The local and international airwaves, print media and internet are full of talk about the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear sites, yet all this chatter sheds more heat than light on any potential Israeli plans, and possibly undermines those plans altogether. There are several permutations and possibilities of strike plans, whether by Israel, the US, or a combination of the two, with every option carrying varying degrees of risk or success, and yet most of the talk is directed at deterring Israel from attacking, rather than at preventing the further development of Iran’s nuclear capability.
In no particular order, here are some opinions and assessments from recent days:
What seems like a domestic political power-play may have major implications for Israel’s plans regarding Iran. Former Shin Bet chief and Kadima member Avi Dichter, has now left his place in the Knesset in order to join Netanyahu’s coalition government as Homefront Defense Minister.
After Dichter’s resignation takes effect on Thursday, he will officially be sworn in at the Knesset plenum as homefront defense minister. As Dichter will not have any voting rights in the Knesset he is unlikely to alter the coalition’s standing, but his vote may be crucial in the event that Netanyahu asks the government to approve a military strike on Iran.
Dichter’s past statements suggest he would not object to an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear installations and has recently said Israel should shore up its military capabilities for such a scenario, Army Radio reported Monday.
However, cold water has been poured by the US on any ostensible Israeli plans to attack Iran unilaterally, with the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chiming in with his opinion that Israel alone cannot destroy Iran’s nuclear program.
A possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities may be able to hinder the Islamic Republic’s atom ambitions but it will no destroy its nuclear program, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday.
Dempsey told reporters that “Militarily, my assessment hasn’t changed. And I want to make clear, I’m not privy to their planning. So what I’m telling you is based on what I know of their capabilities. And I may not know about all of their capabilities. But I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.”
In a press briefing held in the pentagon, Dempsey and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta were asked for their opinion of a recent media report suggesting Israel was closer than ever to undertaking a unilateral strike against Iran, and whether they believed such military action would be effective.
Yet with all these dire warnings against Israel acting on its own, the message still coming from the US is that Israel should not rely on it either to come to Israel’s aid in finishing the job on Iran:
The US would not necessarily join in were Israel to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, an unnamed source in the Obama Administration told Israel’s Channel 2 News on Monday.
The US feels a profound commitment to the defense of Israel, and so could be relied upon to protect Israel defensively from the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran, the TV channel quoted the source as saying. But the thrust of the US source’s message to Israel, the TV report said, was “don’t rely on us to finish the job.”
Israeli media has been full of reports in recent days, based on leaks and off-the-record briefings by senior figures, suggesting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are close to deciding on an Israeli attack to thwart Iran — despite opposition from the US, and from current and former domestic security chiefs.
On Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said the US was committed to giving talks with Tehran a chance to bear fruit.
“We continue to believe there is time and space for diplomacy, the opportunity remains for Iran to take advantage of this process,” Carney told reporters, AFP reported.
Carney said he believed talks between the five UN Security Council powers plus Germany, and Iran, should continue.
What do these conflicting and deterring opinions imply for Israel? According to veteran military correspondent Ron Ben Yishai, Israel needs to present its own demands and red lines to the international community about Iran’s nuclear development:
Israel may rule out a unilateral attack in Iran should the US toughen its stance with regards to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program, a senior official in Jerusalem claimed. “The problem is that the Iranians are not identifying determination on the American side. This is why they have been accelerating the pace of their uranium enrichment over the past four months. They are also developing the weapon itself at a fast pace,” the official said.
“The Iranian regime is certain that in any case 2012 will pass peacefully. They assume the US will not attack for fear of soaring oil prices and because of the presidential elections. They do not believe we will attack without a green light from Washington. Therefore, it is in the Americans’ interest to convince the Iranians that the US may attack, not to convince us not to attack.”
First of all, Obama must repeat, publicly (at the UN General Assembly for instance), that the US will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons and that Israel has a right to defend itself, independently. Jerusalem would view such a statement as a virtual commitment by the US to act, militarily if needed, and would likely cause Israel to reconsider the unilateral military option.
Israel is also demanding that Washington inform Iran that if significant progress in the negotiations with the P5+1 group (the permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) is not made within the next two weeks, the talks will be suspended. The reason: As long as the negotiations persist, the Iranians will remain certain that they are immune to an attack or additional drastic economic measures and will continue to buy time in order to enrich uranium to a level of 20%. Israel has also suggested that the US present Iran with an ultimatum: Suspend the efforts to refine uranium to 20% during the negotiations, or we will quit the talks. We won’t negotiate while you advance towards nuclear “breakout” capability.
Israel is also urging the US and the European Union to increase the direct economic pressure on Iran. Government officials in Jerusalem have admitted that the sanctions are very effective, but they claim that the Iranian military nuclear program is advancing faster than the sanctions’ “hourglass.”
Another demand is a noticeable reinforcement of American forces in the Persian Gulf and emphasizing, mainly in the press, Washington’s capabilities to stop Iran’s nuclear program.
Another Israeli demand refers to the so-called “red line” of Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama administration claims that it will strike once intelligence agencies identify a “breakthrough” in the development of nuclear weapons, as defined by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Israel argues that Iran must not be allowed to even come close to achieving nuclear “breakout” capability. Jerusalem further claims that it is not at all certain that the US will be able to identify when Iran reaches the nuclear “breakout” point, or whether it will be able to identify it in time. Perhaps by then Iran’s nuclear facilities will be fortified to the point where a strike would be futile. Therefore, Israel prefers not to wait for incriminating evidence regarding nuclear “breakout” capability. It wants someone to act before Iran reaches this stage.
The problem is that the Israeli-American discourse on the Iranian threat is being conducted in the press, instead of through secret diplomatic channels and direct talks between the most senior officials. It is safe to assume that the reason for this is that both sides wish to take advantage of the influential Jewish vote in the US to leverage their positions. This is not how close allies should be dealing with such a critical matter, regardless of the tense relations between Israel’s leaders and the Obama administration.
Regarding that last point about the discourse being conducted in the press, Dr. Haim Shine (Yisrael Hayom) says that we are all talking our heads off (albeit from a domestic political aspect):
The creative minds of the Left looked for a replacement for the social protest and found it in the form of Iran. Morning, noon and night, in news media and websites, politicians, analysts, and retired Mossad and Israel Security Agency employees have been spreading fear in the hearts of Israelis regarding the potential risks of attacking Iran. All Israelis can do to protect themselves is update their gas masks and seal their doors with duct tape, or buy a ticket to someplace safer.
Never in the history of Israel has there been such reckless public behavior as there is right now. Top secret government issues are spilled all over the newspapers and military abilities are openly being discussed, as Israel’s enemies pounce on the information and accuse Israel of being irresponsible.
I addressed this point myself a few weeks ago. Verbal diarrhoea seems to be a peculiarly Israeli sickness.
Meanwhile Dan Margalit, also in Yisrael Hayom, reassures us that even back in 1948 Israel was warned against going it alone in declaring statehood (and we know how well that warning was received!) and our situation today is potentially more precarious than it was 64 years ago:
The unrestrained and comprehensive debate over launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear program also contains a chapter on historical parallels. A recurrent one is that of Menachem Begin, who over the objections of Israeli military officials and Shimon Peres, wisely ordered the destruction of the Iraqi reactor in 1981. Other comparisons are no less interesting.
On Channel 2 TV, Amnon Abramovich argued against an attack on Iran, saying that David Ben-Gurion would never have initiated such a move without the guaranteed support of a superpower. He was referring to the 1956 Sinai Campaign, and justifiably so. But Abramovich forgot that Ben-Gurion’s biggest decisions were made independently and against the wishes of a friendly superpower, similar to the possible scenario we face in 2012.
In an interview with Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, a senior Israeli official (apparently Defense Minister Ehud Barak) said that the Iranian sword that is currently up against Israel’s neck is sharper than the threat that faced Israel in the period leading up to the Six-Day War in 1967. That sword caused anxiety. But it was nonetheless less sharp than the one in we faced in 1948.
Another American aspect to this story is that in 1957, after the Sinai Campaign, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower promised Ben-Gurion that if Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran, the U.S. would establish an international fleet to break the siege. In 1967, the Americans said that they couldn’t find the document.
“Ladies and gentlemen, history repeats itself, nothing has passed and nothing is forgotten. We remember how under a rain of lead, the Palmach marched in Syria,” wrote Haim Hefer in a song that has been passed down through the generations. Back then in 1941, in Syria, where Dayan lost his eye in battle. The situation today is no less complicated.
And what is the opinion of the regular Israeli man-in-the-street? He’s apparently taking no chances, and demand for gas masks has jumped in recent days:
Public demand for gas masks, rehabbed bomb shelters and other protective measures has risen dramatically as Israelis have become increasingly jittery over a possible Israeli strike on Iran and the ensuing potential retaliation.
Amid numerous speculative reports about the far-reaching implications of such a strike, Israelis are preparing for possible violence by renovating their personal bomb shelters and flocking to pick up gas masks.
Ethan Arkbi, in charge of the distribution of gas masks, told Channel 10 on Tuesday that there had been a “100% increase in the distribution of gas masks,” but that there are only enough gas masks in warehouses for about 60% of the population.
Building engineers are also reporting that they are unable to cope with the influx of requests for building and bomb shelter inspections.
The Israel Defense Forces Home Front Command said a quarter to a third of regional authorities are not prepared to deal with an emergency. Home Front Command sources estimate that the Gush Dan area is better prepared than outlying authorities.
According to the Home Front Command, only 53 percent of the population has gas masks and only 30% of households have a reinforced safety room. A quarter of the population does not have a bomb shelter in their building or even close by.
I’m sure many of us are not going to sleep easy tonight with that unedifying news.