Is Israel out on a limb – or doing the West's dirty work?

November 4, 2011
Sarah Benton

IDF ready to strike Iran
Israel’s message to world – either you stop Iran’s nuclear program, or we will
Op-ed, Ynet News

The fact that Israel is holding training sessions seen as practical preparations for striking Iran’s nuclear sites is no secret. Anyone following the intensive drills held by the Air Force in the Mediterranean and in distant regions, ranging from Romania to Sardinia, realizes that Netanyahu’s and Barak’s declarations that Israel will not tolerate nuclear arms in Iranian hands is backed up by practical capabilities developed by the Air Force and by our military industries.

Based on the raging public discourse in recent days, we can estimate that a military option is available.

No less importantly, the international community and the Iranians fully realize that Israel’s top politicians are seriously considering such strike in order to curb or at least delay the Iranian race to the bomb. This is assuming there is no non-military, efficient option to secure this aim. Meanwhile, the former IDF chief of staff, Mossad director and Shin Bet head, as well as the current ones, and some of our top ministers are also not rejecting the possibility of a strike out of hand.

However, the above is contingent upon absolute certainty that Iran has already started to produce the bomb and that all other ways to prevent Tehran from doing so have been exhausted. In such case, and only in such case, Israel would have no choice but to thwart the existential threat we face as result of nuclear arms in Iranian hands, even at the price of the casualties and damage to be sustained by Israel as result of Iran’s response (and that of its allies – Syria, Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups in Gaza.)

However, the above scenario is still relatively far off, as according to all estimates the Iranians are not expected to complete their preparations to produce nuclear weapons before 2015.

Until that time, harsh global sanctions could force the Iranian leadership to accept a deal with the West that would delay the military nuclear program. Other possible scenarios include an Iranian revolution that would disrupt the Ayatollahs’ plans, or an American and allied decision to curb Iran’s nuclear program by force in order to avert Mideastern instability. Under such circumstances, Israel would be able to join a coalition that strikes Iran without being isolated internationally. According to strike objectors in Israel, we must not attack on our own.

American objection
However, Netanyahu and Barak believe that we must not wait until it’s too late. At this time already, according to the British Guardian, the Iranians are vigorously building deep underground bunkers and long cement tunnels. These shelters are gradually becoming home to new uranium enrichment facilities, nuclear labs, and ballistic missiles.

Barak and Netanyahu argue that the Iranian response would not be as terrible as predicted and that Iran would settle for a measured response to a strike – either because Hezbollah and Hamas won’t rush to comply with Tehran’s wishes or because the Ayatollahs would fear a wide-scale confrontation that would inflict greater damage and destruction, including on Iranian oil fields.

At this time, there is apparently no decision on a strike yet. The reason for this is not only the resistance of ministers and senior IDF and intelligence officials, but also America’s objection. Washington fears that Iran’s response to an Israeli strike would harm US allies in the Persian Gulf and destabilize them. Oil production and transport could also be disrupted. Another possibility would see Iran’s terror emissaries targeting US citizens and troops in the Middle East and beyond. Hence, the Bush Administration, as does Obama, objected to an independent Israeli operation in Iran.

The Americans are also concerned that Israel is about to embark on an operation without coordination with Washington. “Nobody would believe that you operated without coordinating it with the US, and hence, as we too would sustain damages, we demand at least an advance warning,” said a senior American official who recently visited Israel.

The new American Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, apparently felt that something is brewing in Netanyahu’s and Barak’s kitchen vis-à-vis Iran and came to Israel a few weeks ago in order to avert a move that contradicts US interests. He also spoke publicly and said that decisions on the Iranian front must be taken in cooperation and coordination between Jerusalem and Washington.

While Army Chief Benny Gantz is believed to endorse the view that an Israeli strike should be taken in coordination – and if possible in conjunction – with the US, some political leaders hold different views. They believe that Israel should not coordinate such strike with the Americans so that the Arabs and Muslims won’t blame Washington for cooperating with Israel in striking a Muslim state. These politicians believe that the Americans would secretly thank us if we make do with a brief warning shortly before a strike is carried out. On this front too, no decision has been taken yet in Israel.

The lively public debate on the issue grants more credibility to the Israeli strike threat. It illustrates to the world that Israeli officials are well aware of the difficulties inherent in an Iran strike and of the heavy price that the Ayatollahs’ response would exact from Israel, regional countries and the international community. However, the heavy price and even the objection to a strike among top security officials do not deter our top decision-makers, Netanyahu and Barak.

Iran fears more sanctions
The objection to a strike is in itself also an important signal to Washington, Moscow and Beijing – either you stop the Iranian race to the bomb through truly painful sanctions on Iran but with minimum damage for us and for you, or we shall be forced to act, and then all of us shall pay a heavy price.

This signal is important because the West intends to soon utilize a series of drastic pressure levers against Iran. The first one is full publication of the grave findings gathered by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The report has been available for a while now but has been shelved for political reasons.

Iran is aware of its existence and fears it because it paves the wave for greater pressure: A Security Council decision to impose yet another package of sanctions that would deliver a grave blow to the Iranian economy. This would entail boycotting Iran’s central bank and imposing an embargo on the importation and exportation of oil products.

The effect of such sanctions could directly threaten the regime’s survival, hence prompting Iran – with China’s and Russia’s help – to undertake an immense diplomatic effort to prevent the IAEA report’s publication. Should it be published, Iran wants Russia and China to use their veto power to avert dramatic sanctions.

The public debate that erupted in Israel, just like the publication of the Air Force drill in Italy, remind the US, Russia and China that should effective sanctions not be imposed, the world may have to deal with the graver implications of an Israeli strike.

Another strategic Israeli target is to make it clear to Iran’s leadership, and mostly to supreme leader Ali Khamenei, how substantial the threat of attack is. It is unlikely that Iran would abandon its nuclear program for fear of an Israeli strike, yet this fear will prompt Iranian efforts to hide the sites and missiles related to the military program and fortify them. These efforts require time and resources and therefore would almost certainly slow down the pace of Iran’s nuclear work and bomb’s development.

On Tuesday, the British Guardian also reported that the Royal Air Force is preparing to strike in Iran within a year. The reason given is that should the Brits fail to strike soon, they would not be able to do so at all – the Iranians would be hiding their facilities deep underground, protecting them against the largest bunker-buster bombs in Britain’s arsenal. This reasoning sounds familiar, doesn’t it? We can assume this is also related to Defense Minister Barak’s recent trip to London and the secret trip to Israel by Britain’s army chief. As the old saying goes, “Great minds think alike.”

Israeli Press Tries to Save Iran from Attack

Segments of the Israeli press are mounting a campaign to prevent what they see as an imminent strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
By Gil Ronen, Israel National News

Parts of the Israeli press, led by high-circulation newspaper Yediot Acharonot, are trying to sabotage a possible Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities by lifting the veil of secrecy from the matter and turning it into the talk of the town.

Minister Benny Begin blasted “former senior members of the security establishment” who he said are creating the public debate, without naming them. The discussion in the press “is insane anarchy, an evil deed that results from some people’s egomania,” he said.

Minister Dan Meridor called the debate “abnormal” and “worse than the leaks by Anat Kam.” He added: “I do not think there was ever a debate like this. Not everything must come up for public debate.”

A daily column in Yediot asks, “Should Israel attack in Iran?”. While the headline is followed by both pro and con columns, media watchdog “The Seventh Eye” explains that the newspaper’s answer is obviously “no.”

The website’s Shuki Tausig explains: “The ‘no’ peeks out of the way the matter is presented, is hinted in the analysis columns and most of all, hovers overhead as the only possible meaning of holding a public debate on the matter.”

Other newspapers and press organizations have followed Yediot Acharonot’s lead and have begun hosting a public debate on the possibility of an attack. As a result, the Knesset, too, has started talking about the matter. MK Shelly Yechimovich, head of Labor, is quoted as saying “I am warning against a megalomaniacal adventure in Iran.”

However, Yechimovich herself went on the air on Channel 10 and said that holding the debate publicly shows “a complete lack of responsibility” and indicates “an inability of the leaders to work quietly.”

Yediot Acharonot is ferociously opposed to Binyamin Netanyahu, as are most press outlets. Only Yisrael Hayom is considered respectful toward Netanyahu – and is therefore mocked as his lapdog. Yisrael Hayom quotes Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar who says: “stop blabbing about Iran.” A senior diplomatic source quoted by the paper says that the public debate endangers state security.

Israel Faces Questions About News Reports of Eyeing Iran Strike

By Isabel Kershner and David. E. Sanger, NY Times

JERUSALEM — Israel’s top leadership has spent the week answering and evading questions about widespread reports that it is once again considering a strike on Iran’s nuclear complexes, while President Obama said Thursday that he and his allies would maintain “unprecedented international pressure” on Tehran to keep it from producing a nuclear weapon.

Israeli officials would not confirm or deny multiple reports in the Israeli news media that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were pressing for a decision on whether and when to strike a uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, the centerpiece of Iran’s known nuclear-fuel production, and related sites across the country.

Several Israeli ministers have publicly placed blame for the leaks on Meir Dagan, the former chief of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service, who after leaving office this year said that Mr. Netanyahu was intent on launching such an attack, and had to be restrained by opposition from top intelligence and military officials, almost all of whom have since left office.

Mr. Dagan, who is believed to have played a central role in unleashing the Stuxnet computer worm* that set back Iran’s nuclear efforts by disabling about a fifth of its nuclear centrifuges, has argued that military action is unlikely to do enough damage and could set off a new war in the Middle East.

Speaking to an audience in Tel Aviv on Wednesday night, Mr. Dagan challenged the government to indict him. “Have I violated information security?” he asked. “Then let them prosecute me. Let them say, ‘Dagan has broken the law.’ I’ll get a good lawyer.”

Israel has debated the viability and effects of attacks many times in the past seven years, often to Washington’s consternation. Obama administration officials, in private conversations with the Israelis, have argued that the combination of economic sanctions and covert sabotage of the Iranian effort has been more effective than an attack could be, without the risk of provoking counterattacks or a war.

But the most recent debate has been prompted by the confluence of three events that has made the issue seem especially urgent in Israel, according to American officials who have been worried about whether Israel might conduct a surprise attack.

The first is Iran’s continued production of low- and medium-enriched uranium: it now has enough fuel for roughly four bombs, though producing them would require more time, more enrichment, and more risk of exposure. The second is Iran’s declaration that it is moving much of its production to a well-protected underground site near the holy city of Qum.

“The Israelis fear that once it’s moved underground they won’t have the ability to see it, or reach it,” one American official said recently.

But perhaps the most important event is a forthcoming report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, expected next week. For the first time, the agency is expected to describe, in detail, the evidence it has collected suggesting that Iranian scientists have experimented with warhead designs, nuclear detonation systems and specialized triggering devices that can be explained only as work on a nuclear weapon.

Iran has said the data is fabricated, and vowed to publish its own evidence of Western terrorist plots against Iran.

Mr. Obama and NATO allies, at a summit meeting in Cannes, France, have steered clear of any talk of military strikes, and said they remained focused on economic sanctions and other forms of diplomatic pressure, including enforcement of several United Nations Security Council resolutions that demand that Iran stop all uranium enrichment.

The secretary general of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said Thursday that “NATO has no intention whatsoever to intervene in Iran, and NATO is not engaged as an alliance in the Iran question,” according to The Associated Press.

The British newspaper The Guardian reported on Wednesday that Britain’s armed forces were stepping up their contingency planning for potential military action along with the United States against Iran. The Guardian added that the British Ministry of Defense “believes the U.S. may decide to fast-forward plans for targeted missile strikes at some key Iranian facilities.”

Mr. Obama discussed Iran on Thursday with the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr. Obama told reporters that the International Atomic Energy Agency “is scheduled to release a report on Iran’s nuclear program next week, and President Sarkozy and I agree on the need to maintain the unprecedented pressure on Iran to meet its obligations.”

One of his deputy national security advisers, Benjamin J. Rhodes, told reporters later that Mr. Obama’s comments had to be separated “from any type of speculation or hypothetical situation as it relates to military action.”

But at the same time he said the atomic energy agency’s report would probably renew the opportunity for “ratcheting up” sanctions that “have slowed the Iranian economy to a halt.”

“They’re the only treaty member of the NPT,” he said, referring to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, “that cannot convince the International Atomic Energy Agency that their program is peaceful. And that’s precisely why they’re facing the type of international pressure that they’re facing.”

The treaty also applies to five powers that have possessed nuclear for decades: the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China. Three countries have refused to sign the treaty, including Israel, which is widely known to have its own nuclear stockpile.

In Britain, officials and academics cautioned against mistaking the drumbeat for actual preparations for a strike in the near or medium term. The common view is that the United States, Britain and Israel have all been engaging in a concerted effort to step up the pressure on Iran.

Dana Allin, a scholar and author who is a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said it seemed clear that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak “really are convinced that now might be a good time” for a strike, in view of the convulsions of the Arab Spring and the fact that American troops will be out of Iraq by Dec. 31, removing them as hostages to a possible spike in attacks by Iranian-supported militias. But as for an increased tempo in planning for an actual attack, he said, “That strikes me as implausible.”

The speculation about possible military action began last Friday with a column by one of Israel’s most prominent journalists, Nahum Barnea, that dominated the front page of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot. Mr. Barnea posed the question of whether Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak had privately decided on a military strike, a question that Mr. Barnea said was preoccupying many in the Israeli government and the security establishment, as well as many in foreign governments.

The Israeli prime minister’s office refused to comment on a report in the newspaper Kuwaiti Al-Jarida on Thursday that said Mr. Netanyahu had ordered his security services to investigate Mr. Dagan and the former chief of the internal Shin Bet security agency, Yuval Diskin, in connection with the leaks.

But while Israeli ministers berated the news media for what was described as irresponsible behavior, the government on Wednesday tested what experts said was a long-range ballistic missile. The same day, the Israeli military announced that its air force had just completed a weeklong joint exercise with Italy’s air force in Sardinia, practicing for operational capabilities in conditions that do not exist in Israel.

Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and David E. Sanger from Washington. John F. Burns contributed reporting from London, and Helene Cooper from Cannes, France.

* For  background on Stuxnet

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