Still a Huge Israeli Interest: Stop Iran’s Nuclear Program — But Options Have Narrowed; Depending Now on Obama’s Goodwill

[This article will appear in The Jerusalem Report later this month, a magazine published and distributed by The Jerusalem Post.]

by Yossi Melman in Tel Aviv

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared once again to be beating the war drums against Iran at around midnight on January 22, a mere two hours after exit polls aired on Israel’s three news channels showed his Likud Beytenu party losing 24 percent of its parliamentary power in the national election. Nevertheless Netanyahu, who, despite the electoral setback, will form the next government, was again raising the Iranian specter, even though he had ignored it for several months.

During his four-year term, Netanyahu repeatedly warned of the danger facing Israel if Iran were to achieve nuclear-weapon capability. In inflammatory terms, he described Iran as a country posing an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. He likened the situation facing Israel to the 1938 Munich agreement, in which Britain and France caved in to Adolf Hitler and sacrificed Czechoslovakia in the name of appeasement.

Netanyahu attempted to create the impression that Israel was in a similar situation to European Jewry on the verge of the Holocaust. And words were not sufficient for Netanyahu; they were followed by deeds. He boosted the Israel Air Force budget and ordered the military to accelerate its preparations for an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. In late 2010, he convened an unofficial meeting of top-level military and intelligence officials and issued an order to put the military machine on alert. His security chiefs managed to calm him down.

The impression in Israel and outside is that the prime minister is on a one-man crusade. No wonder Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet), called Netanyahu “the messiah from Caesarea” – where the prime minister has a seaside home and where he spends his weekends.

Throughout 2012 it seemed that an Israeli attack on Iran was inevitable. Local and international media pundits, as well as foreign intelligence communities, were setting date after date for an imminent Israeli attack. A few commentators, myself among them, doubted that Israel would attack Iran, but their voices were, for the most part, ignored.

Netanyahu’s obsession exacted a heavy price. Israelis were scared and close to panic. Relations between Israel and the US, which tried to prevent an Israeli attack, soured. And none of this helped to endear Netanyahu to US President Barack Obama.

And then came October – and the election campaign. Suddenly, the Iranian nuclear issue disappeared from the agenda, whisked away by a hidden hand. It was Netanyahu, who, together with his spin doctors, decided that sowing fear in the hearts and minds of the electorate was not a good ploy. Existential threats disappeared from the public domain.

But now that the election is over, Netanyahu is trying to revert to his old scare tactics, However, the prime minister’s renewed efforts vis-à-vis Iran are going to be far less convincing. He has fallen victim to the cry-wolf syndrome. How many times one can threaten with the same hollow words?

Moreover, in the wake of the election, Netanyahu and his party are now weaker; and a weak prime minister has less power to push his agenda. This weak prime minister will not have Ehud Barak, who has announced his retirement from politics, alongside him as his defense minister when the new government is formed. Netanyahu, who served as a junior officer in the elite Sayeret Matkal commando unit, adored Barak, who commanded the unit at the time; and the prime minister was under Barak’s spell when it came to Iran. Netanyahu felt reassured and capable of making tough decisions when Barak was around.

This could explain why Netanyahu had no qualms about ordering the IAF to carry out a strike inside Syria on January 29 to prevent the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah. Unlike the Iranian issue, over which Netanyahu and Barak had to contend with strong opposition to a military strike from their security chiefs, the top brass supported the decision to carry out the attack in Syria.

Meanwhile, senior military officials continue to oppose an Israeli attack on Iran. So when Barak leaves the Defense Ministry, Netanyahu will feel less confident to take tough decisions.

Netanyahu will be also restricted by his new coalition-in-the-making. As the second-biggest party in the Knesset, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid is going to be a major component of the new government, and it is more cautious and less adventurous in its approach to complicated security and foreign policy issues. The party’s two dominant voices in the field of security are Yaakov Perry, a former Shin Bet chief, and Ofer Shelah, a former journalist and political pundit. In the past, both have criticized Netanyahu and Barak for the way in which the two handled the Iran problem, and they can be expected to try to put the brakes on any Netanyahu military initiative.

But above all, it is the US which Netanyahu will have to take more seriously than he has done until now. By pushing the Iranian issue to the brink up until the elections in both the US and Israel the prime minister appeared to be on a collision course with Obama and his administration and seemed to be compromising the strategic alliance with Washington. Netanyahu put his money on Republican presidential campaign Mitt Romney – and lost the gamble. Now, he knows that he has to resuscitate the relationship, and means less freedom of maneuver for Israel.

In other words, if the chances of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear sites were very slim before the election, they are now even slimmer.

And all of this is taking place as Iran continues to upgrade its uranium-enrichment capabilities. The Tehran regime announced that in January new centrifuges had been put into operation at its uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz. Iran has been working on these centrifuges for more than 10 years, and probably because of the impact of international sanctions had great difficulty in developing them. The new machines can operate five times faster than the old ones, and could therefore be game changers. They bring Iran closer to producing its first nuclear bomb – if it decides to further enrich its stockpile of already enriched uranium from 20 percent to 90 percent.

Bearing in mind all the political, military and international constraints it faces, Israel under its newly elected prime minister is entering 2013 with a limited range of options to deal with Iran. And more so than ever, it will have to rely on Obama’s good will and his promise not to allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons.

February 8, 2013

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