September 21, 2012

For months, Israel has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear sites. The United States has urged restraint. If such an operation were launched, how might Tel Aviv react?

“Our pilots,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaims on the Channel 2 TV news, “carried out their difficult and dangerous task for the sake of the state of Israel. They have struck several Iranian nuclear facilities and have returned safely.”

For months, Israeli officials had been debating whether a strike would be worth the risk. I’m relieved they have finally acted, but I worry: What if the reactors and other nuclear facilities, which are scattered throughout Iran, some buried deep underground, aren’t entirely destroyed?

Outside my house in Tel Aviv, the early-morning stillness has been pierced by the sound of explosions; sirens lag behind the shrieks of incoming missiles. Military vehicles, loudspeakers mounted on their roofs, roll through the streets, announcing passwords that call up reserve soldiers — Israeli men and women who’ve completed their mandatory military service — joined by some volunteers. The soldiers hurry out of their homes, buttoning their uniforms and scattering to bases and missions across the country. The massacres of Jews and the piles of ash left by the Nazis are part of our collective memory. So we take responsibility for our own defense — of a land that is both a haven and a self-imposed ghetto for the Jewish people.

My husband, a volunteer beyond the age of his mandatory reserve duty, is called up to defend the home front. In the past, the Israel Defense Forces’ preference for male over female reservists bothered me, but this time I am happy to stay home.


(Jeffrey Alan Love for The Washington Post)

After the Holocaust, we said “Never again,” and we meant it. The world must understand that when the Jewish people are threatened, it is the first sign of a threat to international order and world peace.

I bring my mother, who lives nearby, over to the house so she won’t be alone. Her 72-year-old face is lined from age and decades of worry and war. “They will never leave us alone,” she mutters. “Your father was in Iran for two years when he fled Iraq on his way to Israel. It was different then; the Iranians loved us. Why did everything change?”

Together, with my three children, we go to our safe room. Almost every house in Israel has a room like this: a bomb shelter with thick, concrete walls, stocked with food and water, a radio, TV, and Internet, sometimes in the basement, but often a spare room used as a bedroom.

Analysts on the news repeat what we instinctively fear — that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is probably hovering over a map of Israel in his headquarters, pointing at targets to hit. A TV announcer reports missiles falling on Tel Aviv, launched from the Gaza Strip by Hamas militants. The Iranian-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad has hit civilian targets in the south in the Negev Desert. And Hezbollah, another Iran proxy, aims missiles from Lebanon toward the port city of Haifa in the north.

The mood and events remind me of 1973, but I was a child back then and didn’t really grasp the gravity of the early days of the Yom Kippur War. In all of Israel’s many wars, the people have put aside the arguments that divided them politically and united to fight those who wished to destroy the Jewish state. Nothing is left from the disputes between politicians and former generals from the security forces; once the decision has been made, there is no argument about whether it was a good or bad move.

Netanyahu, with Defense Minister Ehud Barak by his side, says he ordered this mission to protect the state of Israel. He echoes comments he’d made earlier, saying that because the United States hadn’t set a “red line” for Iran’s uranium enrichment and larger nuclear program, Israel had to act.

And despite the fact that Meir Dagan, a former chief of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency, and Gabi Ashkenazi, a former chief of staff of the IDF, opposed such a strike, today they say Netanyahu and Barak made the right decision. Once again, when Israel is thrust into conflict, past political division melts into survival-minded solidarity.

I try to think positively. After all, when Israel has destroyed nuclear reactors in the past — Iraq’s in 1981 and, according to foreign sources, Syria’s in 2007 — missiles have been launched at us in retaliation, and history has proved that we did the right thing. Of course, there is a world of difference between the single Iraqi reactor and the Iranian nuclear facilities dispersed throughout the country — and between the secular dictators Saddam Hussein and Bashar al-Assad and the mullahs who govern the Islamic republic of Iran.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad have an apocalyptic religious vision: They are doing everything they can to hasten the arrival of the Mahdi, the Islamic messianic figure who will come to save the Muslim world just before Judgment Day. On that day, it is believed that the world’s natural order will reverse — the oceans will dry up, and the sun will rise in the west and set in the east.

A nuclear Iran is not just Israel’s problem. The Sunni gulf monarchs have been trying to convince the Obama administration since 2009 that a nuclear Shiite Iran would be a mortal threat to their governments. And of course, equipped with weapons of mass destruction, Iran would be able to ramp up its funding for and training of Islamic terrorists, presenting a grave danger to the region’s political stability — and its massive oil and natural gas reserves — and to the world at large.

Syrian President Assad sees this new conflict as an opportunity to deflect attention from his country’s civil war. Following Jordan’s and Egypt’s lead, he moves what is left of his troops close to the Israeli border. Israeli Arabs prepare to flee, knowing that the missiles will not distinguish between Muslims and Jews.

The media loop reports that some Israeli infrastructure and military facilities have been destroyed by missile attacks. Bodies are buried under the rubble, but there are no estimates of the number of dead and injured. Israel continues to strike back at Iran, targeting its proxies. I wonder: Will Israel use its ultimate weapons in response?

Israel has clearly hindered Iran’s nuclear program, though the severity of the damage is uncertain. But Israelis know that, like the phoenix, Iran will try to rise again and rebuild its nuclear program. It will emerge more determined and vengeful than before. It will no longer be satisfied to have its proxies attack Israel; it will launch an all-out war, targeting the arrogant Sunni gulf states and the West in addition to the Jewish state.

However, as the sun sets over Tel Aviv in the west and the water still laps at the shore, the Mahdi has not arrived.

outlook@washpost.com

Anat Berko, a visiting professor at George Washington University and a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Israel, is the author of “The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers.”

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