My friend Ronen Bergman has just written a long and detailed article for the New York Times Magazine about the question that is on everyone’s minds: Will Israel attack Iran?
Bergman is an experienced and knowledgeable writer on matters of national security; he is one of Israel’s most well-known journalists and authors (his books are published in Hebrew by Kinneret-Zmora, the publishing house for which I work as the head of the non-fiction department – so readers must be warned: I work with Ronen and can’t be expected to be an unbiased reader of his articles).
At the end of his NYT article he concludes that he has “come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012”, but this is not the matter I’d like to discuss here. I recommend that all readers invest the time and read Bergman’s full article that has much more to offer than one mere conclusion. I want to focus on something Bergman heard from Defense Minister Ehud Barak, which appears at the beginning of the article: The three questions that will determine whether Israel is going to pull the trigger and attempt to violently destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities:
1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project? And can the military and the Israeli people withstand the inevitable counterattack?
2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?
3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?
These are three interesting questions, and I believe that Barak is probably bluffing and that only the first question is the one that’s really crucial for Israel’s decision.
The third question is irrelevant as it is clear that Israel will not attack Iran unless it believes that “all other possibilities” have been “exhausted”. And yes – Israel would be happy to have the support of the US, but when it comes to matters of first-degree national security interests, it has a history of ignoring American advice and American reluctance. I don’t see why Iran will be any different, unless the absence of such American “overt or tacit support” has impact on the first question. Namely, unless the lack of American support makes it impossible for Israel to “cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites”.
As for the first question, one should note that this one question is really two: Can Israel cause severe damage to Iran’s program? and can it withstand Iran’s retaliation? The first question is one on which only the men (for it is mostly men) who have all the necessary operational knowledge can reliably comment. Other observers don’t know what Israel can and can’t do, and have no way of having a serious discussion on the matter. The second question is more complicated, as it involves both operational analysis (related to the part dealing with military preparedness) and a more vague assessment of the future resilience of the Israeli public as it faces the counter-attack.
All in all, if one believes that Iran is an existential threat to Israel - as Prime Minister Netanyahu seems to believe - it is hard to envision a question, other than on the operational question of feasibility, that would have much impact on the ultimate decision. If Israel can do it - and all other means to stop Iran have failed - it will probably do it. Unless one believes that Israel’s leadership is also bluffing when it discusses the magnitude of the threat.