Israelis are hardly known for their polite silence. Yet, barely an eyebrow was raised when Prime Minister Netanyahu described himself as “duty-bound” to equate a nuclear Iran with Nazi Germany at last week’s Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony. For those still unsure of its meaning, the consequence of evoking the ultimate evil was clarified by IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, who confirmed days later that “we are ready for action” against Tehran. Strangely, in a country that knows all too well the heavy price of war, public sentiment appears to have accepted the prospect of conflict with Iran with minimal fuss. Yet, the wisdom of attacking Iran is far from clear. There are plenty of questions that need discussing — if not answering — to ensure that war does not become a self-fulfilling prophecy thanks to the rhetoric of our leaders.
If armed action against Iran turns out to be an absolute necessity, then so be it. But it is imperative that we make absolutely sure it’s the right decision before beating the war drums and initiating a deadly conflict from which we cannot turn back. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak are fond of the euphemistic reminder that “all options are on the table.” Yet we must be fully aware that the military option to which they allude will not bring about the cessation of Iran’s nuclear endeavour. The key to nuclear armament is knowledge. Clearly, the genie of Iranian atomic know-how burst out of the bottle a long time ago. Another Osirak operation, which saw Israel’s air force destroy Iraq’s nuclear capability in one fell swoop in 1981, is not an option. Former IDF Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin candidly commented this week that “the days of eight planes in Iraq… have passed”. Several experts, including US army chiefs believe that, at best, a successful Israeli raid would set back Iranian atomic ambitions by several years.
Is the price right?
And what exactly is the likely price for such a temporary reprieve, even if it can be achieved? We must assume that a preemptive Israeli strike would be the catalyst for the most serious rocket barrage yet from Iran’s terrorist proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. This would likely place not only Israel’s citizens in the north and south of the country under fire, but would also for the first time see Tel Aviv at the mercy of the longer-range missiles we know are being harbored in Gaza. In addition to the acute risk of high civilian casualties, the prospect of Israel’s first military conflict on multiple fronts since 1973 brings with it the likelihood of numerous slain soldiers. On leaving his intelligence post in 2010, Yadlin warned that such a conflict would be deadlier than both Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9 and the Second Lebanon War two years earlier, which resulted in the deaths of 121 soldiers and 44 civilians.
Is this a price worth paying for simply delaying Iran’s nuclear program? Some will argue that it is, but surely with the stakes so unimaginably high, it is a question worthy of debate. Remarkably, there are few politically authoritative voices willing to challenge the conventional wisdom that if the world cannot stop Iran, then Israel must attack. New opposition leader Shaul Mofaz has refused to place Netanyahu-like importance on Iran, but has made clear his support for the prime minister should he deem an attack necessary. Mofaz’s predecessor Tzipi Livni was similarly disinclined to put any distance between herself and Netanyahu over the wisdom of striking Iran.
Perhaps the reluctance to deviate from the established viewpoint is a rare attempt to present a unified national leadership in the face of a grave decision? Or are too many of our politicians simply hamstrung by the fear that a difference of opinion on Iran will see them branded “weak on security?” Either way, it would help explain why the audible dissenting voices over a military adventure come from the recent heads of the intelligence and defence establishment, who are largely uninhibited by such considerations. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan called Netanyahu’s ostensible plans to attack Iran “the stupidest thing I have ever heard,” while Dan Halutz, the chief of Staff during the Second Lebanon War, has warned that Israel should not go it alone against Tehran.
But are they rational?
Surely the concerns of senior security personnel are worth listening to? Dagan, for example, cast serious doubt over whether the Iranian regime would use nuclear weapons against Israel, describing the country’s leadership as essentially “rational” despite the virulent rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. After all, many Western governments assume that Tehran possesses some kind of chemical weaponry, and yet this arsenal has not been utilized to commit the mass murder of Israelis. On what basis, therefore, do we assume that our nuclear nightmare resembles reality? One would hope that an Israeli strike would only be prompted by clear intelligence of an imminent Iranian threat. Yet, it is the likes of Dagan, who would be privy to such information, who have expressed serious doubts over the existence of such a threat. Even Ehud Barak admits that Iran’s Supreme Leader Khomenei has probably not yet given the order to build a nuclear weapon, let alone use it.
Of course, many believe that we simply cannot take a risk when it comes to the ultimate weapon. In truth, though, it isn’t nuclear weapons per se that Israel and the West fear; rather the extremist regime with its finger on the red button. What else can explain the virtual silence that greeted India’s test of a nuclear-capable long-range missile only last week? So, if the real problem is Ahmadinejad and his cohorts, why does there appear to be no strategy to bring about internal change in Iran? Would this not be a more logical alternative to initiating a deadly conflict that would surely only fuel the very fire of extremism that is at the core of our concerns? Long-term strategy is hardly the hallmark of Israeli government, but plans to deal with Tehran’s nuclear menace must surely extend beyond a limited military strike followed by a period of Iranian re-building, only for the pattern to presumably repeat itself.
No doubt, some will argue that we must have faith in our leaders, defer to their wisdom and support whatever decisions they make. Perhaps there are plans and strategies afoot that we the public is unaware of? Yet the chaotic planning and execution of the Second Lebanon War indicates that this trust may be misplaced. The Winograd Commission that investigated the debacle concluded that there were “serious failings and shortcomings” in decision-making, planning and strategic thinking in both the military and political echelons. While our defense forces have clearly learned from the mistakes of 2006, can we truly say the same about our politicians? When we marked Remembrance Day, we undertook the solemn duty of honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice. Yet we are equally obligated to make sure that new names will only be added to the list of the fallen as a last resort, when all other alternatives have failed. We must not march blindly into war. We must first ask questions about a strike against Iran.