Can Israel Live With the Iranian Bomb?

It may well be that Israel will have to get used to the idea of a nuclear Iran, and its public, raised on the notion that the IDF can solve anything, will need to undergo a profound change.

The IAEA report on Iran didn’t bring any surprises, but it confirmed Israel’s and the Western World’s fears: there can be no reasonable doubt that Iran is working actively towards the atomic bomb. Given Iranian regime’s declared intention to destroy what its representatives tend to call “the Zionist entity,” it is clear that Israel feels threatened by the prospect of a nuclear Iran. Neither do Europe and the U.S. look forward to this eventuality, given Iran’s support for extremist groups and its sponsorship of terrorism.

There is no simple answer to what needs and what can be done. But the discussion in Israel has developed in an interesting direction. Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, is certainly not a fainthearted man. He stayed in the job through three governments, and was known for planning daring operations.

Iran nuclear Bushehr

Yet, briefly after his tenure was ended, he did something quite unusual: Dagan repeatedly stated publicly that attacking Iran would be “a stupid idea” for a number of reasons: It would lead to a regional war with uncontrollable consequences; it would not set back the Iranian atomic development significantly; and it would only increase Iran’s determination to go nuclear.

Dagan said that he, former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former Shin Bet Director Yuval Diskin had served as a counterweight to what he described as Netanyahu’s and Barak’s recklessness. Dagan is unusual in that he made his statement publicly. But the media are full with indications that Israel’s security establishment almost uniformly opposes attacking Iran.

This contradicts an unquestioned assumption that has governed Israel’s public consciousness for most of the country’s existence: there is no problem that cannot be solved militarily. The dictum “let the IDF win” implied that fainthearted politicians and diplomatic considerations often precluded the IDF from achieving decisive victories and solve any problem at hand.

This assumption of the IDF’s unlimited power was bolstered by a number of great military victories, such as in 1967 and in 1973, as well as by daring feats ranging from the raid on Entebbe to the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak. Basically the assumption was that Israel’s civilian leadership could write out any check, and that the IDF would cover it.

Israel’s security establishment, from the military to intelligence agencies, is spearheading a deep change in Israel’s political culture. It is making clear that the myth that the IDF can do anything if required to do so must no longer be taken for granted.

The consensus that emerges in conversation with experts and from reports of various think tanks is fairly clear: While Israel has the capacity to hit some of Iran’s nuclear facilities, it will, at most, set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions by a few years - eighteen months is Aaron David Miller’s estimate.

What then? If indeed a nuclear Iran is an existential threat to Israel, eighteen months does not provide much comfort. As Miller says, the scenario of Israel attacking Iran every eighteen months is totally unrealistic.

There are further long-terms arguments against the attack. A few years ago during a conference at Tel Aviv University, Yaakov Amidror, now Netanyahu’s security advisor, said that he was against attacking. Such an attacks would almost compel any future Iranian regime to settle the score of humiliation with Israel.

So why are Netanyahu and Barak making sure that the option of an Israeli attack is imminent? Of course they want to keep the pressure on the international community to do all that can be done to tighten sanctions on Iran. The Free World has strong interest in preventing such an attack, whose consequences could be disastrous not just for Israel but to the world a whole, as commentators including President Shimon Peres keep restating.
Nevertheless, Netanyahu does not serve the country’s interest by harping on the idea that the next holocaust is around the corner. Panic is never a good guide to action, least so in issues of life and death.

It may well be that Israel will have to get used to the idea of a nuclear Iran. Israel’s public, raised on the notion that the IDF can solve anything, needs to undergo a profound change. We must get used to think in different terms; strategy is about risk management, not about the total elimination of risks. This does not mean that Israel and the Free World should not do what can be done realistically and without catastrophic consequences to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. But it means that we must also to prepare for life with a nuclear Iran.

This is not a defeatist position, it’s just realistic. The U.S. had to learn to live with the Soviet Union going nuclear, and then China. India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, have lived in a standoff and a cold war that flares up periodically for decades. Joining the club of powers that live in a nuclear balance of mutual deterrence may not be our favorite option. But it may help to remember that it is a club that has been in existence for quite some time.