The Middle East Channel

The Israeli debate on attacking Iran is over

The Israeli debate on attacking Iran is over

For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country’s president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.

Using every possible media outlet on the occasion of his 89th birthday, President Peres made clear last Thursday that "going it alone" — attacking Iran without a clear understanding with the United States — would be catastrophic. Peres did a great service to his country by focusing the debate away from some of the weaker arguments offered by opponents of a strike. Thus, the supposedly limited time that would be gained by such a strike was never convincing because in both previous experiences with such preventive action — against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and against the Syrian reactor in 2007 — Israel ended up gaining more time than even the most optimistic proponents of these strikes had anticipated.

Similarly, the warnings that an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would ignite a regional war were not persuasive in the absence of Arab states volunteering to join such a war. Iran’s only regional state ally is Syria, but President Bashar al-Assad would not be able to direct his armed forces to attack Israel when these forces are mired in a civil war and barely control a third of the country’s territory. 

Hezbollah, Iran’s principle non-state ally, might react to an Israeli strike by launching its rockets against Israel, but with Iran weakened from the attack and Syria unable to protect it, such an assault would be suicidal. Certainly none of the region’s Sunni Arab countries — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — will come to Iran’s aid. None of these countries uttered a word when in 2007 Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Sunni-Arab Syria. Why the same countries would be expected to ignite the region in the event that the nuclear facilities of a Shiite Persian country would be attacked, was never clear.

Avoiding repetition of these weak arguments, Peres clarified what is really at stake in the event of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the next few months: Israel’s relations with the United States. The basic divide is not the two countries’ different time constraints due to very different capacities to deal militarily with Iran’s nuclear installations. Instead, it has to do with two issues. The first is the U.S. electoral timetable. The presidential election creates an imperative for U.S. President Barack Obama to avoid any unexpected fallouts — economic or otherwise — of a military strike against Iran. Peres understands that ignoring Obama’s concerns and instead banking on a victory by Republican candidate Mitt Romney in November, as Netanyahu seems to have done, is very risky if not irresponsible. 

The second issue concerns the timeline for the drawdown of U.S. forces in the region. Clearly, the Joint Chiefs are worried about the prospects of becoming embroiled in a military conflict with another Muslim country as long as U.S. forces continue to be deployed in Afghanistan and hence exposed to Iranian retaliation. By going public Peres gave expression to what almost every former and presently serving Israeli defense chief understands: namely, since the Obama White House has accommodated Israel’s defense needs above and beyond all previous U.S. administrations, and given the intimate relations between the Israeli and U.S. defense communities, Israel simply cannot take action that would be framed in Washington as "putting American lives at risk."

The second important development of this past weekend was an interview given by the former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Director of Military Intelligence General Uri Sagi. A highly regarded senior military officer who served in various capacities under Barak when he was IDF chief of staff and prime minister, Sagi went beyond the questions that many of his former colleagues have already raised about the wisdom of attacking Iran.

Sagi questioned, for the first time publicly, whether Israel can rely on the judgment and mental stability of its current leaders to guide it in time of war. Listing a number of past strategic errors made by Barak and hinting at Netanyahu’s ascribed tendency to traverse rapidly between euphoria and panic, Sagi expressed grave doubts whether Israel’s current leaders can take the pressures and stress entailed in managing a major military confrontation.

Despite being a regional power Israel is a small country operating within narrow security confines. It has done wonders when operating within a national consensus as during the 1948 and 1967 wars. But after the 1973 war it was torn by the debate about the wisdom of fighting the Egyptians along the Suez Canal and after 1982 it was divided over the war in Lebanon.

Contrary to what many think, Netanyahu and Barak never bluffed — they did not threaten war simply to extort an American commitment to take care of the problem. They genuinely believe that a nuclear Iran poses Israel with untold threats that should be avoided at almost any cost. They did not bluff, but they were defeated. With President Peres publicly joining the many formidable opponents of a military strike and General Sagi raising questions about the competence of Israel’s current leaders, Israel now lacks the minimal consensus required for a demanding military campaign to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. The debate has been settled. At least for now.  

Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University and is a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.