This Unsung Israeli Hero Still Knows a Secret or Two About the Iranian Bomb

A military operation against Iran may not slow down the nuclear project but accelerate it.

Most of the trendy Israelis in the friendly, fashionable cafe in Ramat Hasharon on a sunny Friday morning don’t know what they owe to the bearded, bespectacled man sharing my table. In 1972, when he was 23, Lt. Isaac Ben-Israel was awarded the Israel Security Prize for significantly upgrading the attack capability of Phantom aircraft.

In 1973, when he was 24, Lt. Ben-Israel stood by the side of Maj. Gen. Benny Peled at the air force’s most difficult hour. In 1975, at the age of 26, Capt. Ben-Israel fomented a revolution in the operation of the Israeli Air Force that heightened its capabilities dramatically. In 1981, Maj. Ben-Israel was one of the key planners of the attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor.

In 1991, Col. Ben-Israel initiated the central technological project of the Israel Defense Forces, which a decade later accorded Israel singular might. In 2007, Maj. Gen. ‏(ret.‏) Ben-Israel helped plan a critically important air operation that destroyed a serious strategic threat to Israel.

But in Israel it’s always the same. Unknown heroes like Ben-Israel, his colleagues and his project partners remain in the shadows. They do not reap the glory that Dr. R.V. Jones and Alan Turing gained for providing their nation with winning war technologies. Even though the life stories of Israel’s mind warriors could furnish material for a series of jolting action movies, very few people know those stories. Very few know that it’s only thanks to people like Ben-Israel that they can frequent Reviva and Celia on a sunny Friday morning and choose between an “American Morning” and French toast, between refreshing carrot juice and fresh orange juice.

Itzik − as his friends call him − Ben-Israel has been following the Iranian nuclear threat for 24 years. He watched the Iranians progress from backward capability to middling capability to advanced capability. He saw the Iranians go from zero centrifuges to 1,000 centrifuges to 10,000 centrifuges. Nevertheless, just five years ago Ben-Israel assured me that Iran would not possess a nuclear bomb. Period. At that time he was very hawkish on the subject of Iran. He believed in Israel’s ability to stop Iran and he believed that Israel would do just that. Since then, however, a lot of water has flowed through the Persian Gulf and a great many Iranian centrifuges have enriched a great deal of uranium. The Shiite republic crossed most of the red lines Ben-Israel himself thought they must not cross. So now, the Israeli reactor-buster is not a hawk, but a dove. He is far more cautious and far more moderate, and far more pessimistic than he was a few years ago.

The situation today is clear, Itzik Ben-Israel says. The argument over the facts has more or less ended. Everyone knows that in order to become a nuclear power a country needs raw material, a weapons group and missiles. Iran now has raw material from which five nuclear bombs can be built, and within a year it will add raw material for another four or five bombs. Less is known about the Iranian weapons group, though it would appear to be quite efficient. Pakistani and Russian know-how the Iranians received has brought them to an advanced stage. As for the missiles, there is no doubt: they exist. Thus, all that separates Iran from nuclear weapons at present is the need to enrich the uranium it has accumulated from a level of 3.5 percent and 20 percent to a level of 92 percent. The Iranians can accomplish that within three to six months. If the order is given, Iran will possess enough processed raw material for two nuclear bombs.

But the order is not being given. And the reason the order is not being given is that the Iranians do not want to cross that final line prematurely. Their fear of an American or Israeli attack is the reason they are not hurtling toward nuclear capability at this time. What is preventing Iran from already becoming a nuclear power is not lack of ability, but fear of a violent response by the West.

Ben-Israel tells me that this is exactly the crux of the dilemma. He knows both Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak quite well. He knows that the concern of the prime minister and the defense minister is that Israel’s situation is like that of the frog that found itself in a pot of boiling water. In the meantime, we can jump out of the pot. But because the jump is tough and dangerous, we tell ourselves: not now. However, without noticing it, we are liable to cross the point at which it is still possible to jump out of the pot.

Barack Obama takes the opposite approach, Ben-Israel says, after finishing the double omelet and sausages of the American Morning. The president does not really intend to accept a nuclear Iran. He understands that a Shiite bomb would endanger not only Israel, but the Sunni Arab world and the Middle Eastern order and the vital interests of the United States. But the president believes that he will know in time when Iran crosses the final line, and he is convinced that when that happens, he will be able to stop it. Whereas Jerusalem fears it will soon lose control of the lethal process of Iranian nuclearization, Washington is convinced it will be able to halt that process at the last minute. This accounts for the abysmal differences between Netanyahu and Barak and Obama, the professor-general explains to me. I don’t know Obama personally, he admits, but I am inclined to believe him. It seems to me that he means what he says.

What you are describing to me is a tragedy, I say to Ben-Israel. In fact, we missed our chance. The right time to stop Iran was five or six years ago. In 2006 and 2007, the target was well defined; American backing was there; and strike capability was at its peak. But because we got entangled in the Second Lebanon War and mired ourselves in an argument about that war, we did nothing. We did not act, the Americans did not act and the international community acted like a bystander. That is how the Iranians were able to triumph over us. They overcame the sanctions and the secret warfare and reached the stage where they have six and a half tons of enriched uranium in their basement.

So, we now face two intolerable alternatives: to attack Iran under difficult and dangerous conditions; or to place our fate in the hands of the Americans, who might betray us, just as the French betrayed us in 1967.

Ben-Israel neither confirms nor denies. The man who is privy to Israel’s deepest secrets cannot share with Haaretz readers everything he knows and everything he remembers. Accordingly, he does not dwell on the past, but focuses on the present and future. If we reach a stage of [Iranian] bomb or [Israeli] bombing, he says, the answer is bombing. Strategic deterrence exists only between two rational players. If Iran goes nuclear, we will find ourselves in an unstable multipolar constellation which includes fanatic players and terrorist organizations.

Therefore, that is not the question, he says. The question is whether bombing will indeed avert a bomb, or the opposite. The great risk is that a military operation against Iran will not slow down the nuclear project, but accelerate it. Why? Because once it is implemented, the threat holding back the Iranians today will cease to hold them back. After they are bombed, the Iranians will no longer fear being bombed. And when the only factor delaying them today is no longer a threat, the ayatollahs will hurtle toward nuclear capability more quickly, not more slowly. Bombing will achieve the opposite effect of what it was intended to achieve.

It is a situation of uncertainty, the strategist and mathematician tells me. The thinking of Netanyahu and Barak is not without foundation, but the opposite is also valid. No one knows what the reality is and no one knows what the result will be of taking action or not taking action. But in situations of uncertainty, the guiding principle should be the one articulated by the father of game theory, John von Neumann − the Jewish mathematician who was one of the leaders of the Manhattan Project.

In critical situations in which you do not know what the outcome will be, he argued, do not try to achieve the maximum gain, but ensure that in case of failure the price you pay will be minimal. If bombing brings the bomb closer, the price Israel will pay will be maximal. Therefore, in a mathematical analysis, it would be wrong to choose bombing. A rational analysis of the situation vis-a-vis Iran, according to the von Neumann principle, leads to the conclusion that as long as there is no solid information to the effect that Khamenei has ordered a bomb to be built, there must be no bombing. The risk is too high. The uncertainty is too great. With our own hands, we are liable to bring disaster upon ourselves.

Over the past decade, Ben-Israel and I have held quite a few conversations about the Iranian issue. We have often sat in sunny cafes and discussed what’s going in Natanz. Ben-Israel held similar conversations with the former leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu. When the two were Knesset backbenchers, in 2007 and 2008, the operations research expert taught the amateur historian everything there is to know about the Iranian nuclear project. I was too successful, Ben-Israel laughs drily. Now Bibi is totally locked on it. He is not willing to consider the possibility that it is too late now, and he does not want to cope with the implications of uncertainty. He refuses to internalize the von Neumann principle. So that when Ben-Israel gets up from the table and disappears among the beautiful people who frequent Reviva and Celia, I can only observe the soft hubbub around me. The blue skies, the white tables, the golden light. Summer of 2012.