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Echoes of 1967 in Israel’s Iran Dilemma

One of the interesting aspects of yesterday’s New York Times Magazine cover story about Israel’s decision whether or not to strike at Iran’s nuclear program came from a passage in which author Ronen Bergman describes his meeting with former Mossad chief Meir Amit. Amit, who headed Israel’s intelligence agency at the time of the 1967 Six-Day War, described a meeting with the CIA station chief in Tel Aviv during the lead up to that conflict. According to the transcript of the meeting, which was given to Bergman, the American spy threatened Israel and did all in his power to prevent the Jewish state from acting to forestall the threat to its existence from Egypt and other Arab states that were poised to strike.

The lessons of this confrontation certainly put Israel’s current dilemma about attempting to pre-empt Iran’s ability to threaten the Jewish state with extinction via a nuclear weapon in perspective. Bergman provides no firm answer to the question of whether or not Israel will go ahead and strike Iran even if, as was initially the case in 1967, it must happen over the objections of the United States. But he does attempt to give a coherent framework for how the decision can be made as well as providing a bit more background on the chief Israeli critic of a strike on Iran.

According to Bergman, Israel has three criteria for deciding to act on their own on Iran:

 1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project? And can the military and the Israeli people withstand the inevitable counterattack?

2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?

3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?

For the first time since the Iranian nuclear threat emerged in the mid-1990s, at least some of Israel’s most powerful leaders believe the response to all of these questions is yes.

I’m not sure he’s right about that, especially when it comes to the first two points. While Israel can inflict serious damage on Iran, there’s no question that to do the job properly it will require American involvement. And though it may well be that ultimately the Obama administration will give Israel the same blinking green light it got in 1967, a close read of most of the statements coming out of Washington lately on the subject may lead to a different answer. It remains to be seen whether Obama is more afraid of the terrible consequences of an Iranian nuclear device for the world as well as Israel as he is of the fallout from an Israeli attack. Elsewhere in the piece, Bergman presents an Israeli assessment of what many believe is a feckless American stand on the issue that seems more the product of magical thinking than an analytic process:

“I fail to grasp the Americans’ logic,” a senior Israeli intelligence source told me. “If someone says we’ll stop them from getting there by praying for more glitches in the centrifuges, I understand. If someone says we must attack soon to stop them, I get it. But if someone says we’ll stop them after they are already there, that I do not understand.”

Just as fascinating is his account of the activities of Meir Dagan, another former Mossad chief who has been quoted incessantly in the American press largely because he is a vocal critic of the idea of an Israeli strike on Iran.

Bergman allows Dagan his say on the matter in which he bitterly criticizes both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Defense Minister Ehud Barak. But his is one of the rare accounts in the U.S. press to also note the spymaster carries a political grudge against the two because they did not reappoint him to his position after the fiasco in which Mossad personnel were exposed while carrying out a hit on a Hamas terrorist in Dubai.

Though he is often represented in the Western press as someone who minimizes the danger from Iran, Bergman also corrects this impression. Dagan seems as intent on stopping Iran as Netanyahu and Barak, but he thinks it can be better achieved by Mossad’s cloak-and-dagger assassinations of Iranian scientists and/or sabotage of Iranian facilities. But it’s far from clear the Iranians haven’t already overcome those tactics.

The other Israeli critic of a strike on Iran that he cites is Rafi Eitan, the 85-year-old former spook whose most famous achievement in his field was the Jonathan Pollard disaster (something Bergman fails to note). He believes it is a foregone conclusion that Iran will go nuclear and thinks the only way to avert the danger is to promote regime change. While the replacement of the Islamist dictatorship with a democratic government would be an improvement, waiting around for that to happen doesn’t seem particularly prudent, especially when you consider the consequences.

Bergman’s conclusion is Israel will attack Iran sometime this year because of a growing consensus it has no choice but to do so. If Barack Obama wishes to avert that outcome, he is going to have to prove to the Israelis he means business about sanctions that will bring the Iranian economy to its knees. But given the ambivalent signals emanating from Washington on that subject, everything Netanyahu and Barak are hearing is more likely to be hardening their conviction that, as Bergman writes, “only the Israelis can ultimately defend themselves.”


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