Shalit Deal / What Would Israel Do if Iran Captured an IAF Pilot?

Israel must prepare for the possibility that if it strikes Iran's nuclear sites, not all of the pilots will come back.

Israel possesses nuclear weapons. This, simply, without blinking or wincing, states a senior American general, who served as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the first part of the current decade. In his recently published memoirs, titled Eyes on the Horizon, U.S. Air Force general Richard Myers describes the tumultuous years leading up to the September 11, 2001 attacks, and those that followed. In the book, it is as though he forced himself to describe Israel in two words, and came up with "nuclear-armed."

In the American defense establishment, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff is not a military commander, as opposed to the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff; rather he serves as the principal advisor to the president and the secretary of defense and coordinates between the service branches of the U.S. armed forces. He also charters the National Defense University, and oversees the quarterly newsletter it publishes.

In the latest newsletter, to be published in early 2010, the professor of military and strategic studies at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Brent Talbot, explains why Israel is capable of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, even though such an operation appears impractical or unlikely at first glance.

The American armed forces, Talbot stresses, are not deployed to protect the homeland, but rather to punish, in their own homeland, anyone who dares attack. This reality is very different from the one dictated to Israel by its neighbors, and existential threats such as those posed by the Syrian, Iraqi and Iranian nuclear programs.

Talbot reports that in June he visited the offices of Israel's Military Intelligence Director, Amos Yadlin, and interviewed him. In the interview, Yadlin confirmed that the Iranian nuclear ambitions topped Israel's security concerns, more than the threats posed by Hezbollah or Hamas, both of which have engaged in war with Israel in the recent past - and both of which would likely refrain from renewed conflict, Israel believes. According to Yadlin, Talbot says, Israel can handle both Hezbollah and Hamas, even if Iran steps up weapons shipments and encourages attacks on Israel.

While Yadlin did not mention a specific plan to strike Iran, it is important to remember that Iran poses the final existential threat facing Israel, and that Iran's President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was recently reelected, has urged Muslim leaders to wipe Israel off the map, and that Israel has planned and prepared for operations as large-scale and long-term as a successful strike of Iran's nuclear facilities would be. Therefore, the U.S. should immediately ready itself for the ramifications of such an attack, Talbot says.

Talbot's impression following his talk with Yadlin is a good example of the Israeli pendulum that swings between secrecy and public relations. In order to create deterrence Israel must display its capabilities, but if the opponent is not impressed, this display could undermine the element of surprise and the effectiveness of the operation. This is the opposite to the phenomenon of the boy crying wolf: here the wolf himself is threatening to attack, and in the end fulfills his threat but his victims believed him all along and were ready for him. And sometimes, the wolf turns out to be a sheep in wolf's clothing.

A decision to go to war against Iran remains in the very distant future. At the end of 2009 it is too early, and unjustified, to make such a decision. Contrary to popular belief, even behind the most closed doors, in talks with the most sympathetic allies, there are no secret plans or plots.

But in a different sense, an Israeli-Iran war is already being waged, and not in the familiar context of the actions of Iran's proxies in Lebanon and Gaza. Following the Yom Kippur War, U.S. intelligence made a pointed distinction between a "war" and an "attack," taking upon themselves the responsibility to warn of an imminent war, but not of an imminent attack. In the case of a war, the CIA vowed to pass intelligence along to the national decision makers, indicating that a nation or alliance was preparing to wage a war or was on a path that greatly increased the likelihood of a coming war and taking steps to prepare for war. On the other hand, in the case of an attack, the CIA was to pass along intelligence indicating that not only was the enemy preparing its army for war, but also planning an attack in the near future.

The CIA refused to commit to providing the second type of warning. Both U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who served in the most senior CIA posts, and Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who has held the post of director of Military Intelligence, have a deep understanding of the elusive reciprocity between an intelligence evaluation and a decision. The problem is that Tehran also understands this, and could seek to pre-empt Israel.

As far as Israel is concerned, Iran's gradual nuclearization amounts to an indication of a coming war, but not an attack. As far as Iran is concerned, Israel's stated objective to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions is the war warning. It gives Iran the incentive to strike the first blow -distracting and crippling - by means of either Hamas or Hezbollah.

It stands to reason that it was in this direction that Yadlin was pointing when he told Talbot that Hamas and Hezbollah would not be too quick to re-engage Israel in conflict. This issue was also at the center of talks between a NATO delegation and Israel's Foreign Ministry and defense establishment last week. The delegation was headed by NATO Deputy Secretary General Claudio Bisogniero.

The main purpose of the delegation's visit was to sign the 2010 edition of the cooperation pact between Israel and NATO, which includes Israeli plans to dispatch a warship to join NATO's Active Endeavor naval force. However, during the delegation's discussions of Israel, questions about Iran, terror, and Israel's policy regarding the use of force were highlighted.

The NATO delegates wanted to know about the deterrence of terror and if Israel wonders whether it exaggerated its use of force in Beirut, south Lebanon, and Gaza. No, their Israeli interlocutors answered, peace and serenity are preserved only due to the deterrence of Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. This can only be achieved once everyone else is wary they will otherwise "extract the Israeli animal from its cage," if rocket fire renews on the Israeli front.

The Arab exercise against Israel's massive aerial retaliation is now constituted in the Goldstone report. The Israelis attempted to convince NATO representatives that neutering the ability to act against sources of fire within populated areas would only increase the complacency of terror organizations, would hurt their deterrence and would cause the next battles to be larger and deadlier.

The NATO alliance is being managed with difficulty. The maneuvering ability of the new Secretary-General, the former Danish prime minister, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is limited. Even more limited than the position of his Italian deputy, Claudio Bisogniero. Moreover, the selection of grey personages from Belgium and Britain to stand at the head of the European Union and to manage his foreign policy also reflects a trend of leaving practical power in the hands of countries that are members of international organizations.

Secretary-generals or director-generals who are too independent or powerful - in the UN, NATO, EU, IAEA, or in the Arab League - threaten their members. They can help very little and create a lot of damage. The Six Day war would not have broken out had it not been for the former UN secretary general, U Thant, who rushed to allow Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to oust the UN forces stationed on the Israel-Sinai border without informing the Security Council. Israel prefers bilateral contacts with a few of the countries that are members in these organizations, and especially with their administrative, intelligence, and military bodies, with which it can share secrets.

When Bisogniero expresses "deep concern" on the Iranian nuclear issue, officials in the NATO headquarters in Brussels see it as a significant signal from the past. When he was asked about the possible deployment of a peacekeeping force to the Israel-Syria border, his negative response was quick and decisive. The NATO council has yet to discuss it. One can guess that when the day comes, if Washington asks ahead of a peace accord after the evacuation of NATO forces from Afghanistan, the response would be a more positive one.

In closed meetings, Israel has been flexing its muscles and saying that it is not worthwhile for Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran to test its seriousness. The behavior during the Gilad Shalit affair contradicts this pose. Israel can shout a thousand times a day that the deal for the release of Palestinian murderers will definitely be the last. But if Talbot and other foreign observers are correct in their assumptions that the burden of an Israeli operation against Iran would fall on the Israel Air Force's squadrons of war planes, Israel must prepare for the possibility that the aircraft will be hit by enemy fire or will encounter technical difficulties - as with missing IAF navigator Ron Arad's Phantom jet - and not all of the pilots will be rescued.

If members of flight crews fall into Iranian captivity, the Iranians will likely put them on trial in order to condemn them to death and open a bazaar of multi-stage negotiations. In return for rescinding the death sentence and reducing it to a life sentence, Iran will demand the release of all the other murderers in Israel; afterward, in return for the release of the pilots, navigators and other captured soldiers, it will demand far-reaching concessions on completely different issues. For example, in Jerusalem; or in the field that General Myers brands a "nuclear-armed" Israel. Would the Israeli public, which persistently pled for the government to sign the Shalit deal, dare to suddenly refuse? Would Benjamin Netanyahu, who is tough-talking but soft in action, not fold again, as is his wont?