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Israeli domestic debate on war with Iran

MCT FORUM, By Chen Kane

The recent debate in Israel about the urgency of Iran’s nuclear threat and the wisdom of an Israeli military attack to counter it are historically unprecedented. While the debate among Israel’s leadership about action against Iran has gone on for years, until recently, the public and media have been shielded from the content of debate. The curtain has been increasingly drawn back since January 2011 when the outgoing head of Israel’s Mossad, Meir Dagan, called an Israeli military action “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” Nearly a year later we are now witnessing a full blown public debate.

The debate about a military strike on Iran involves five fundamental issues. How urgent is a military attack? How effective could such an operation be? What are the consequences of a nuclear armed-Iran if all counter-measures fail? What are the regional consequences of a military action? How closely should Israel coordinate with the United States?

URGENCY OF AN ATTACK: Those that hold that the window of opportunity for military action is closing cite a November report by the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency, the international community’s nuclear watchdog.

The IAEA report concluded that despite denials, Iran is working on the building blocks for making nuclear weapons. Iran also declared it is moving its centrifuge enrichment program to the holy city of Qom. Qom, located on a military base in a mountain, is a highly defensible location in Iran, a key to the calculus of those who concluded that the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. The location of the underground facility will further complicate any Israeli military operation and decrease the likelihood of how effective an attack could seriously damaging the nuclear site. Israeli President Shimon Peres offered his assessment that “the possibility of a military attack against Iran is now closer to being applied than the application of a diplomatic option.”

On the other side, those who reject the urgency of military attack believe that it is better to use diplomatic negotiations, covert operations, intercepting the import of key components to Iran, and pushing for harsher sanctions to delay Iran’s program.

EFFECTIVENESS OF AN ATTACK: Both those in Israel that support and oppose military action believe that an attack would be very complicated, and that it may not stop Iran’s nuclear program. At best, many believe an attack can only slow down Iran’s program, but could not stop it. Nevertheless, those who support military action believe that even just delaying the program a few years may allow time for Iran’s regime to change. They hope that a new regime might be willing to give-up the weapons program or be more amendable to a negotiated agreement with Israel and others, and honor it.

Those who oppose military action are concerned about the complexity of such an attack. It is said Israel (and others) do not know the location of all the targets in Iran. The potential target sites are well dispersed across Iran, with several located in urban civilian populations. The presence of American forces in the gulf threatens possible Iranian retaliation against them. They also believe that even a new Iranian regime will likely want to keep the nuclear program, and would keep their option to develop nuclear weapons open. They are concerned that a war will rally the Iranian people around the regime and the nuclear program, and may even push Iran to withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and openly pursue nuclear weapons.

CONSEQUENCES OF A NUCLEAR ARMED-IRAN: This aspect of the debate relates to whether a nuclear-armed Iran would constitute a threat to the existence of Israel or just an added danger. Those who believe a nuclear armed-Iran constitutes “existential threat” to Israel cite Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatening statements about Israel’s existence and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denial that the Holocaust ever occurred. Further, Tehran has developed the Shahab-3 missile with a range of more than 900 miles, making it capable of reaching every Israeli city if it so chose. Within this camp, many question the assumption that deterrence or containment against Iran will work the same way as it did between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War or even as well as it has more recently between Pakistan and India.

On the other hand stand those who acknowledge that nuclear armed-Iran will dramatically change the rules of the game in the Middle East but do not believe Iran will use its nuclear weapons against Israel.

REGIONAL CONSEQUENCES OF AN ATTACK: Those that oppose an attack emphasize that Iranian retaliation could make any strike a Pyrrhic victory.

Iran could strike against Israel directly or indirectly using its proxies, Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon. Also, they worry that war with Iran could bring possible attacks on American troops or oil shipping in the Gulf, damaging U.S.-Israel relations for the long-run. They also worry that an attack might irreparably derail the possibility of any future peace agreement between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

On the other hand, Defense Minister Ehud Barak dismissed these catastrophic assessments, saying, “If there is no alternative, and in certain stages there will be no choice, and Israel will have to protect its vital interests, then there will also be missiles on the home front. But we are preparing for this, and there’s no real danger either to Israel’s existence or to its ability to withstand (attacks).”

U.S. INVOLVEMENT: Among Israeli decision-makers and the government-military bureaucracy, many if not most believe the United States already perceives a nuclear-armed Iran as a fait accompli. In the past, Israeli pressure on the U.S. and European states to aggressively pursue a diplomatic solution and sanctions has worked.

This has proven to be especially true when accompanied by a credible Israeli commitment to act alone militarily. When efforts at diplomacy with Iran failed and it became clear that President Barrack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had developed a strong dislike and mistrust of each other, Netanyahu sought to bolster the possibility of a unilateral military attack. This was a precaution in case the diplomatic and sanctions tracks failed and Israel was left alone with one dilemma, “the Iranian bomb or to bomb Iran.”

Those who oppose military action hold that Netanyahu should spend much more effort and time trying to convince Obama that only the United States is capable of neutralizing the Iranian threat. They also believe that Israel should continue to rely and pressure the West to carry out economic and political pressure on Iran and that Israel should not take action without full coordination with her closest ally, the United States.

What could tip the Israeli domestic debate is an honest Israeli-U.S. strategic dialogue on what exactly the threat is that Iran poses and how best to address it together. To develop a coherent, effective and enduring strategy for preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the United States and Israel will have to agree on what is the threat they are seeking to prevent, and then, and only then, what strategy should be pursued accordingly. A serious coordination effort will require frank discussion on contrasting threat perceptions and prioritizing them, discussing domestic political considerations in the U.S. and Israel, developing the true likely scenarios and risks incumbent to the various courses of joint action, and straight-forwardly setting out just what Israel and the U.S. are really trying to prevent.

In the absence of such a genuine joint effort by the United States and Israel, the Israeli leadership will conclude that the current haphazard tactics by the international community are insufficient and destined for failure. At that point, Israel’s leadership may well conclude that only they can prevent a nuclear-armed Iran, and resort to war.

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