Even though Israel won MadEast’s threat-off hands down, the idea of an immediate or imminent existential threat always seemed remote. The country also shoots itself in the foot through constant fear-mongering at every level of society, from the authorities, to the political parties, to the media. So it’s no easy thing to assess the real sense of the threat posed by Iran’s presumably imminent nuclear power status and what, if anything, Israel will do to prevent it from acquiring the bomb.
One indication of how seriously the Israelis want the issue to be taken is the upcoming civil defence exercise, the largest in the country’s history. As with previous ones, Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement rather hysteriously claimed that the May 31-June 2 exercise was a cover to attack the movement. In Israel many more people speculate that it might be the moment that the country finally deals militarily with Iran’s nuclear programme. That does not preclude a parallel attack on Hebzollah, although the generals would probably prefer to keep that front quiet if they think that Hezbollah will not retaliate in the name of Iran.
An Israeli attack on Iran would be disastrous for the region, far beyond the rather optimistic idea of “throwing all the cards up in the air and see where they land,” as one rather centrist businessman in Tel-Aviv put it. The fall-out, political, diplomatic, terrorist and violence-related would be far beyond anything seen so far. It would ruin any possibility of normalisation of ties between the Muslim world and the west. Even the Arab countries that oppose Iran would be compelled to join in the anti-Israel and anti-US wave that is sure to follow. They are likely to be much more in Iran’s orbit after such an attack than if Iran is allowed to build the bomb. So, an military strike against Iran should really be the weapon of absolute last resort.
Even if an attack seems unlikely, the Israeli civil defence exercise will send a signal that the country is prepared to weigh all options to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. How far Israel is actually willing to go, remains a cause for speculation but clearly if it is to put pressure on the international community, the threat of military action needs to remain credible. In that context comments by Defence minister Ehud Barak in the daily Haaretz newspaper on the occasion of the country’s 61st birthday could be chilling. He seems be tamping down expectations of a military strike and calls an Iranian nuclear bomb not an existential threat, exactly the kind of talk that we might expect in case that Israel is actually planning an attack.
The real indication of Israeli leadership thinking on the subject may come from the country’s new Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has sounded a lot more ominous than his predecessors. Bibi has always had more of a propagandist and shrill streak in him than almost any of the other senior politicians in the country. But the Israeli media themselves are now wondering whether Netanyahu will not be hung by his own rhetoric – after making such a big deal of Iran’s presumptive nuclear programme he may be compelled to act just to preserve his own credibility.
The conversation with the businessman in Tel Aviv reveals how many Israelis view the stark choices that they are faced with, and he was even moderate in his views compared to others. First of all Iran’s ambition to develop the bomb, despite its denial, was taken as a given, which it probably is. From there the spectre of a nuclear holocaust almost automatically followed. “They say that they’ll do it, so they will do it”, was the logic. The fact that Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, denies ever having said that Iran itself will “wipe Israel off the map” did not carry weight. “They can just give the bomb to Hezbollah”.
But the degree of the reality of the threat did not even matter much in the conversation, even the remote possibility of an Iranian nuclear strike justified Israeli military action. “It’s better to deal with it now than to have a nuclear war between Israel and Iran.” The rationale was that if Israel attacked Iran now, the international community would have to step in to prevent Tehran form ever acquiring the bomb in the future. In this way the question of the efficacy of such an Israeli pre-emptive strike was neatly sidestepped.
A few years ago the whole question of an Iranian nuclear weapon, despite the hostile feelings between the two countries, would have been less of an issue in Israel. The country would not like any of its enemies in the wider Middle East to have the bomb but Iran was not regarded as an immediate threat. Hezbollah’s ability to resist the Israeli onslaught in 2006 coupled with the increasingly belligerent rhetoric from Ahmedinejad, seemingly sanctioned by the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has shifted this perception. Too often in the past have leaders in the region followed up seemingly empty rhetoric with foolhardy actions. The announced kidnapping of Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah in 2006 being one of the examples.
Ahmedinajed is a double liability for Iran in this case. He makes an Israeli attack more likely because of the sense of threat that he instils in the country and he also serves as Israel’s excuse in case it decides to attack. “We are very lucky to have Amedinejad,” said the businessman.