owing to a severe blindness, brought on by a deep mental and cultural weakness, the baobab tree was not uprooted in the years when uprooting was possible. Instead of curbing Iran, the United States became entangled in Iraq and Afghanistan. Israel was preoccupied with settlements instead of being preoccupied with centrifuges. Europe froze as though crippled. Both the international community and the Jewish state watched the horrifying tree of the Iranian nuclear project growing before their eyes, helpless to stunt its growth.

Thus, Benjamin Netanyahu’s great contribution to the struggle against the Iranian nuclear project was to inject attentiveness. In contrast to many others, Bibi understood Iran, internalized Iran and was totally focused on Iran. From the day he entered the Prime Minister’s Bureau it was clear that the mission of his life was to thwart Iranian nuclearization. With that end in mind, he formed the odd coalition with Ehud Barak. To block the Iranian nuclear project he capitulated to the ultra-Orthodox, neglected the economy and ignored social problems. To block the Iranian nuclear project, he created an Israeli military option in which vast financial resources were invested. To block the Iranian nuclear project, he made sophisticated use of the military option.

Indeed, during 2011 and at the beginning of 2012 the Netanyahu strategy produced impressive results. After long years of do-nothingness, the Iranian issue rose to the top of the global agenda. The West woke up. The United States promised to prevent a nuclear Iran and prepared a military capability which can actualize that commitment. Europe imposed harsh sanctions on Iran. Not for fear of Ahmadinejad, but for fear that Netanyahu would strike at Ahmadinejad the international community started to place obstacles in the way of the Iranian president.

However, at a certain point something went awry. Netanyahu went too far and overdid the pressure. He did not try to persuade the West but only threatened the West. He did not make the necessary political concessions to accord Israel international legitimacy. He did not make the required political moves to accord his government domestic legitimacy. Even as he engaged in brinkmanship vis-a-vis Iran, he also engaged in brinkmanship vis-a-vis the United States, the Israeli security establishment and local public opinion. Suddenly, therefore, the tables were turned. Instead of Iran being perceived as an evil power undermining the world order, Israel began to be perceived as a crazy state threatening world peace.

Instead of the United States and Israel working together against Iran, the United States and Israel began to work against each other. Instead of a wedge being driven between the government and the people in Tehran, a wedge was driven between the government and the people in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu became completely isolated. The pistol with which he threatened Iran and threatened the world had no bullets.

Netanyahu’s strategy was based on two fundamental concepts. One was the Iranian zone of immunity (which obliges action against Iran before it succeeds in implanting its nuclear project deep underground where it will be invulnerable). The second was the Israeli zone of immunity (which was the only period of time in which Israel could act against Iran without the United States blocking it). Netanyahu believed that the two zones of immunity brought about a situation in which zero hour was now. Only in the summer-autumn of 2012 would it still be possible to stop Iran. Only in the summer-autumn of 2012 would an Israeli action be possible, both operationally and politically. If Israel did not vanquish Iran this year, it would not be able to do so in the coming years, Netanyahu believed. The country’s fate would no longer be in its own hands but in the hands of others.

No one knows whether Netanyahu and Barak truly intended to attack this year or whether they intended to parlay the attack at the last minute into a firm international commitment that would render an attack superfluous. However, it is perfectly clear that Netanyahu, at least, planned to bring the crisis to a peak before the American presidential elections. Those who think that the prime minister tried to topple President Obama are mistaken. Netanyahu tried to exploit the political vulnerability of candidate Obama to recruit him willy-nilly for the campaign against Iran. But that goal, too, eluded Netanyahu. Beginning in the spring, the American president stopped heeding his threats. The hold-me-back strategy boomeranged. International attentiveness was again lost. The Israeli zone of immunity that Netanyahu tried to build with such great labor collapsed on his head.

Four months ago, Haaretz Magazine launched the Countdown series of articles. The series was intended to serve as a platform for a high-quality, untainted, businesslike discussion of the Iranian issue. It tried to go beyond militancy and beyond passions and beyond the personal squabbles in order to present Haaretz readers with a broad range of thoughts about Iran. Thirteen people were interviewed for the series: Moshe Ya’alon, Isaac Ben-Israel, Yehezkel Dror, Uzi Arad, Giora Eiland, Kobi Richter, Yossi Beilin, Ephraim Sneh, Efraim Halevy, Tzachi Hanegbi, Amos Yadlin, a former senior official from the Atomic Energy Agency and a well-known decision-maker. Two or three vigorously supported an attack, three firmly opposed an attack and the others expressed complex viewpoints.

However, the majority of the interviewees agreed that the hub of Israel’s Iranian strategy must be close cooperation with the United States. Almost all the interviewees agreed that cooperation of this sort was not achieved in the past few years and that a supreme effort must be made to achieve it in the immediate future. Even though the majority of the interviews suggested implicitly that Netanyahu and Barak took a sharp and focused view of the Iranian challenge, they also suggested that the two had focused inordinately on the Israeli military option. They failed to prepare world and Israeli public opinion for a clash with Iran and they did not prepare Israel properly for the ordeal ahead.

The Iran decision is probably the most difficult that Israel will have to make in this generation. In a number of senses it resembles the Dimona decision. As with Dimona, so with Iran: the risks are enormous in either direction. As with Dimona, so with Iran: a distinctive combination of boldness, responsibility and creativity is required. Cooperation is needed with the Western powers, but at the same time Israel must be able to stand up to the Western powers. It is necessary to mobilize all the national resources, devise singular solutions and exercise wise and far-sighted leadership. However, while young Israel displayed model behavior regarding Dimona, when it came to Natanz and Fordow, adult Israel behaved awkwardly and confusedly. Tremendous deeds were done. There was professional excellence. However, the state as a state did not mobilize all its abilities and all its skills to cope properly with the existential threat.

Accordingly, as of now, the Iranian nuclear project has not been foiled politically, not been foiled economically and not been foiled clandestinely. Accordingly, as of now, under present conditions, to foil the Iranian nuclear project militarily appears adventurist and inapplicable. The likelihood is growing that in the years ahead the burden of foiling the Iranian nuclear project will pass from Israel’s hands to those of the United States (which may or may not act). The risk is growing that Israel’s efforts to block Iranian nuclearization will come to naught.

The summer of 2011 was a summer of protest; the summer of 2012 was a summer of dread. Toward the end of the summer the dread faded. The more the public discussion about the Iranian issue seethed, the less likely it came to seem that Israel would strike at Iran already this year. However, the truth is that no one knows what the truth is. Not even the prime minister and the defense minister. The Iranian challenge has not diminished. On the contrary: The risks embodied in Iranian nuclearization have not lessened; they have intensified. So the countdown has not yet ended. It will be renewed when the cloud of uncertainty evaporates and Israel will again face the dilemma of its very existence.

Illustration by Amos Biderman, based on an original drawing by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.



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