Warnings of War

Israel has nuclear weapons, says a senior American general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his new memoir, "Eyes on the Horizon," U.S. Air Force officer Richard Myers describes the tempestuous years before and after the September 11 terror attacks. He offers a succinct description of Israel: "nuclear-armed." Unlike the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs is not a commanding officer. He advises the president and the secretary of defense, coordinates between the chiefs of staff of the branches of the military, and commands only the joint headquarters as well as the National Defense University and its journal, the Joint Force Quarterly.

In the latest issue of that journal, which is scheduled for publication early next year, a lecturer on strategy at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Brent Talbot, explains why Israel is capable of attacking Iran's nuclear network, even though at first glance such an operation does not appear reasonable or practical.

Talbot reports that on June 14, he visited the director of Military Intelligence, Major General Amos Yadlin, in his office and interviewed him. "He confirmed that Iranian nuclear efforts are Israel's number one security concern at present and that Iran is considered a much greater threat than Hezbollah or Hamas, both of whom have recently been dealt with, and both of whom Israel feels have been deterred from further attacks in the near term. He believes Israel is capable of dealing with these border threats even if Iran should increase its arms supplies and encouragement to harm Israel.

"Though he made no mention of any plans to attack Iran, one must consider that Iran is the only remaining existential threat to the state of Israel, that reelected Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called upon Muslim leaders to wipe Israel off the map, and that Israel, a state always focused on its security first and foremost, has planned and trained for missions requiring the scale and distance to successfully attack nuclear sites in Iran. Bearing this in mind, one must consider that such an attack could be forthcoming, and if so, the United States and its coalition partners should immediately plan for the aftermath," states Talbot.

The impression left by his conversation with Yadlin is a good example of the pendulum of the Israeli establishment, which swings back and forth between a policy of information and a policy of concealment. It's a twist on the "crying wolf" syndrome: The wolf promises to pounce and makes good, but the target takes him seriously and prepares for the attack.

As far as is known - and we don't know what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said to U.S. President Barack Obama so that he would not later claim to have been taken by surprise - no great disparity exists between the overt and the covert. The country's leaders are not lying when they declare that no decision has been made.

But in another sense, an Israel-Iran war is already under way. After the Yom Kippur surprise in 1973, American intelligence honed the distinction between "war" and "attack." The CIA evaluators assumed responsibility for warning of a pending war, but not an attack. A warning about a war is defined as "the communication of intelligence judgments to national policymakers that a state or alliance intends war, or is on a course that substantially increases the risks of war and is taking steps to prepare for war." A warning of an attack, deriving from a warning about war, entails "the communication of an intelligence judgment to national policymakers that an adversary is not only preparing its armed forces for war, but also intends to launch an attack in the near future."

The Central Intelligence Agency declined to commit to a warning of the second kind. The trouble is that Tehran understands this, and might want to strike before Israel does. From Israel's point of view, Iran's gradual nuclearization is a warning of war but not yet a warning of an attack; from Iran's point of view, the declared Israeli intention - which is sometimes also practiced openly - of preventing its nuclearization is the warning of war. This is an incentive for the Iranians to launch a preemptive strike on Israel through Hamas or Hezbollah.

This is probably what Major General Yadlin was getting at in his remarks about deterrence in the wake of the Second Lebanon War and Operation Cast Lead.

This subject was also a focal point of last week's talks between a NATO delegation and the Foreign Ministry, the defense establishment and members of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee . The delegation was led by NATO's deputy secretary general, Claudio Bisogniero.

The main reason for the visit was to sign the 2010 cooperation plan between Israel and NATO, which among other things, called for dispatching an Israel Navy missile boat to take part in the alliance's "Active Endeavor" Mediterranean patrolling operation

But the NATO personnel wanted to know how to deter terrorism and wondered if Israel had second thoughts about whether it had used excessive firepower on Beirut, southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. No, their interlocutors replied, the peace and quiet is being maintained thanks to the deterrence achieved against Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. This has been achieved only because those groups fear that they will "release the Israeli beast from its cage" if they renew the rocket attacks on the Israeli rear. Lebanon will authorize fire only to shoot down Israeli planes flying over the country. This is why attempts are being made to sneak surface-to-air missiles to Hezbollah, a development Israel is determined to prevent.

The Israelis tried to persuade the NATO representatives that taking away the option of acting against fire coming from population centers, in the spirit of the Goldstone report, will increase the complacency of the terrorist organizations, be detrimental to early warning and make future campaigns be larger, deadlier and more destructive.

The new NATO secretary general, the former Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen, has limited maneuvering ability. He is limited even more by the situation of his deputy, Bisogniero, from Italy. Similarly, the election of little-known individuals from Belgium and Britain to head the European Union and manage its foreign relations reflects a tendency to leave the practical power in the hands of member states.

A secretary general or director general of the United Nations, NATO, the EU, the International Atomic Energy Agency or the Arab League who is too strong threatens those who appointed him. The Six-Day War would not have erupted if the UN secretary general at the time, U Thant, had not hastily allowed Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser to evict the UN force from its positions along the Israeli border, without passing the ball to the Security Council.

Israel prefers bilateral talks with some of the member-states of these organizations, and more specifically with government, intelligence and military bodies with high security clearance. When Bisogniero expresses "deep concern" at Iran's nuclear project, headquarters in Brussels views this as a more significant signal than in the past. When he is asked about the possible contribution of a peacekeeping force on the Israeli-Syrian border, he says no quickly and definitively. The North Atlantic Council has not yet discussed the question. It's a safe guess that when a settlement looms and if Washington makes a request and after NATO forces leave Afghanistan, the answer will be more positive.

In closed talks, Israel flexes its muscles and indicates that Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran would be well advised not to test its seriousness. Israel's behavior in the Gilad Shalit episode contradicts this presumption. If Talbot and other foreign observers are right in thinking that Air Force fighter planes will bear the brunt of the burden in an Israeli operation against Iran, it's necessary to prepare for the possibility that planes will be hit by enemy fire or will experience technical difficulties (as happened to the Phantom navigated by Ron Arad) and that not all the pilots who bail out will be rescued.

If air crew personnel fall into Iranian captivity, they are liable to be placed on trial and sentenced to death, leading to a multi-stage bargaining bazaar. In return for reducing the sentence to life imprisonment, Israel will have to release all the other murderers it holds; then, to bring the captives home, Israel will have to make far-reaching concessions on completely different issues. These could include Jerusalem, or what General Myers calls "nuclear-armed Israel." Will the Israeli public, which implored its government to sign off on the Shalit deal, suddenly dare to refuse? Will Benjamin Netanyahu not fold again, as usual?