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Will Israel Attack Iran?

A message to Obama from an observer in Israel: Don't flash the yellow light—not even once.

| Mon Apr. 13, 2009 12:52 PM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

Sometimes, reading about the Middle East, or at least about Israel, Iran, and nuclear weapons, feels like your most basic broken-record phenomenon. As New York Times op-ed columnist Roger Cohen reminded readers recently, there's nothing new about Israeli predictions that Iranian "madmen"—or rather, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of a rather extreme new government, put it recently, "a messianic apocalyptic cult"—would soon have nuclear weapons in their hands. The charges and predictions of the imminent arrival of the Iranian bomb go back well into the 1990s and yet, despite Iran's growing nuclear enrichment program, we still don't know what the true predilections of its leaders are on the basic issue of weaponization. (They might, for instance, be planning to opt for the Japan "solution," not weaponizing, but simply being capable of doing so relatively quickly.)

The other part of that broken-record phenomenon concerns Israel's nuclear arsenal, which I wrote about at TomDispatch back in 2003, since which time remarkably little has changed. One of the genuinely strange aspects of just about anything you can read here in the U.S. on nuclear weapons and the Middle East is this: all fear and much print (and TV time) is focused on whether the Iranians may someday, in the near or far future, get a nuclear weapon; that is, we're focused on a weapon that doesn't yet exist and, for all we know, may never exist.

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In the meantime, just about no mention is ever made of Israel's massive nuclear arsenal, which includes city-busting weapons, and leaves that tiny country as perhaps the fifth largest nuclear power on the planet. In addition, at least some of its nuclear weapons are on submarines in the Mediterranean, which means that the country is invulnerable to the madness of a take-out first strike by any other nation. This is simply reality.

The Israelis have long taken a position in which, as Jonathan Schell once put the matter, "They won't confirm or deny that they have [nuclear weapons], but they have this curious phrase: 'We will not introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East.' Evidently, in some abstruse way, possessing them is not introducing them." Our media has, in essence, accepted the Israeli approach to its arsenal as if it were a reasonable reportorial stance on the subject. It's from within this distinctly unbalanced world of heightened fear and silence that we read of both the dangers of the Iranian bomb and responses to it, which is in itself, simply put, dangerous.

Recently, warnings from Israel about possible future attacks on Iran have multiplied. Roane Carey, managing editor of the Nation magazine and co-editor of The Other Israel, is in Israel at the moment on a journalism fellowship at the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy. As his first piece for this site, I asked him to offer an assessment from that country of just how dangerous the most recent warnings and threats actually are. Tom

Don't Flash the Yellow Light

Mixed Messages from Washington Could Lead to Catastrophe in Iran
By Roane Carey

JERUSALEM—Israel has been steadily ratcheting up pressure on the United States concerning the grave threat allegedly posed by Iran, which seems poised to master the nuclear fuel cycle, and thus the capacity to produce nuclear weapons. The new Israeli prime minister, Likud Party hawk Benjamin Netanyahu, has warned President Barack Obama that if Washington does not quickly find a way to shut down Iran's nuclear program, Israel will.

Some analysts argue that this is manufactured hysteria, not so much a reflection of genuine Israeli fears as a purposeful diversion from other looming difficulties. The Netanyahu government is filled with hardliners adamantly opposed to withdrawal from, or even a temporary freeze on, settlements in the occupied territories, not to mention to any acceptance of Palestinian statehood. On his first day as foreign minister, extremist demagogue Avigdor Lieberman, with characteristic bluster, announced that Israel was no longer bound by the 2007 Annapolis agreements brokered by Washington, which called for accelerated negotiations toward a two-state settlement.

Such talk threatens to lead the Israelis directly into a clash with the Obama administration. In what can only be taken as a rebuttal of the Netanyahu government's recent pronouncements, in his speech to the Turkish Parliament Obama pointedly reasserted Washington's commitment to a two-state settlement and to the Annapolis understandings. So what better way for Netanyahu to avoid an ugly clash with a popular American president than to conveniently shift the discussion to an existential threat from Iran—especially if he can successfully present it as a threat not just to Israel but to the West in general?

All of this adds up to a plausible argument against undue alarm over the latest Israeli warnings about an attack on Iran, but it's flawed on several grounds. There is a broad, generally accepted paranoia in Israel about Iran, a belief that its leaders must be stopped before they proceed much further in their uranium enrichment program. (This view is not shared on the Israeli left, but it's now a ghost of its former self.)

In an interview for TomDispatch, Ephraim Kam, deputy director of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv and a specialist on the Iran issue, commented, "Of course there are different opinions, but there is a general consensus, among both security experts and political leaders, from Labor to the right wing. This is not a controversial issue: if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it will pose a deep threat. It will be the first time in our history that another country can deal a major blow to Israel."

Kam hastens to add that, in his own view, the scenario Netanyahu proposes—that Iran is led by irrational fanatics who would nuke Israel at the first chance, even knowing that an Israeli nuclear counterstrike would be swift and catastrophic—is false. "Iran is a pragmatic, logical player," Kam says. He remains convinced that "even a radical fundamentalist regime" wouldn't attack Israel, but he adds, "This is just my assessment, and assessments can go wrong. I wrote a study on wrong assessments, so I know something about this." In other words, if Kam's claims about the Israeli consensus are correct, the country's leadership takes it for granted that Iran is indeed hell-bent on producing a nuclear weapon and is not inclined to take a chance that a nuclear Iran will play by the MAD (as in mutually assured destruction) rules hammered out by the two Cold War superpowers decades ago and never use it.

This attitude reflects a longstanding Israeli strategic principle: that no neighboring state or combination of states can ever be allowed to achieve anything faintly approaching military parity, because if they do, they will try to destroy the Jewish state. By this logic, Israel's only option is to establish and then maintain absolute military superiority over its neighbors; they will, so this view goes, accept Israel's presence only if they know they're sure to be defeated, or at least vastly outmatched.

This is the famous "iron wall," conceived by early Zionist leader Vladimir Jabotinsky more than 80 years ago, well before the founding of Israel itself. (Jabotinsky founded the Revisionist movement, which in opposition to the Labor mainstream refused to accept any territorial compromise regarding Zionist aims, such as partition. Although he and his followers were for years shut out of the political leadership, their views regarding Israel's neighbors became deeply lodged in the public psyche.) If Iran were to acquire the capacity to build even one nuke—Israel itself is estimated to have 150-200 of them—that iron wall would be considered seriously breached, and the country might no longer be able to dictate terms to its neighbors. Given Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, Israel would then have to recalibrate its strategy both on its northern front and vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

Recent developments in Israel could certainly give the impression of a nation preparing for war: the Home Front command, one of four regional divisions of the Israeli army, has just announced the largest defense exercise in the country's history. It will last an entire week and is intended to prepare the civilian population for missile strikes from both conventional warheads and unconventional ones (whether chemical, biological or nuclear). Meanwhile, the country is accelerating its testing of missile defense systems, having just announced the successful launch of the Arrow II interceptor.

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