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Tensions with U.S. Don’t Preclude Israeli Strike on Iran

In his post yesterday, Max posited that U.S-Israeli tensions make an Israeli strike on Iran unlikely. But in fact, such tensions may well make an Israeli strike more likely.

There are Israelis who believe that what currently looks like the only alternative — containing a nuclear Iran — is possible in principle. But for Israeli policymakers to conclude that containment is possible in practice, they must be convinced that if a nuclear Iran uses its enhanced power to attack Israel, whether directly or via its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, the U.S. will either take appropriate countermeasures itself or support Israel in any countermeasures it deems necessary, including military ones.

If Israel’s relationship with Washington were close enough to make this conviction plausible, one could imagine Jerusalem reluctantly acquiescing should Washington ultimately decide that containment was the way to go. But given President Barack Obama’s track record, both of failing to take strong measures against thugs and of giving short shrift to Israeli concerns, virtually no one in Israel’s government thinks he can be trusted either to contain Iran himself or to allow Israel to do so.

Thus, for Israel to refrain from bombing Iran under these circumstances, it would have to conclude that an uncontained Iran is worse than the risk of widening the rift with Washington. And there is no historical precedent for Israel putting its relationship with any foreign government above a security threat of that magnitude, however much it agonizes over the decision beforehand.

I’m sure the Wall Street Journal article Max cited was accurate in saying that some Israeli defense officials do oppose bombing Iran without Washington’s consent (though based on experience, even their views could change as the threat of a nuclear Iran looms closer). But as the Journal itself acknowledged, even today, this opinion is far from unanimous. And if you want to gauge its relative strength within Israel’s policymaking establishment, it’s worth noting that the leading opponent of military action against Iran, IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, has just been handed his walking papers.

Ashkenazi is widely admired in Israel for both his success in rehabilitating the Israel Defense Forces after the Second Lebanon War in 2006 and his conduct of last year’s war in Gaza. So there would be no good reason not to extend his term for a fifth year, which he reportedly wanted — except in order to keep the option of military action against Iran open. As Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel noted in analyzing the implications of this decision, “An attack on Iran is impossible with a chief of staff who opposes it.” And Ashkenazi did oppose it — so strongly that the Pentagon reportedly viewed him as its most reliably ally in preventing an Israeli strike.

There is no guarantee that Israel will bomb Iran. Much could happen before Ashkenazi’s term ends in another 10 months, and his successor has not yet even been chosen. But to assert that U.S.-Israel tension takes the Israeli military option off the table is to misread both Israeli history and current events.


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