A weird but wonderful feature of Israeli democracy is that even fateful decisions about national security — like whether to carry out a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities — are publicly debated and covered in the press as if they were questions about road building or water rates, complete with vote counts in the cabinet and speculation about political motives.
For more than two weeks now, mullahs in Tehran, generals in Washington and anyone else with an Internet connection has been able to read detailed accounts of attempts by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak to convince their military chiefs and coalition partners that an Israeli strike is both feasible and necessary. Bitter closed-door debates have been chronicled; op-ed pages have been filled with the arguments, pro and con. There’s even been polling: Forty-one percent of Israelis were reported to favor an attack vs. 39 percent who were opposed.
If it happens, this may be the most unsurprising sneak attack in history. Reports that Israel is on the verge of bombing Iran have been appearing regularly since at least 2008. It’s tempting to dismiss the latest flurry as political noise or orchestrated leaks, aimed at focusing Western attention on the need for tougher sanctions against Iran, or at drowning out the Palestinian bid for statehood at the United Nations.
That’s probably part of it. But it is also, in Israel, a genuine dilemma — and one in which the calculus looks very different than it does in Washington. “This is a serious debate,” said Shai Feldman, an Israeli expert on nuclear security who made a presentation on the subject at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last week. “And it’s a tough call.”
It’s worth going through some of the key decision factors cited by Feldman and how they look to Israelis. Start with a threshold question: How much time is there to stop an Iranian bomb? In Washington, the typical answer depends on a projection of how long it would take Iran to finish a weapon and put it on a missile; or perhaps, how long Tehran might need to enrich a sufficient amount of uranium to bomb-grade. Estimates range from 62 days, in the case of uranium enrichment, to several years, for completing a deliverable bomb.
Israelis consider another timeline: How long before Iran finishes installing enrichment equipment at its new Fordow facility, which is buried under a mountain near the city of Qom? That plant is a far more difficult target for airstrikes than the buildings in Natanz, where most of the 4.9 tons of enriched uranium Iran has fabricated is now stored. And the latest report from U.N. inspectors suggests that Fordow will be open soon: Centrifuges have been set up, power has been connected and a first delivery of uranium has been made.
A second consideration is whether an Iran with a bomb could be deterred from using it. Many in Washington, with its half-century experience of the Cold War, suspect that it could be — and U.S. policy since the Bush administration has quietly aimed at setting up a deterrence structure, through such measures as providing air defense missiles to U.S. Persian Gulf allies.
But most Israelis, with the Holocaust in mind, judge it differently: The religious motivations of Iranian rulers, they argue, mean Tehran might be willing to accept even devastating civilian casualties in exchange for wiping out the Jewish state.
The regional fallout from an Israeli attack might be the biggest negative factor. Israelis expect that thousands of missiles might be fired at their cities by Iran’s clients in Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, while U.S. forces might be attacked in Afghanistan, Iraq or in the Persian Gulf. But while the Pentagon worries about managing a fight on multiple fronts, Israeli leaders think they could handle their threat. Barak predicted last week that Israel would suffer fewer than 500 civilian casualties.
The most interesting calculations of all concern U.S-Israeli relations. The rupture of the U.S.-Israeli alliance arguably would be as large a blow to Israel’s security as Iran completing a bomb — and a unilateral attack might just risk that. The Pentagon might suspend what is now close cooperation; in Congress and in public opinion, Israel might be blamed for any U.S. casualties in Iranian counterattacks. I’ve always supposed that there will be no Israeli attack without a green light from Washington.
Israel, however, has a history of ignoring U.S. opinion at moments like this. It struck nuclear reactors in Iraq in 1981 and in Syria in 2007 with no American go-ahead. In both cases, there was no serious damage to relations — and, for that matter, no regional reaction.
Iran, almost certainly, would be a very different case. That’s why most of Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs oppose action. But Netanyahu and Barak seem to be arguing the other side. And, for better or for worse, you can read all about it in the Israeli press.