Israel, the complex political and strategic debate on the Iranian threat
Antonella Vicini 12 February 2013

These are statements that are reigniting the debate in Israel on the Iranian nuclear threat. It is a debate that is not letting up and has revealed various approaches by the Israeli leadership on the issue. According to Ely Karmon, an analyst, a geopolitical and anti-terrorism expert and Haaretz columnist, who came to Rome for a meeting on U.S.-Iran-Israel relations, the dispute at the heart of the Israeli political, military and intelligence establishment boils down to not so much if Israel will accept a nuclear Iran, as much as who will act should sanctions and diplomatic pressures fail? The United States? The international community, or just Israel? And “when and under what circumstance will an attack be decided upon?”

Karmon identifies three factors; a decision by Iran’s Supreme Guide to build nuclear weapons; an evaluation by Israeli intelligence that Iran has reached the so-called “zone of immunity”; consideration that the U.S. will not attack Iranian nuclear facilities.

These are possible scenarios indicating that Israeli action is not improbable. Why? Because Israel feels much less secure regardless of Iran’s real or potential military capacity, says Karmon. It is an insecurity that has been felt since 2006 during the war against Lebanon, and specifically against Hezbollah, and later against the Gaza Strip and including its most recent Operation Pillar of Clouds. To these one must add a changing local scenario which has caused Israel to lose privileged relations with some Arab countries, and nuclear proliferation that has not only involved Iran. Karmon refers to a possible alliance between Cairo and Tehran, the seeds of which have been sown these past few days, thanks to Ahmadinejad’s visit to Egypt that has broken a 34-year interruption in relations. In Israel, however, the positions on an attack are not so unanimous.

Netanyahu’s Red Line

Everyone can still remember the rather picturesque images of Prime Minister Netanyahu at the United Nations explaining that the Islamic Republic was about to cross the “Red Line.” Netanyahu has make Tehran’s nuclear issue a central point in his international agenda and, according to Karmon, “has been able to effectively press the bitterness of sanctions.” Karmon continued, “The facts testify to serious preparation by the Israeli leadership for a potential attack.”

Ehud Olmert accused Netanyahu of having spent “$3 billion on a war that has not taken place and will not happen.” In 2010 there was talk of an “alert P plus” that usually precedes an attack ordered by the prime minister and by the then Defence Minister Ehud Barak, but was opposed by General Ashkenazi, head of the Israeli Defence Force and Meir Dagan, head of Mossad. These facts emerged from an investigation by the Israeli press that was published at the end of last year. The intentions of the newly re-elected prime minister were repeated at the beginning of this year during the election campaign as he spoke of his cabinet’s commitment against the “Iranian threat.” He repeated it during a visit to Jerusalem in January by a delegation of United States senators, including John McCain, when he said “History will not forgive those who do no stop Iran’s nuclear program.”

The “immunity zone” and the moment of truth

Giving substance to the possibility that “Israel could defy the United States and attack Iran by itself,” said Karmon, was a speech by Barak in which he spoke of an “immunity zone” for the Iranian facilities, in which they are fortified and placed underground, thus making them immune to enemy air attack. According to part of the Israeli establishment, time is on the enemy’s side. In October of last year, the Israeli defence minister avoided an immediate crisis, putting off reaction time, defining the “moment of truth” as being between eight to ten months away, thus between June and August, coinciding with elections in Iran. A month later, on November 29, during a press conference at the Pentagon, he said, “you cannot build a strategy based on wishes or prayers. Sanctions are working […] but I don’t believe that these kinds of sanctions will bring the ayatollahs to a moment of truth, where they sit around a table.” According to Barak, Tehran must be “forced” to abandon its nuclear programme and “[an attack] should remain on the table and never be removed.”

Hawks and Doves

But if Netanyahu and Barak can be fully considered as hawks, President Shimon Peres has chosen the path of international diplomacy and, in his opinion, Israel cannot solve this problem by itself. According to Karmon, this internal conflict is one of the reasons why an attack against Iran’s nuclear sites has not yet taken place. The attack has also not taken place because having called the United States into question; one cannot disregard what Peres calls an “American pattern.”

“America knows how to throw a punch when it has to, in order to keep the world balanced. But the punches follow a set procedure. They don’t begin by shooting. They try all the other means first — economic sanctions, political pressure, negotiations, everything possible. But in the end, if none of this works, then President Obama will use military power against Iran. I am sure of it.” (NYTimes).

Even more cautiously, Dagan, the former head of Mossad, describes an even more complex reality, in which the alternative is not just “bomb or be bombed.” The strategy of containment, according to Dagan, cannot work for Iran (which is not the USSR during the Cold War) and the problem is not the progress made towards nuclear capability, which is slow and measured. The fundamental question is whether Israeli military action would accelerate Iranian plans, legitimize a response and, additionally, unite the people around the regime. Dagan’s question is, what would happen the day after?

This is a question that the former head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin, Netanyahu and Barak have not asked themselves since they “acted on messianic impulses and aroused public opinion to the Iranian threat.”

Translated by Francesca Simmons



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