A week after the administration first starting spinning the notion, the idea that the P5+1 talks with Iran made genuine progress toward a nuclear agreement has become conventional wisdom among the chattering classes. Based on little more than atmospherics generated by the Iranian charm offensive, Tehran offered the West nothing new and there is little reason to believe they think they need to give up enriching uranium or shut down their nuclear plants that are bringing them closer to a weapon. If the Obama administration is determined to press ahead toward what will be, at best, an unsatisfactory deal that will, despite the president’s protestations that any accord would be verifiable, lead inevitably to Iranian deceptions and an eventual bomb, then that will leave Israel’s leaders with a terrible dilemma. Their choice would then be between accepting a policy that places their country under an existential threat or breaking with its sole superpower ally and attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities on their own.
To those who claim that Israel can’t or won’t defy the United States, the Council of Foreign Relations’ Uri Sadot answers, think again. In an article published today in Foreign Policy provocatively titled “Rogue State,” Sadot argues that not only is such an outcome thinkable, the precedents already exist for an Israeli decision to fly solo in the face of not only international consensus but American desires.
Given the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been rattling his rhetorical sabers in the direction of Iran for years, it’s hard to argue with Sadot’s conclusion. As late as just a week ago during an address to the Knesset, Netanyahu once again warned the world that Israel isn’t afraid to act alone if its security is endangered. Should Jerusalem ever be convinced that the U.S. was about to sell it down the river, Netanyahu might well decide to strike Iran. But Sadot is wrong when he claims, as he did in his article, that Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak or the 2007 strike on the nuclear facility that Syria was building tells us much about Israel would or could do against Iran. There are simply no comparisons in terms of size or scale to the challenge awaiting the Israel Defense Forces in Iran or the diplomatic obstacles to such a decision by Netanyahu.
In terms of the Israeli mindset about enemy governments possessing such weapons of mass destruction, Sadot is right to assert that there is little difference between the thinking of Menachem Begin in 1981 and that of Netanyahu today. All the psychobabble thrown around about Begin’s experience of the Holocaust and the influence of Netanyahu’s ideologue father Benzion is mere gloss to the fact that these two men, just like Ehud Olmert in 2007, understand that their primary responsibility is to guard the existence of the State of Israel. Given the stated positions of the Iranian leadership as to their desire to eliminate Israel as well as their sponsorship of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, no leader of any sovereign state could afford to take such threats lightly. At the very least, Iranian nuclear capability would destabilize the Middle East (a fact that makes Israel’s Arab neighbors, with the exception of Iranian ally Syria, just as anxious to prevent the ayatollahs from realizing their nuclear ambition).
But the idea that Iraq is a precedent for Iran as far as Israel is concerned is absurd. Iraq had one lone nuclear reactor. It was relatively defenseless and the Iraqis weren’t expecting an attack. The same applies to what happened in Syria in 2007. By contrast, the Iranians have multiple facilities spread throughout their country. Some are in hardened, mountainside bunkers that may be invulnerable to conventional bombs. All are heavily guarded and the Iranians have been on alert for an Israeli strike for years.
It is a matter of some debate as to whether Israel’s vaunted armed forces are even capable of doing significant damage to Iran’s nuclear plants or destroying its stockpile of enriched uranium. Some analysts have always believed that only the United States, with its air bases in the region and aircraft carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf, could do the job adequately. But even if we assume for the sake of argument that Israel can do it alone and that it could accomplish this task with air strikes alone rather than combining them with commando attacks, what would be required is a sustained campaign of strikes at multiple targets. At best this would strain Israel’s resources. That is especially true when you consider that Israel would also have to be prepared to engage Hezbollah’s terrorist enclave in southern Lebanon since most assume that Iran’s Shiite auxiliaries (who are also fighting for the ayatollahs in Syria) would attack Israel in support of Iran.
What is being discussed here is nothing short of an all-out war, not a surgical strike that could be executed without fear of the cost in terms of casualties or lost planes. While Netanyahu may not shrink from such a decision, his decision will be based on Israel’s current dilemma, not what happened in the past.
As to whether such a decision would endanger Israel’s alliance with the United States, Sadot might well be right that the Jewish state could ride out any turbulence that would result from an Iranian campaign. President Reagan’s affection for Israel overcame the animus toward the Jewish state’s actions expressed by Vice President George H.W. Bush and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger. While the Obama administration may not be quite as sympathetic, if anything support for Israel throughout the country and in Congress is far greater today than 32 years ago.
But in 1981, the U.S. was not still conducting a war in the region as the U.S. is doing in Afghanistan. Nor, despite the tilt toward Iraq in its war with Iran, was the U.S. engaged in a diplomatic process with the Saddam Hussein regime as it is now with Tehran. The notion that Israel would attack the Iranians while the Americans are still talking to them strains credulity. Not even Begin would have done such a thing. Nor would Netanyahu deliberately offend President Obama in such a fashion. If Israel ever did attack Iran, it could only happen after the U.S. broke off negotiations with Iran or after Israel could allege that the Islamist regime had violated an agreement it had signed with the West.
“Rogue state” is a title that is more appropriate to a terrorist-sponsor tyranny like Iran than democratic Israel. But there’s little doubt that Israel would act to protect itself even if that required it to act alone. The Iraq and Syrian strikes are far from the only times in its history that the besieged Jewish state has had to ignore international opinion that is heavily influenced by anti-Semitism and opposition to Israel’s existence. But if it does act against Iran, the decision will be based on the far more complex dilemmas of the present day than anything that has happened in the past.