In Israel this week, people are lining up for gas masks, a new Homeland Defense has been set to work to deal with the task of readying the country for the possibility of attacks from Iran, Lebanon and Gaza, and pundits are working overtime trying to figure out whether the nation’s political leadership is serious about launching a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities sometime this fall. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is doing his best to convince Americans that the saber-rattling coming out Jerusalem is not a bluff aimed at forcing the West to toughen sanctions on Iran or start making their own credible threats about using force. In interviews with journalists and an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week, Oren has made a powerful case about the existential threat that a nuclear Iran presents to Israel, but Washington may be listening more closely to those figures inside the Jewish state who are claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are begging to be talked out of an attack.
As the New York Times reported yesterday, Uzi Dayan, a former general who was asked to serve as Homeland Defense Minister, says his conversations with both Netanyahu and Barak led him to believe that the window of diplomacy with Iran that the Obama administration keeps talking about is still open. There are good reasons to believe the Israeli government would like nothing better than to have the war talk do what an earlier wave of speculation about a strike accomplished when Washington belatedly adopted a tougher sanctions policy. Jerusalem understands that even a successful strike on Iran will exact a terrible price in casualties and damage from counter-attacks from the Islamist regime and its terrorist allies. But those who assert that Netanyahu is just bluffing forget that Israeli anxiety is rooted as much in its lack of confidence in Washington as it is in knowledge of Iran’s genocidal ambitions.
With even the Americans now finally willing to agree in the form of a new National Intelligence Estimate that Iran is building a bomb, the feeling in Jerusalem is that they cannot sit back, wait and hope for the best as their allies seem to be telling them. The latest round of threats from Tehran as they prepare to celebrate al Quds (Jerusalem) Day started with a comment from an Iranian general “that there is no other way but to stand firm and resist until Israel is destroyed.” That was followed by a prediction in a speech by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s Supreme Leader, that Israel would disappear.
But Israel’s problem isn’t so much their certainty that if Iran is allowed to keep on refining uranium that they will have a bomb before long. It is their utter lack of faith in the Obama administration’s willingness to do something about the problem.
Netanyahu’s domestic critics are not off base when they chide his government for painting the Iranian threat as being primarily a problem for Israel rather than the region or the West. It is also obviously true that if Israel acted on its own, the impact of such a strike would not be nearly as devastating or conclusive as one led by the United States armed forces. But who can blame Netanyahu and Barak for having come to the conclusion that President Obama will continue pretending that his policy of ineffective diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions can deal with the situation until it really is too late.
It could be that fear of an Israeli strike in the middle of a presidential election will prompt Obama to improve upon his current feckless stand. But in the absence of any sign of such a switch and with the prospect that a re-elected Obama will find the “flexibility” to abandon his promise to stop Iran, Netanyahu may have no choice but to contemplate a unilateral strike. Rather than worrying about Israel bluffing, the administration needs to recognize that if they wish to avert a war this fall, the president must start acting like he means what he says about stopping Iran.