Israel May Have Time Limit In Iran Attack Decision

by Yossi Melman 

The month of October is already on the horizon.  And it’s usually characterized by difficult weather conditions, especially for an attack.  Thus there’s the explanation that if there’s a decision to attack Iran, it’ll be done within less than 3 months.  Will Benjamin Netanyahu act?

spies against armageddon, iran nuclear, israel attack, yossi melmanThe French novelist Jules Verne, in the nineteenth century, wrote Around the World in 80 Days, which was thought of as science fiction.  That is, more or less, the time frame that Israel has to work with — at one of the decisive moments in its history. The next eighty days are the window of opportunity in which Israel could attack Iran, until the end of October — and the weather only gets worse in November.  After late October, even if Israel’s government wishes it, it would be difficult for the air force to carry out the intended attack.  The climate conditions over Iran at the end of autumn and the start of winter are mostly cloudy — and thus they’re not amenable to an air attack.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is more certain than ever that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be necessary. Some commentators are describing that attitude as “ideology.” They believe that the PM, when it comes to Iran, has a fixed worldview. They believe that he is concerned that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it would use them — so he is determined to prevent a second Holocaust.

But Netanyahu has never had a genuine “ideology.” He just wraps his decisions in justifications and explanations that appear ideological. That’s how it is with economic issues, and that’s how it is regarding a possible Palestinian state, and so it is also on Iran.

Yet despite his general image as a man who is cautious and avoids major risks, when it comes to Iran he is ready to gamble. That’s because he believes that an attack would put him into Israel’s national Pantheon, with leaders such as David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Begin, of course, ordered the air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981.

There’s no doubt — not in Israel and not between Israel and the United States — of the need to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons.  President Barack Obama declared that he won’t tolerate Iran having a nuclear arsenal.

The former Mossad chief, Meir Dagan — though famously opposed to an Israeli air strike on Iran — has said that it’s a strong American interest not to let Iran get nuclear weapons.  Even the left wing in Israeli politics believes that the radical Islamic regime in Teheran must not go nuclear.  The question is how to stop it.  Who should take action, and when?

For Netanyahu there seems to be no doubt that Israel should do it — and before the clouds close Iran’s airspace.  The body which needs to decide is the Security Cabinet, which has 14 government ministers: about half of the full cabinet.  Netanyahu has a narrow group of eight ministers, often referred to as “the Octet,” who generally are first to be consulted on very important issues.  But the Octet has no official standing or decision-making authority; and so the decision must be made by the Security Cabinet.

In addition, Netanyahu feels that his chance of getting a majority among the 14 in the Security Cabinet — in favor of an attack on Iran — is higher than among the Octet.  Only three ministers among the 14 are clearly opposed to an air strike: Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, and a former foreign minister, Silvan Shalom.  They believe it would be a mistake to act in defiance of U.S. wishes.  They favor letting tighter economic sanctions have an impact on Iran.

A fourth minister, former military chief of staff Moshe (Boogie) Yaalon, also has been opposed to an attack at this time; but Netanyahu has been making obvious efforts to bring Yaalon closer to him — including him, for instance, in events such as the official talks with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she was in Israel recently.

The defense minister, Ehud Barak, will likely be a decisive figure in this process.  Lately he is showing some independence from Netanyahu’s views, and the center-left in Israel sees Barak as “the last great white hope” to steer Israeli politics away from Netanyahu.  Yet opinion polls suggest that Barak and his party might win only 2 seats in the Knesset — out of a total of 120.

That is an improvement from the zero that was indicated in prior polls, but still Barak may well feel that his greatest chance of regaining political legitimacy — as a former prime minister — would be to vote in favor of an attack on Iran.  If it goes very well, he’d be hailed as an Israeli hero.  If the attack goes wrong, Barak would not be losing much politically.  At age 70, his political career seems to have run its course, anyway.

Ministers will certainly heed advice from the military chief of staff, General Benny Gantz, who is quite new at that post; and from the air force commander, General Amir Eshel.  Netanyahu also listens to his national security advisor — Yaakov Amidror — who has a record of being very hawkish on almost all issues.

If the prime minister decides to strike Iran, he will win a majority in the Security Cabinet.  Barak will go along with him.  But, except for perhaps Netanyahu himself, no one knows whether the prime minister will bring that issue to those 14 government ministers.

The key question, in other words, is whether Netanyahu sees the threat of Iran building a nuclear bomb as so severe that he is willing to risk severe friction with the United States, a severe blow to the Israeli economy, the possibility of a bloody regional war, and a hail of missiles from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and perhaps Syria hitting Israel.  Is that a set of risks that he believes Israel can stand?


August 10, 2012

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