It’s a foolish business, predicting when Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear program. Get it wrong, as most people do, and you’re left looking silly. And the only thing more foolish than a speculating pundit is the reader who believes him. As the Israeli saying goes, those who know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know.
Worse, even if your prediction is true to the current assessment of Israeli military planners, the timing of an operation is affected by factors that are not entirely in their control: the diplomatic and media environment, American preparations, Iranian countermeasures, Arab cooperation, the weather. Military strategy is not wedding planning. You don’t set a date and work backwards. Even if you were right when you made the prediction, you might turn out to have been wrong by the time the predicted date rolls around.
So what kind of idiot would take the plunge and make such a prediction? My only defense is that I think it makes sense. I’ve never offered a prediction for an attack in the past, because no single date ever made overwhelming sense. It does now.
So, caveats aside, here it is: Israel is preparing to deploy military assets to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program in October of 2012.
Consider the conditions.
The domestic situation is unusually stable, but only for the time being. On the one hand, the pundits are telling us, Netanyahu’s coalition is stronger than ever. It just grew from 66 MKs to 94, or 78% of Israel’s parliament.
But this narrative hides fragility. This coalition is about to consider very controversial legislation, including imposing national service on unwilling haredi and Arab populations, reforming the very electoral system that brought the current crop of parliamentarians to power, weakening the High Court’s oversight powers on other branches of government, passing a fiscally responsible and therefore politically unsatisfying 2013 budget, and more.
The legislative timing seems clear. Two of the most contentious issues will be resolved quickly due to High Court-ordered deadlines: the soon-to-expire Tal Law dealing with haredi military service, and the eviction of 30 Jewish families from private Palestinian land in Beit El. A 2013 budget must pass, and it’s hard to see the current coalition partners breaking up the government over the budget. While the haredi enlistment issue might drive either the haredi parties Shas and UTJ (16 seats combined) or Israel Beitenu (15) from the government, neither side’s withdrawal is a serious threat to the 94-seat coalition.
This brings us to the last weeks of 2012, when the agenda begins to unravel with complex and unpopular (among MKs) issues such as electoral reform. It is then that the coalition members will begin to feel the urge to distinguish themselves from their political fellow travelers ahead of the elections.
Kadima (with 28 seats) won’t survive as a distinct party if it cannot explain, come election-time, why it is an alternative to the Likud. Party chairman Shaul Mofaz does not see himself serving as Netanyahu’s loyal second-in-command forever, and already several up-and-coming Likud politicians and their party allies are agitating against a Kadima-Likud reunification that would push them down the party list. Mofaz initiated the new coalition deal as a way to give his own party, about to collapse to nine seats according to polls, time to rehabilitate its electoral prospects and rebuild its grassroots — not to rejoin the Likud.
This means that Mofaz will spend the next year looking for a plausible casus belli to rupture the coalition. Something big, something visceral, something that will drive the agenda of the elections. Something like a West Bank withdrawal or an electoral reform that would wipe out the smaller sectoral parties.
Israel Beitenu faces similar pressure to differentiate itself from the Likud, but for different reasons. It competes directly with the Likud for much of the same voter base. Even if it successfully pushes through its more aggressive version of national service enlistment for haredim, it will be looking for reasons to abandon the government in early 2013.
So yes, Netanyahu enjoys arguably the broadest and most stable coalition in Israeli history – roughly until the first quarter of 2013. Luckily, that domestic timing fits perfectly with the geopolitical window.
Diplomatically, the P5+1 group (made up of representatives from the US, Russia, China, France, Germany, and the UK) will meet in a couple weeks in Baghdad to launch a new round of discussions with the Iranians over their pursuit of nuclear arms. The talks aim at staving off a new round of sanctions set for July.
Israel cannot resort to military action while the entire Western world is committed to negotiating. If, however, nothing comes of new talks and sanctions by October, an assault becomes easier to explain.
Which brings us to the most important factor in the October timing of an Israeli strike: the November 2012 presidential elections in the United States. Netanyahu sees a moment of opportunity that will likely not be repeated for years to come. From late September to early November, White House decision-making will be driven by President Obama’s electoral needs — not his diplomatic policy. The mullahs are unloved in America, and many American pundits and politicians are on record supporting Israel’s right to defend itself militarily against an Iranian threat. If Israel goes ahead with a strike, can Obama afford to be seen as trying to prevent it, effectively protecting the mullahs of Teheran in the process?
Israel might even hope that a credible Israeli threat of a strike just before the elections could lead to the best of all scenarios from Israel’s perspective – an American strike. While the White House seems to imply at regular intervals that Israel should not expect this (Biden’s recent advice to the Jews: “I would not contract out my security to anybody, even a loyal, loyal, loyal friend like the United States”), Obama is surely asking himself if he wouldn’t rather control the confrontation than be dragged into it. If he can achieve meaningful results without incurring heavy losses in American blood or treasure, he would go into election day a wartime president.
To be clear, I’m not arguing this is going to happen. The recent public denunciations of Netanyahu by ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan and ex-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin suggest Israel is planning to go it alone. All I’m saying is that if there is any chance at all of an American strike, it’s hard to think of a better moment for Netanyahu, and maybe also for Obama.
In the end, the logic is simple. Imagine for a moment that you are Benjamin Netanyahu. You believe the mullahs seek Israel’s destruction and are convinced an Iranian nuclear bomb is an existential threat to the strong, but tiny, Jewish state. You enjoy a vast but temporary domestic political coalition. Abroad, the American president will never need you more than during a brief six-week period in the fall.
What would you do?