To bomb or not to bomb? The debate dividing Israeli security chiefs.
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IN 2009, When Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister, he made a solemn promise: Iran would not become a nuclear power on his watch.
Preventing the radical Shi’ite regime in Tehran from producing nuclear weapons is, he says, “the central mission of our times.”
In his view, a bomb in the hands of fundamentalists calling for Israel’s destruction raises the specter of a second Holocaust.
Even if the Iranians don’t use the bomb, he fears the very fact that they have it could lead to a mass exodus of Jews from an Israel under nuclear threat, weakening the state and compromising the Zionist dream. He sees his prime historic role as preventing any of this from happening. The difference between the Nazi times and now, he says, is that if the world does not stop Iran, Israel will.
The agonizing dilemma over how to stop the Ayatollahs has led to deep tensions between Israel and the United States. It has also sparked fierce public debate in Israel among political and military leaders, past and present, dividing cabinet ministers, generals and Mossad chiefs. Most see military action as a last resort to be contemplated only if sanctions and diplomacy fail; others insist that bombing Iran could actually stabilize the Middle East by setting back the radical cause indefinitely.
Although he too is committed to stopping the Iranians, US President Barack Obama does not see the prospect of a nuclear Iran in the same apocalyptic terms as Netanyahu does. True, a nuclear Iran would hurt vital American interests in the Middle East, but Iran is a long way from American shores.
Some leading strategists in Washington argue that the American super-power could easily tolerate a balance of fear with Iran the way it did with the much more powerful USSR.
After painful, protracted campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US seems to have little stomach for another military imbroglio.
Plans to cut the US defense budget by a huge $450 billion over the next ten years could also be a factor if and when Obama comes to consider military action.
Jerusalem’s concerns All of this preys on the minds of decisionmakers in Jerusalem.
In the short-term, Obama does not want to be sucked into a war that could send oil and gas prices soaring and snarl America’s fragile economic recovery before the presidential election in November. He fears that if Israel strikes Iran, the US could be dragged in to finish the job. Moreover, it would inevitably trigger large-scale Iranian retaliation against American targets in the Middle East and beyond, further hurting his reelection prospects.
In a major address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, AI PAC, in Washington in early March, Obama tried to allay Israeli concerns, insisting that for him containment of a nuclear Iran was not an option.
“I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. And as I have made clear time and again during the course of my presidency, I will not hesitate to use force when it is necessary to defend the United States and its interests,” he declared.
Nevertheless, there remains a huge disparity between Israel and the US on the time frame for military action. Defense Minister Ehud Barak says Iran must not be allowed to reach “breakout point” with enough nuclear material and equipment stored underground to make a bomb or, as he puts it, to enter a “zone of immunity” in which it cannot be stopped even by force. He says there is less than a year left to act.
The American position is that military action should not be taken until and unless Iran actually decides to build a bomb, and that the Iranian leadership, while keeping the nuclear option open, has yet to take a final decision.
“There is dissension and debate in the political hierarchy,” US National Intelligence Director James Clapper told the Senate Intelligence Committee in late January.
The Americans believe the need for military action is still at least two or three years away. According to US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, it would take the Iranians about a year to build a nuclear device once a decision is taken, and another year or two to adapt it to a delivery system.
There is also a mutual credibility gap. The Americans fear Israel may take precipitate, destabilizing, military action; the Israelis worry that if they wait the Americans might not come through for them in time. “The US has promised not to allow Iran to have the bomb, but can Israel rely on this promise? That is the key to what Israel may decide to do,” Amos Yadlin, former head of military intelligence, now Director of the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, observed at an INSS conference in mid-February.
The early March summit between Obama and Netanyahu in Washington was called to craft a more coordinated strategy: Obama wants a commitment from Israel not to attack until after the current round of sanctions and diplomacy have been given a fair chance. Netanyahu wants a commitment from the US to use force if sanctions and diplomacy fail.
Netanyahu’s cruel choice Netanyahu faces one of the most difficult choices any Israeli prime minister has had to contemplate. A strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could lead to regional conflagration, tens of thousands of missiles and rockets raining down on Israeli population centers and war on several fronts. But with no attack, Iran could go nuclear on his watch.
Does Israel really have an effective military option? Does the air force have the capacity to inflict significant damage on Iranian nuclear facilities spread across a huge country, protected in deep underground bunkers? If such a strike merely delays Iranian nuclear plans, would it be worth it? And is Israel prepared for massive Iranian retaliation? In late February, Pentagon analysts quoted in “The New York Times” challenged Israel’s capacity to mount a successful operation.
They pointed out the huge distances the attacking planes would have to fly across hostile territory, the multiple sites they would have to target and the thick concrete bunkers they would have to penetrate. And they questioned whether the 2.5-ton GBU- 28 bunker-buster bombs Israel has would be heavy enough to do the job.
Israeli military thinkers acknowledge the objective difficulties but argue that, with the out-of-the-box improvisation and planning the Israel Air Force is renowned for, they can be surmounted. Former IA F commander Eitan Ben-Eliyahu flew as a fighter escort in the 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak, and, later as air force chief until 2000, began building the IA F’s long “strategic” arm with Iran in mind.
“I have no quarrel with the account in ‘The New York Times,’ but you can introduce dozens of improvisations and creative ideas and get much more out of the basic conditions than would seem possible at face value,” he tells The Report. “On the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, no one thought the IA F would be able to achieve what it did. And anyone who opened a map and took out a pencil and a ruler would have seen how difficult it was to carry out the attack on the Iraqi reactor.”
In Ben-Eliyahu’s view, the ultimate success of any military operation in Iran – no matter who carries it out – will depend to a large extent on the follow-up diplomatic activity.
“At some point you get international players intervening: the UN, the Security Council, the Quartet and so on. And it is very important to coordinate all of this at a very early stage,” he maintains.
In late February, Yadlin spelled out what Ben-Eliyahu and others in the Israeli military establishment have in mind. Writing in “The New York Times,” he argued that if the international community imposed severe restrictions on Iran after an attack, it could keep it from going nuclear indefinitely.
“After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed. This could be the outcome in Iran too, if military action is followed by tough sanctions, stricter international inspections and an embargo on the sale of nuclear components to Tehran. Iran, like Iraq and Syria before it, will have to recognize that the precedent for military action has been set, and can be repeated,” he wrote.
Bottom line: A military attack that would defang Iran could, in the longer term, actually stabilize the Middle East, he insisted.
The naysayers Not all Israeli strategic thinkers are as optimistic.
Three men once most closely involved in Israeli efforts to stop Iran – former Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan (2002-2011), Efraim Halevy (1998-2002) and Danny Yatom (1996-1998) – all see a lone Israeli military attack as a last resort, to be avoided if at all possible.
Speaking at the Hebrew University last May, Dagan famously derided an Israeli strike as “a stupid idea” – it might not achieve its goals, it could lead to a long war, and worse, it could give Iranian leaders justification to build a nuclear weapon. They would be able to argue that they had had no intention of going nuclear, but since they had been attacked by a presumed nuclear power, they had to build an appropriate response.
Indeed, in Dagan’s view, precipitate Israeli action could break up the current anti- Iranian consensus, leading to less pressure on Tehran, not more. Dagan holds that there is still time: last year he estimated that Iran would not have a nuclear weapon before 2015. Although he has never spelled it out, his approach seems to be based on sabotage operations – like explosions in nuclear plants, clandestine insertion of faulty equipment, spreading computer viruses and assassination of nuclear scientists – to delay the Iranian nuclear program, while helping to build a broad USled international coalition to stop Iran by sanctions, if possible, and by force, if necessary.
Israel should do all it can to avoid taking a military lead.
Yatom insists that a nuclear Iran is intolerable not only for Israel, but for the entire world order. He too believes that if it comes to military action, it should best be led by the US. But he is adamant that if the international community fails to nullify the Iranian threat, Israel will have no choice but to take military action on its own. “I believe what Obama, Panetta, Clinton and Dempsey have said: The US will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. But if they fail to keep their word – Israel will be fully entitled to exercise its right of self defense,” he tells The Report.
Yatom argues that as steep as the price for hitting Iran may be, it will be less painful than living with an Iranian nuclear threat.
If Israel attacks, he anticipates that Hizballah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza will join the Iranians in firing rockets and missiles at Israeli population centers, but warns that Israel’s response will be of a different order from anything seen in the past.
“Civilian facilities and infrastructure will have to be hit. Innocent civilians may be hurt. But we will have to deliver a crushing blow so that the barrage of rockets against us will stop,” he declared at a conference at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies last November.
Halevy says Israel should recognize that it is a regional power and act like one. He says the country is too strong to be destroyed and the Israeli people should not have existential fears about Iran or anything else.
Domestically, the Israeli leadership should be instilling confidence and, on the international stage, acting from a position of strength. That means refraining from attacking Iran until all other options have been truly exhausted. A premature Israeli strike against Iran could have adverse regional repercussions that could last for decades, he warns.
On the contrary, Israel’s strategy should be to work with its allies to convince the Iranian regime to change course without force coming into play. In Halevy’s view, this is achievable since the Iranian regime is dedicated primarily to its own survival and will likely back down if it feels threatened by even more crippling sanctions. Israel should be using its international connections to ratchet up pressure on the Iranian regime, while preparing a military option if, and only if, all else fails.
Paraphrasing the great Chinese military thinker Sun Tzu, Halevy tells The Report: “If we can win the battle with Iran without firing a single shot, that will be the greatest victory.”
Balance of destruction If it comes to a shooting war, Israel will face an estimated 200,000 rockets and missiles in enemy hands in Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza. According to Military Intelligence Chief Aviv Kochavi, most have a range of up to 40 kilometers (25 miles), and there are a few thousand with ranges of between 100 and 1,300 kilometers (60-800 miles). All of northern and central Israel is within range of Lebanon, Syria and Iran while rockets from Gaza threaten most of the south.
Israel’s active missile defense systems – the Arrow, Patriot and Iron Dome (Magic Wand/David’s Sling will only be operative in 2013) – will be severely tested. Besides the difficulty of dealing with multiple missile attacks, active defense is also extremely expensive. Each Arrow missile costs around $2.7 million and each Iron Dome projectile around $80,000.
Israel’s likely response will be to hit back harder and more extensively than in any previous campaign – no easy task when fighting simultaneously on several fronts.
Yet although large numbers of enemy missiles and rockets can be expected to get through, preparations on the Home Front are far from satisfactory.
A quarter of the population do not have ready access to bomb shelters. An estimated $256 million is needed to produce gas masks for the 40 percent of Israelis who do not have them. “Although the government set up a special ministry to deal with the Home Front, it did not give it budgets or authority,” Zeev Bielski, chairman of a parliamentary subcommittee for monitoring emergency readiness, tells The Report. “The Home Front,” he says, “is being criminally neglected.” •