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Daniel Nisman – The Wall Street Journal, July 15th, 2013
Last week, Israel’s outgoing ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, sought to settle a long-running debate regarding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s willingness to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
“Certainly,” Mr. Oren told daily newspaper Haaretz, “[Mr. Netanyahu] was the one who succeeded in drawing the world’s attention to the threat. . . . But this success is not enough. The question he faces is similar to the question that [former Prime Minister Levi] Eshkol faced in May 1967.”
As a close confidant to the prime minister and an award-winning historian of the Six Day War, Mr. Oren’s comparison of Mr. Netanyahu to Eshkol is an ominous one that shouldn’t be ignored.
Throughout its short history, the state of Israel has repeatedly shocked the world with bold military operations previously considered impossible, unthinkable, or borderline suicidal. On June 5, 1967, Eshkol sent most of Israel’s air force into Egypt for a surprise preemptive attack, which left less than a dozen warplanes to defend the entire homeland. In the six days that followed, Israel defeated multiple threatening Arab armies, changing the face of the Middle East to this day.
Since the Six Day War, successive Israeli leaders have signed off on daring operations that have entered the annals of history: the 1976 hostage rescue in Entebbe, Uganda, the bombing of Saddam Hussein’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in 1981 and the sneak attack to spoil Bashar al-Assad’s own nuclear ambitions in 2007, to name a few. Premiers like Eshkol, Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert embarked on each of these operations after becoming convinced that even their staunchest allies would not come to Israel’s assistance.
In the face of such choices, forget the intelligence estimates and risk assessments. It ultimately takes a do-or-die, all-or-nothing mindset to make a decision which could either bring complete victory, or considerable military defeat and diplomatic isolation. In this context, Mr. Netanyahu not only views Iran as an existential threat comparable to the Nazi Holocaust—he also wishes to be remembered as the one who personally delivered its demise. On this point, sources close to the prime minister assert that he keeps in his desk drawer World War II-era letters from the U.S. War Department, which decline requests by the World Jewish Congress to bomb gas chambers at Auschwitz.
Amid turmoil now in Egypt, bedlam in Syria and musings of reform from Iran’s newly elected President Hassan Rouhani, Mr. Netanyahu now fears that his campaign to stop Iran from going nuclear has been put on the international community’s back burner. Israel’s ambassador to the U.N., Ron Prosor, has repeatedly warned the Security Council that Iran’s nuclear program is racing forward like an express train, passing diplomatic efforts that lag behind on the local route. Recent statements by the Netanyahu administration indicate they believe that Iran’s nuclear train will arrive at its final destination by Nov. 2013 unless the international community intervenes.
Last month, Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Yuval Steinitz revealed Israel’s assessment that Iran is close to stockpiling 200 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium and repeated that acquiring 250 kilograms would constitute Mr. Netanyahu’s so-called “red line.” His assessment is in line with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s May 2013 report, which alleges that Iran possessed approximately 182 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium. With Iran’s current ability to stockpile roughly 15 kilograms of 20% enriched uranium per month, Iran could trigger a preemptive Israeli strike in less than four months.
Meanwhile, while Mr. Netanyahu may have faced resistance in the past to launching a preventative strike, current conditions at home and across the region may be the most optimal he has ever had. Since Jan. 2013, Israel has provoked Iran and its allies (at least) three times with airstrikes against weapons convoys destined to Hezbollah in Syria, albeit without any reaction. The incidents, which served to reduce fears of a regional conflagration, have clearly resonated with Israel’s various security chiefs, who have refrained from voicing any concerns about a strike on Iran, unlike their predecessors.
On July 14, Mr. Netanyahu commenced a widespread public and back-channel diplomacy campaign to re-rally Israel’s allies to commit to both a convincing military threat and additional economic sanctions against Iran. His hope is that such a stance by the world community would deter Iran’s decision makers from taking advantage of Mr. Rouhani’s transition period to advance the nuclear program beyond the point of no return. Iranian officials, meanwhile, have stated that nuclear negotiations with the West should be put on hold until after Mr. Rouhani’s cabinet is inaugurated in August. It is Jerusalem’s fear that by the time Iran and its negotiating partners agree on a timetable and venue for new talks, it may be too late.
Many Israeli pundits, as well as Ambassador Oren himself, have compared Mr. Netanyahu’s diplomatic push to Eshkol’s last-ditch efforts to convince Washington of the existential threats posed by Arab nations in the weeks before June 5, 1967. As in 1967, this is a conflict that Israel has been anticipating for years, building previously unused military capability and practicing its strategy in preparation for another surprise feat, which may ultimately shock the world once again.
Having recently announced its willingness to negotiate with President-elect Rouhani, the Obama administration should heed this history lesson, lest the U.S. and the international community be caught off guard by another Israeli-induced regional earthquake.
Mr. Nisman is the Middle East intelligence director at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical and security risk consulting firm based in Tel Aviv.