Sitting in the relative calm of London, news from Israel is at the best of times anxiety provoking, but the past several weeks have been extraordinary. As the ‘will they, won’t they’ drama surrounding a potential military strike against Iranian nuclear strikes rumbles on, all eyes are on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak. Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu cancelled a meeting of his security cabinet following leaks, with one minister demanding all those present at the meeting be polygraphed, whilst the left-wing newspaper Ha’aretz suggested Defence Minister Barak was having second thoughts about the wisdom of military action.
Of greater concern, Prime Minister Netanyahu allegedly lost his temper in a meeting with US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, and has come out forcefully calling for the international community to set clear red lines for Iran’s nuclear programme. The US administration are reluctant to set any red lines, feeling they would harm efforts to negotiate with Iran and potentially force the US into military action. Yet, the naked fury of the Israeli prime minister makes clear that the failure to set a red line will leave Israel with only one option: a military strike to stop what they consider to be an existential threat. In contrast to his international reputation, Prime Minister Netanyahu has been unusually reluctant to use military force in the past, but he views Iran through the prism of the Shoah: take seriously the threats of these who seek to harm the Jewish people.
The US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton managed to further antagonise Prime Minister Netanyahu by rejecting possible “deadlines” whilst the White House have declined an Israeli request for a meeting between Prime Minister Netanyahu and US President Barak Obama, although they spoke via telephone for an hour on Tuesday evening. On the surface, this looks like a US administration that are failing to react to situation that is taking a turn for the worse. Red lines could greatly decrease the chances of an Israeli strike on Iran, whereas playing hardball with the Israelis makes the likelihood of a catastrophic attack on Iran ever more likely.
Whilst some question the ability of Israel’s military to successfully attack Iran’s nuclear installations, and many view the Israeli rhetoric as a tactic to force the world into confronting the issue, there is an increasing feeling that time is running out. Whilst sanctions have been successful in harming the Iranian economy, as shown by the plunging value of the Iranian rial, the nuclear programme careers forward, with the IAEA estimating Iran has doubled the number of centrifuges at one of its underground nuclear sites and made progress in computer modelling that could help them weaponise. In just two weeks, when the Jewish people observe Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement and their holiest religious day, and the Israelis remember the surprise attacks of 1973 that rocked their nation, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will address the UN General Assembly. It seems unlikely that his speech will calm the situation, and in the absence of a significant game changer from Iran, Israel or the US, I fear we are marching towards an inevitable military conflict.