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Good Arguments All, But Not Good Enough

By Evelyn Gordon
JINSA Visiting Fellow

The media chatter that erupted in October about the possibility of Israel attacking Iran's nuclear facilities sparked an immediate reaction: Both in Israel and abroad, opponents argued against such a strike, warning of various dire consequences.

Certainly, Israel would prefer not to attack Iran: It would rather see Tehran's nuclear program halted by crippling sanctions, regime change or covert action, and if all these fail, it would prefer military action by an American-led coalition. Nevertheless, if Israel concluded that all other efforts had failed, and that international military action wasn't in the cards, none of the arguments opponents have raised against an Israeli strike are likely to deter it.

The first argument is that a strike would be pointless, because it would only delay Iran's nuclear program by "one or two years at most," as Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said. But while it's true that military action would only buy time, buying time for more permanent change to occur is far from pointless when the alternative is the certainty of a nuclear Iran, which Israel considers an existential threat.

The paradigm, from Israel's perspective, is its 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor. That, too, failed to halt Saddam Hussein's drive toward nukes; he quickly began rebuilding his nuclear program. But it bought just enough time for Saddam to make one fatal error: his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, which resulted in an international coalition invading Iraq and imposing a strict inspection regime that uncovered and dismantled the reconstituted program.

In Iran's case, buying time offers even better prospects, because the combination of the Arab Spring and the 2009 uprising by Iran's own Green Movement makes regime change seem far more feasible than it did in Saddam's Iraq. Alternatively, Iran might overreact to a strike - say, by blockading oil shipments from the Gulf - in a way that necessitates international military action, or a new constellation of world leaders might impose stronger sanctions, or some completely unforeseen development, like Saddam's invasion of Kuwait, might radically alter the situation.

There's obviously no guarantee that any of this would happen. But buying time at least keeps open the chance of eventually halting Iran's nuclear program. Doing nothing offers no chance at all.

Another argument is that an attack would provoke harsh Iranian retaliation against Israel. That's not a certainty; neither Iraq nor Syria retaliated when Israel bombed their nuclear facilities. But assuming retaliation would follow, the fact remains that having had to fight for survival ever since their country was founded, Israelis are willing to endure some pain if they consider the cause worthwhile.

The Second Lebanon War of 2006, for instance, shuttered northern Israel for a month. Yet through most of that period, polls showed strong support for the war among the bombarded northerners; they were willing to sit in shelters for the sake of defeating a dangerous enemy, Hezbollah. Only after realizing that the government's misconceived war plan would leave Hezbollah largely intact did Israelis turn against the war.

Most Israelis do consider a nuclear Iran an existential threat, and would thus be prepared to tolerate some pain to prevent it. As former Mossad chief Danny Yatom succinctly put it last month, whatever price Iran exacts, "this is still not as bad as the threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb."

A third argument is that given Washington's vehement opposition, military action would undermine Israel's relationship with its chief ally, and this would endanger Israel more than a nuclear Iran would. But despite the closeness of the alliance, Israel has never allowed America to veto moves it deems essential to its security, and there's no reason to believe it would start now.

Moreover, there's no reason to believe that independent Israeli action would undermine the alliance, any more than it has in the past. For instance, Israel bombed the Iraqi reactor despite Ronald Reagan's opposition, and it continued Operation Defensive Shield (its 2002 counterterror offensive in the West Bank) despite George W. Bush's public demand that it withdraw its forces immediately. Sometimes, temporary chills ensued: Reagan, for instance, backed a UN Security Council condemnation of the Iraqi raid and suspended delivery of F-16 fighters to Israel.

But the ruptures were never permanent, because the American-Israeli alliance has always rested primarily not on the warmth of a particular President, but on the American public's support for Israel. And precisely because most Americans would never allow another country to veto military action vital to America's security, they have always understood Israel's refusal to grant such a veto to anyone, even its best friend.

A final argument is that Israel shouldn't undertake military actions that its own top defense professionals are known to oppose. This argument would be decisive had these officials claimed Israel lacked the requisite military capabilities, but they haven't. Rather, they argue that the costs of a strike would outweigh the benefits, largely for the reasons cited above.

But such cost-benefit decisions are properly the province of the elected government, not the defense establishment - not only because that's how democracies work, but also because military officials have no special advantage over politicians in weighing the various pros and cons. Nothing demonstrates this better than the strike on Iraq's nuclear reactor, which was opposed by numerous senior Israeli defense officials, including the heads of the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as two of the government's leading defense experts: Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, and Ezer Weizman, a former air force chief of staff (who resigned as defense minister before the final decision was made, but opposed it until then).

Ultimately, however, the politicians proved wiser: The bombing was a success, buying just enough time for Iraq's nuclear program to later be permanently dismantled.

Israelis still hope Iran's drive for nuclear weapons can be halted without military action. But if the government eventually concludes that the only alternatives are military action or a nuclear Iran, the arguments listed above are unlikely to deter it.

Evelyn Gordon, JINSA Visiting Fellow, is a journalist and commentator writing in The Jerusalem Post and Commentary. For more information on the JINSA Visiting Fellows program, click here.

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