MIDDLE EAST SEPTEMBER 12, 2013
John Kerry’s accidental diplomacy may have saved President Obama in Washington, but here in Israel, the White House’s indecisiveness of the last few weeks will cast a long shadow. Israel has kept a low profile in the Syrian civil war, launching anonymous strikes periodically to prevent the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, but otherwise keeping mum—and with good reason. A collapse of the Syrian state and the rise of jihadist groups would threaten the long-standing calm along the Golan Heights and is no less distasteful to Israel than Assad’s continuation in power. Israel certainly has a vital stake in the destruction of Syria’s chemical arsenal (Assad has missiles that can reach Tel Aviv; so does Hezbollah), but Benjamin Netanyahu still sees the issue through the same prism he sees all issues these days: As he said Wednesday, “the message Syria receives will resonate very strongly in Iran.” It will resonate very strongly in Israel as well.
The Obama administration (and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) has argued to Congress that a failure to enforce the president’s red line on chemical weapons would embolden the Iranian leadership to test his red line on nuclear weapons. And, indeed, a no vote on the Syria resolution would devastate American credibility in Tehran. But Iran has shown few signs of being deterred even in the face of crippling sanctions and an American threat of military action, so the more salient question is how the handwringing in Washington will affect the calculus in Jerusalem as Israel continues to debate military action.
Before tackling that question, it’s important to dispense with a couple of misconceptions that have taken root around the world as Netanyahu has failed to follow through on his threats to strike Iran. The first is the idea that Netanyahu is bluffing—that the bluster, the innuendo, and the leaks of the past few years are all part of an elaborate ploy to goad the world into harsher measures. It is true that Israel has an incentive to overstate the urgency of the matter. Still, conversations over the past two years with individuals who have been directly involved in the decision-making process have convinced me that Netanyahu is quite serious about striking Iran and would have done so by now had it not been for intense American pressure.
The second misconception is that there is a meaningful debate within the Israeli government and security establishment about whether to attack Iran’s nuclear program. There is not. Virtually all top Israeli officials agree that given the choice between “bomb or bombing,” bombing is the lesser of two evils. The debate instead has been over whether Israel has more time to wait for other measures to take their toll or whether, by waiting too long, it risks allowing Iran to enter what former defense minister Ehud Barak called the “zone of immunity,” when the Iranian nuclear program would be beyond Israel’s military reach. There are a number of factors at play here, from the amount of uranium Iran possesses to the number and quality of centrifuges, not to mention the measures Iran is taking to hide and fortify its program. But the major question before Israel has always been whether it could trust the U.S.—with its superior military capabilities—to strike in the event that its own window of military opportunity closes.
Until now, a number of senior Israelis have believed it could. “I heard very carefully what President Obama said,” former Mossad chief Meir Dagan told "60 Minutes" last year. “And he said openly that the military option is on the table, and he is not going to let Iran become a nuclear state.” Current president Shimon Peres was even more emphatic in an interview with The New York Times Magazine, arguing that Israel should give the U.S. more time to pursue sanctions and diplomacy. “If none of this works, then President Obama will use military power against Iran,” he said. “I am sure of it.”
Netanyahu is, well, less sure. While he has long expressed a preference for American military action—“I'm going to divulge a secret to you about [American] capabilities,” he once told Piers Morgan. “They're actually greater than ours”—he doubts that Obama has the stomach for it. He also knows that Israel and the U.S. have different red lines. Netanyahu’s—which he famously sketched out at the U.N.—is Iran’s possession of enough fissile material for a bomb. Obama’s is the actual manufacture of a bomb.
Netanyahu had a fellow skeptic in Barak, who with him lobbied fellow members of Israel’s security cabinet in support of a strike before last year’s U.S. presidential election. While the details remain murky, all indications are that Barak changed his mind in the final weeks after receiving American assurances. The question in the wake of the great Syria zig-zag is what an American assurance is worth. If Syria is a test case for American reliability, it hasn’t been an encouraging one for Israelis. An immediate strike would have bolstered those Israelis urging greater consultation with the U.S., but Obama’s eleventh-hour move to put the decision in the hands of the likes of Rand Paul and Alan Grayson made him seem gun-shy. It also set a precedent that, if applied to Iran, would make any American military threat hollow. Unlike the limited strike on Syria that Obama has been proposing, an air campaign against Iran would be time-sensitive. Iran will soon have enough fissile material and centrifuges that, providing its weaponization program is sufficiently advanced, it may be able to produce a bomb within a matter of weeks if it decides to do so.
The argument will come up sooner than most think. Based on my reporting, I’ve become increasingly convinced in recent months that—barring an unforeseen diplomatic breakthrough—Israel will strike Iran before the end of next year, and conceivably well before then. The officials who order that strike may never know whether Congress would have voted down the Syria resolution and whether Obama would have acted anyways. But it doesn’t take negative answers to these questions for Israel to be concerned. The questions themselves are worrisome enough.