Israeli politicians have suggested for years that they might attack Iran, but, lately, they seem to be dropping more hints than usual. At the beginning of June, Israel's deputy prime minister, Shaul Mofaz, flatly told the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth that, if Iran continues its nuclear program, Israel "will attack it." Mofaz's comments struck many observers as more political than substantial--one of the things an ambitious Israeli leader does to bolster his odds of becoming the next prime minister. But the current prime minister, Ehud Olmert, was also fairly blunt when he spoke in Washington around the same time: "Israel," he said, "will not tolerate the possibility of a nuclear Iran." And, this week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak sounded a similarly tough note on the Iranian question. While saying that "the focus now is sanctions and diplomatic action," he added that "Israel is the strongest country in the region, and it has proven in the past that it is not afraid to act when its vital interests are threatened." Meanwhile, last month, the Israeli air force conducted a substantial military exercise in the Mediterranean, one that looked suspiciously like a dry run for an attack on Iran. No wonder many are convinced that the Israelis are seriously considering an attack--among them, anonymous American "defense officials," whom ABC News recently paraphrased as warning of a "possibility that Israel may attack Iran's nuclear facilities within the year."
What has apparently persuaded so many Israeli politicians that an attack on Iran might be the only available course of action? There are a number of factors; but one of them, oddly enough, may be a faith in the power of diplomacy.
Today, Israelis are convinced that the world is preparing to live with a nuclear Iran. Everyone, from the prime minister on down, agrees that Iran has not been made to feel the bite of real sanctions--at least not to an extent that would change its behavior. The U.S. National Intelligence Estimate published late last year--which argued that Iran had suspended its nuclear program--was widely dismissed in Israel as evidence that the U.S. defense establishment was now inclined to turn the other way as Iran pursued its nuclear ambitions. More recently, Israelis listened carefully to the words of President Bush on his June European tour when he said that he expected to "leave behind a multilateral framework to work on this issue." Bush used a similar formulation six weeks ago when I interviewed him in the Oval Office. Asked what can be achieved on the Iranian front before he leaves office, the president said, "I think what definitely will be done is a structure on how to deal with this ... a framework to make sure other countries are involved."
Israelis hear "framework" and run to their shelters. Faced with an existential threat, they need prevention, not a framework. Moreover, as the world learned in 1981 when Israel's attack on Osirak (the Iraqi nuclear reactor) generated howls of disapproval from the Reagan administration, Israel does not always abide by an American desire for restraint.
The lesson of 1981 is relevant for another reason: While that attack is seen in Israel as an unqualified success, there is evidence that it convinced Saddam Hussein to redouble his efforts to build nuclear weapons. That is why, in a new paper about the possible consequences of an attack on Iran, Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy treat the bombing of Osirak more critically. The point they are making is simple: Postponing Iran's achievements might not be enough. The most important measure of success for any military strike is "whether or not Iran decides to rebuild." And this will be determined not by the results of the military act alone, but by what comes after the attack--the regional power struggle, the reaction of the international community, and perhaps even the talks that could lead to eventual compromise.
If that is the case--if the follow-up will determine the outcome more than the level of destruction that a strike can achieve--then Israel might not feel so constrained by the relative size of its air force (compared with America's) and the relative complexity of the target (compared with Osirak). According to this line of thinking, which has adherents among some high-ranking officials and former officials in the Israeli defense establishment, focusing on the tactical questions surrounding such an operation--how much of Iran's nuclear program can Israel destroy? how many years can a bombing campaign set the program back?--is a mistake. The main goal of a hit would not be to destroy the program completely, but rather to awaken the international community from its slumber and force it to finally engineer a solution to the crisis. As one former Israeli official put it, any attack on Iran's reactors--as long as it is not perceived as a military failure--can serve as a means of "stirring the pot" of international geopolitics. Israel, in other words, wouldn't be resorting to military action because it is convinced that diplomacy by the international community cannot stop Iran; it would be resorting to military action because only diplomacy by the international community can stop Iran.
Very few Israeli officials will discuss the matter in detail, but some are willing to explain the basic logic behind this thinking. (For most of them, it is one reason among many why they think an attack could be a good idea.) Bombing Iran would be "one way to reverse the trend of inaction," says a knowledgeable Israeli official, "and, as time goes by without anyone else willing to force the international community into meaningful action, Israel will have to consider if it's willing to take the risk and do it."
If the goal of an Israeli attack would be to get the world's attention, that probably won't be hard to achieve. Consider that, the day of Mofaz's explosive comments on Iran, gas prices around the world soared. And, two weeks later, when news broke that Israel had staged a large-scale military operation that looked like a dress rehearsal for an attack on Iran, gas prices went up again. If mere words were cause for such anxiety in the gas markets, imagine what an actual Israeli attack, even one limited in scope, will do.
As one former Israeli defense official admits, bombing Iran merely to get the world's attention carries serious risks. It will probably result in Iranian retaliation, and a costly one for that matter. Meanwhile, the former official predicts, many world leaders will be furious and will "look for ways to punish Israel for its deeds."
But, as far as Israel is concerned, it is running out of time--and options--to stop Iran from getting the bomb. And letting Iran acquire nuclear capability would, at this point, be a double disaster for Israel. Not only would Iran have a new and terrible weapon, but Israel's pledges to stop the country from going nuclear would have been proven hollow. This could embolden the Iranians even more. Thus, the more Israel pledges to stop Iran, the more it becomes necessary to deliver. And, if the rest of the world won't do its part, then "stirring the pot"--however imperfect a strategy--may increasingly strike Israeli leaders as their least bad move.
Shmuel Rosner is chief U.S. correspondent for Haaretz. He blogs daily at www.rosnersdomain.com.