- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
I recently returned from a trip to Israel. I met with a handful of very senior foreign policy and defense officials, but did not speak with any member of the "Forum of Eight" — Israel’s security cabinet that is responsible for key decisions concerning war and peace. With that important caveat, I thought I’d share several random impressions:
First, Israelis realize full well that they’re in the middle of a geo-political hurricane. The pillars that have anchored their national security strategy for a generation are being washed away, swamped by a rising tide of Islamism. The Egypt of Sadat, Mubarak and Camp David is no more. Jordan, Israel’s other critical peace partner, is under enormous strain. The once vibrant military relationship with Turkey has withered. Syria is awash in blood, raising the specter of loose WMD, a jihadist safe haven, and generalized chaos on what for nearly four decades (despite the Assad regime’s enduring hostility) has been Israel’s quietist front. All this, of course, on top of the pre-existing threat of Hezbollah in Lebanon with 50,000 rockets and missiles in its arsenal, and patrons in Tehran hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons with which to terrorize the Middle East in service to their particularly virulent brand of anti-Zionism.
Second, while deeply concerned with the turmoil that surrounds them, Israeli officials exude a degree of quiet confidence that they can weather this storm. I detected no sense of panic, but rather a steely-eyed determination to do what was necessary to secure Israel’s core interests. Given the degree of uncertainty inherent in the current regional upheavals, it would be an exaggeration to say that Israelis are yet at the point of developing any new grand strategy. But one can discern some basic principles that have emerged to help navigate the turbulence that will continue to roil the region for the foreseeable future. Three in particular stand out:
1. Be ready, militarily, to respond to and contain sudden crises on very short notice. The triggers for conflict have multiplied exponentially and could come from any direction, at any time — a terrorist attack from a newly-lawless Sinai (as witnessed just this past weekend); chemical weapons in Syria; a Hezbollah-manufactured clash in the north; or large-scale instability that threatens Jordan’s monarchy. The possibilities are endless. Adding to the challenge: The fact that the region’s sweeping political changes (untested leaders, haphazard decision-making structures, populist pressures, etc.) increase the risk that a relatively minor incident could escalate rapidly and in unexpected ways.
2. Unless directly threatened, exercise enormous caution in approaching the volatility on Israel’s borders. Now is not the time for rash moves. Rather, it’s a time to watch, analyze, and gather intelligence; to prioritize challenges and husband national resources, to avoid diverting energies by being drawn unnecessarily into the vortex of the Arab revolutions. Indeed, I found Israeli officials extraordinarily humble when assessing their ability to influence the historic drama now playing out across their neighborhood.
3. Do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear military capability. Amidst all the sturm und drang created by what many believe is the unraveling of the Middle East’s post-World War I order, Israeli officials have maintained a laser-like focus on the Iranian nuclear threat. Stop the mullahs from fulfilling their atomic ambitions, Israeli officials opine, and the chances of coming out the other side of the Arab Awakening in relatively positive fashion increase dramatically. Fail to do so, however, and the dark shadow of expanding radicalism, nuclear proliferation, and violent instability will quickly descend upon the region, posing an unprecedented — and unacceptable — threat not only to Israel’s survival, but to vital U.S. interests as well.
Third, Israeli officials have lost almost all faith that the current American strategy of negotiations combined with escalating economic pressure can succeed in compelling Iran to back down. They are at pains to stress how much they value the Obama administration’s strong support for Israel’s security needs, as well as the excellent lines of communication they have established at the administration’s highest levels. They are also deeply appreciative of the recent, albeit belated, U.S. and European efforts to impose crippling sanctions on Iran’s economy. But at this late date, Israeli officials suggest, coercive diplomacy’s only chance of succeeding is if it is rapidly coupled with the credible threat of an overwhelming and imminent American attack. At present, they despair, no such threat exists and the Obama administration appears unwilling, or incapable, of generating one. Worst of all, the Iranians know it. So long as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei remains convinced that President Obama has neither the will nor the intention of destroying his nuclear program by force, negotiations are doomed to fail — leaving Israel and/or the U.S. with no option but war to retard Iran’s dash to the bomb.
Fourth, with rare exception, the Israelis I spoke with have little to no confidence that President Obama will act in a timely manner to stop Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability. "Politically, Obama has a policy of prevention," one official told me, "but substantively, he’s headed toward containment." Israelis pointedly note that Obama has backed away from any commitment to stop Iran from gaining the capability to produce nuclear weapons. Instead, the president now only speaks of stopping Iran from assembling an actual bomb. "He’s prepared to let them get one turn of the screwdriver away," several Israelis remarked. "We’re not."
To Israeli minds, a genuine U.S. commitment to prevention would be undergirded by a single-minded campaign to convince Iran’s leaders that a massive military onslaught was inevitable if they did not relent in short order. They also believe that the president and other top U.S. officials would be speaking far more frequently to the American people about the threat to vital U.S. interests that a nuclear Iran poses. Instead, Israeli officials point out, what Tehran has been treated to is an unending display of American hand-wringing over the possible use of force, epitomized by a series of very public warnings against any Israeli military action, and constant fretting over the parade of horribles that might accompany a possible clash with Iran.
Fifth, the Israelis take the concept of a "zone of immunity" very seriously. They believe there will come a moment when Iran’s military nuclear program is so well buried that Israel, on its own, will not have sufficient capability to inflict meaningful damage. Though the U.S. military would still be able to mount a successful attack past this point, Israeli officials are loathe to allow such a situation to emerge. Indeed, they are adamant that in the face of such an existential threat to the very survival of the Jewish state, it would be "absolutely unacceptable" for any Israeli prime minister to permit the issue of dealing with it to pass out of Israeli hands — even if the hand off is to Israel’s most dependable ally, the United States. The Israelis I spoke with insist that even in the best of circumstances — with an American president in whom there was total trust — such dependence would run contrary to Israel’s entire ethos and everything that it stands for. Exactly how close Iran is to reaching the zone of immunity my Israeli interlocutors would not say. But they left little doubt that we are getting perilously near — at best, a matter of months, not years. I was told that the Israeli military has presented its detailed options for attacking Iran’s nuclear program to Israel’s political leaders, and that "we have entered the phase of strategic decisions."
Sixth, my impression was that Israel’s resolve to deal with the Iranian nuclear program on its own is no mere bluster, no tactical feint simply to leverage greater American action — though it certainly serves that purpose as well. The Israeli officials I spoke with were incredibly sober in sharing their assessments, as well as their policy implications. They very much gave the appearance of people who would prefer to be reaching quite different conclusions if the facts allowed, but honestly believe reality is rapidly conspiring to restrict their country’s options to deal with a mortal threat. All of them would clearly love to see a diplomatic solution. And should military action be necessary, most would much rather have the U.S. military lead the way because of its ability to wreak far more substantial damage on the Iranian program. But as more than one Israeli official told me with obvious regret, "We are forced to deal with the world as it is, not as we wish it would be."
Seventh, while acknowledging a vigorous domestic debate over the best course of action against Iran, my Israeli contacts express quiet confidence that the country will be united should the government decide to strike. They appreciate the significant pain that Israel’s citizens may have to endure in any Iranian retaliation, but are confident of two things: 1) Israel has prepared well to address the full spectrum of likely contingencies; and 2) The price Israel pays will be far worse if Iran is permitted to acquire a nuclear military capability.
Again, it’s important to stress that none of the above is based on direct talks with Israel’s top leaders. But for what it’s worth, I left Israel believing that an attack on Iran was significantly more likely than before I arrived. I also got a distinct feeling that the moment of truth for an Israeli decision to strike is getting close, perhaps much closer than many appreciate.
Could it come before November’s elections in the U.S.? The Israelis I asked were strident in emphasizing that a move of such national importance would be based entirely on Israeli security interests and the state of Iran’s nuclear program, not America’s electoral calendar. But when pushed, a few reluctantly acknowledged that securing maximum U.S. support for Israeli military action would be an important variable. And there’s no doubt that many further believe that, all else being equal, securing the full-throated backing of the Obama administration is far more likely before an overwhelmingly pro-Israel American electorate goes to the polls than afterwards.
We are living in momentous and perilous times, of that there should be no doubt. Powerful forces of revolution, technology, and ideology are mixing in highly combustible ways. In some cases, the fate of nations hang in the balance. America’s stake in how this drama unfolds, in a region so vital to our national interests, seems obvious to me — as does the proposition that our own wellbeing is best served by standing strong in support of those alarmingly few friends and allies we actually have in the Middle East (or around the world, for that matter) who possess both the will and the capability to act in concert with us to defend our common interests and values against those who, given their druthers and the necessary means, would surely destroy us.