Shai Feldman argues that the push for war led by Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak has stalled, but not so much because of fears about the regional repercussions in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran. The balance has been tipped because of what are now widely held fears inside Israel’s political and security establishment that such an attack would present a serious threat to U.S.-Israeli relations.
For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country’s president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.
Using every possible media outlet on the occasion of his 89th birthday, President Peres made clear last Thursday that “going it alone” — attacking Iran without a clear understanding with the United States — would be catastrophic. Peres did a great service to his country by focusing the debate away from some of the weaker arguments offered by opponents of a strike. Thus, the supposedly limited time that would be gained by such a strike was never convincing because in both previous experiences with such preventive action — against Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and against the Syrian reactor in 2007 — Israel ended up gaining more time than even the most optimistic proponents of these strikes had anticipated.
Similarly, the warnings that an attack on Iran’s nuclear installations would ignite a regional war were not persuasive in the absence of Arab states volunteering to join such a war. Iran’s only regional state ally is Syria, but President Bashar al-Assad would not be able to direct his armed forces to attack Israel when these forces are mired in a civil war and barely control a third of the country’s territory.
Hezbollah, Iran’s principle non-state ally, might react to an Israeli strike by launching its rockets against Israel, but with Iran weakened from the attack and Syria unable to protect it, such an assault would be suicidal. Certainly none of the region’s Sunni Arab countries — Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states — will come to Iran’s aid. None of these countries uttered a word when in 2007 Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Sunni-Arab Syria. Why the same countries would be expected to ignite the region in the event that the nuclear facilities of a Shiite Persian country would be attacked, was never clear.
Avoiding repetition of these weak arguments, Peres clarified what is really at stake in the event of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the next few months: Israel’s relations with the United States. The basic divide is not the two countries’ different time constraints due to very different capacities to deal militarily with Iran’s nuclear installations. Instead, it has to do with two issues. The first is the U.S. electoral timetable. The presidential election creates an imperative for U.S. President Barack Obama to avoid any unexpected fallouts — economic or otherwise — of a military strike against Iran. Peres understands that ignoring Obama’s concerns and instead banking on a victory by Republican candidate Mitt Romney in November, as Netanyahu seems to have done, is very risky if not irresponsible.
The second issue concerns the timeline for the drawdown of U.S. forces in the region. Clearly, the Joint Chiefs are worried about the prospects of becoming embroiled in a military conflict with another Muslim country as long as U.S. forces continue to be deployed in Afghanistan and hence exposed to Iranian retaliation. [Continue reading…]