The Israeli leaders are arguing about how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program; some call for preparing a military attack; others admit the incapacity of Israel at the moment to hit the program; while a third group considers that the solution of the Iranian dilemma is not through military.
In addition to the many impacts such a strike would have, the Palestinian issue and regional settings would specifically be affected. If Iran fails to militarily retaliate soundly, the Palestinian resistance factions will suffer increasing pressures to submit to the Quartet conditions and to “adhere” to the Arab initiative. But if Iran succeeds in retaliating strongly, its regional role will be fostered and that will support the resistance movements, and might push Israel to lessen the ceiling of demands and conditions related to the two-state solution.
On the other hand, if Netanyahu’s government preferred waiting the results of the Iranian-American dialogue, it will most probably seek restricting the dialogue time-wise, while dealing with the Palestinian course on the basis of “wait and postpone”.
For the first time in the history of the Israeli army, it was officially announced that Iran is the Strategic opponent number one, that the Iranian nuclear weapon is an existential threat for Israel, and that the problem of eliminating this threat is of the most serious security problems facing the military and political Israeli leadership since the occupation establishment of Israel in 1948. This announcement took place in the annual conference of the military Israeli leadership in 18/2/2009, with the attendance of major generals.
First Level: as expressed by many political and military figures (Barak, Ashkenazi, Olmert, Netanyahu, Lieberman…) who consider that the Hebrew state should prepare for the military option, and thus for launching an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities at any suitable moment. The Israeli Army chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi has emphasized that the information available at the Israeli hands indicate that by the end of 2009, Iran will be able to produce a nuclear bomb. This is Netanyahu’s strategy so called: “Iran First”, that is facing the Iranian nuclear threat before any other issue be it Palestinian, Syrian or Lebanese. In addition, Lieberman considers Iran the major problem in the Middle East.
Second Level: as expressed by the former head of intelligence and General reserve Aharon Zaevi Farkash, who said that Israel is not capable of facing the Iranian nuclear threat with its available resources, and that it rather essentially needs the help of the US. He added that in case a military strike to Iran took place, then Israel should not be more than a participant; calling the Israelis to “a little humbleness”. Farkash’s blunt statement daunted many. Add to that, the statements from other Israeli political and military figures, “warning from the threat of exaggerated bragging that lead to the facts of not achieving satisfactory results in wars: attrition war, Yom Kippur war, first and second Lebanon wars etc…”; and from the dangers of taking uncalculated in-haste decisions especially with an unqualified leadership. Also, a group of former officials in the Israeli security bodies proposed a set of multi-dimensional recommendations to face the nuclear Iranian threat. These recommendations included combinations of sanctions, approaches to the Iranian public opinion, suing the Iranian president Ahmadinejad, and preparations for a military operation; thus trying to somehow distance Netanyahu’s government from the military slip.
Third Level: as revealed through the position of the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, when he told the American envoy to the Middle East George Mitchell on 17/4/2009, that the Israeli army has no current intentions of attacking Iran, that a broad international cooperation should be sought for the Iranian issue, and that all talks arising about a possible Israeli attack on Iran are not true since the solution in Iran is not through military.
In addition, Israeli newspapers included many commentaries about the “Iranian threat”. Some of the editorials and op-eds concluded: “the Israeli attack can’t ensure failing the Iranian nuclear project… and does Israel know what and where it should strike? .. (Haaretz)… and “despite its tough guy image,
Parallel to the above three levels, the Israeli army continued military exercises and training, importing arms, buying more advanced military airplanes and drones, and running experiments on the Haytes rocket defense system, all the way up till Netanyahu’s expressed “satisfaction” with the Israeli preparations for the military option against Iran.
These three levels of stances and options –that are not necessarily mutually exclusive- don’t mean that the Israelis dissent about describing the “Iranian threat” on the Hebrew state, but rather argue about the priorities when dealing with this threat; while some want to postpone the military operation, others threaten with it early, and a third group preferring to join rather than initiate, or push, others like the US to take this option.
But Israel is afraid that letting time pass by, the Iranian-American dialogue might cover up for the time needed by Iran to attain a nuclear bomb. Since it can’t prevent Obama’s administration from moving towards negotiation and dialogue, Israel could ask them to condition this dialogue with a time limit, at the end of which the truth of the Iranian intents on adhering to a peaceful nuclear program could be verified or busted. In the latter case, the Israeli leaders will have justifications for any military step they take thus preventing American and European objections.
The American position seems decisive towards the Israeli intentions and preparations to strike Iran. This position is not limited to discouraging the Israeli side from taking any military option, but it argues against any such option in the current stage even if the claim of Iran being the primary threat to the Hebrew state was true. In addition, the American regional vision doesn’t converge with that of the Israelis on the priorities of a Middle East solution. Instead of “Iran first”, the American administration considers that some achievement should be first made on the Palestinian course specifically in announcing the agreement on a two-state solution; because such an announcement, according to the American vision, could help in forming an Arab-American-Israeli front to isolate Iran. While on the other part, Netanyahu and Liberman consider that solving the Iranian issue first is what will allow for achieving some progress in the Palestinian issue; because Iran is capable of suspending any possible such progress now, and this capability should be eliminated -through ending the Iranian nuclear program- before moving to the Palestinian issue.
The American administration yet goes further in its position when clearly warning the Israeli officials against “surprising Washington with a military operation against Iran”. This message was delivered by the head of the CIA Leon Panetta (25/5/2009). Why? Because as put by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Michael Mullen, such a step would endanger the entire region (28/3/2009); and according to the vice President Joe Biden, an Israeli military strike to Iran would be an “ill-advised” step. The secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, said that although he doesn’t expect it, “such a strike would only delay the nuclear program” while on the other hand it would unify Iranians, “cement their determination to have a nuclear program, and also build into the whole country an undying hatred of whoever hits them” (17/4/2009).
Concluding on the American position, the administration doesn’t currently support an Israeli military strike against Iran, and the new American administration want from the Israeli government to announce support for the two-state solution, refrain from building settlements, in order to allow for “moderate” Arab countries to claim achieving some “real” progress on the Palestinian course.
In the shadow of the above mentioned considerations, what are the options facing Israel in dealing with what it calls “Iranian existential danger”? and what would be the implications of each of the hypothetical scenarios on the Middle East in general, and specifically on the Palestinian issue?
First Scenario: Opting for a military strike –short in the range of hours- targeting the Iranian nuclear establishments, ending also the prospective American-Iranian dialogue. The Israeli government is especially afraid of the American administration orientation that mentioned providing Israel with an aerial nuclear shield, which implicitly indicates admitting the Iranian nuclear capacities. Israel considers that with the arrival of Obama, the American administration policies are becoming so different from those of the Bush administration when Israel had enjoyed unlimited support (the different views between Obama and Netanyahu following the latter’s visit to the White house in 18/5/2009). The Israeli government argues that Obama has no interest in a military operation against Iran, while he needs dialogue with it to rearrange the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and that additionally, the global economic crises leashes the superpowers, when each of the superpower countries badly needs to postpone -if not avoid- international confrontations (Kissinger 29/4/2009). Thus, for the Israelis, the military option is a “strategic initiative” that turns the order upside down, force the Obama administration to support Israel and refrain not only from the idea of talking to Iran, but also from pressuring the Israelis to accept the two-state solution, and drawback the western voices calling for dialogue with Hamas.
In such a scenario, Israel won’t be obliged to continue in negotiations with Syria while Netanyahu has declared refusal to withdrawal from Golan. Most probably also then, the Israeli leadership will take the opportunity of the war to strike in parallel against the leaders of Hamas and the resistance in Palestine, because the world will be occupied for long with containing the strike against Iran. Even the negotiations with the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be suspended, i.e. it would be “Iran first” and not the Palestinian issue that is the central problem that the world should solve. This scenario faces two possible directions:
1) Israel succeeds in destroying some of the Iranian establishments and Iran fails in retaliating in the suitable time, that is Israel would achieve a flashing victory. In this case, it would be usual for the Israeli government to refrain from giving any renunciations regarding accepting the two-state solution, the settlements, or the Arab peace initiative; the Israeli, Arab and International forces will turn to pressuring the resistance movements instead, Hamas primarily, to accept all the conditions that formerly they refused, including recognizing Israel, the international resolutions, and the agreements signed between the PA and Israel.
2) Iran retaliates fiercely to the Israeli aggression even if it was successful in destroying some of the nuclear establishments. This will put the whole region on fire with very possible spreading out of fire. Following that, a new balance of powers is expected to emerge in the region, and if the Israeli government then lost again, it would have to submit to the two-state solution while the most advantaged parties would be the resistance movements in Palestine and Lebanon. This possibility however would increase the Arab fears of Iran, and push the US to support Israel again so that the latter won’t be forced to give up additional renunciations.
Second Scenario: Israel will wait, against its will, the results of the American dialogue with Iran. Accordingly, it will not go for any military operation that might anger the Obama administration and perplex the regional calculations between America and its Arab allies; who wish that after long years of negotiations some progress would be achieved on the Palestinian course (like agreeing on the two-state solution). In this case, Netanyahu’s government will not give up any real compromises, neither to the Palestinians nor to the Syrians; even if negotiations were resumed because the Israeli strategy in this case would be “wait and postpone”. It is possible also that Israel would then commit assassinations, refuse the participation of Hamas in any government, refuse dealing with any government that includes Hamas, seek additional cooperation and normalization with “moderate” Arab countries, and invoke fears against Iran and its nuclear danger; while continuing preparation for a military strike. Netanyahu’s government will not refrain from building additional settlements, with increased focus on widening the Palestinian-Palestinian fracture that doesn’t seem to be ended soon in the shadow of establishing a new government that didn’t get the national consensus of all factions. Meanwhile, while waiting, Israel will not stop repeating and emphasizing the extent of the Iranian threat on the Arab and International settings, and calling for additional sanctions against Tehran.
1- the clear and decisive determinacy of the American president in rejecting this option, that will confuse all his strategies in the Middle East.
2- the absence of an Israeli consensus on this scenario.
3- Fear of the wide Iranian retaliation in light of the serious military preparations in Tehran for such a case.
This indicate that the Israeli government will be left with no option but to retract from continuously threatening with striking Iran, especially that the American president implied that a “test-period” should be observed with Iran to make clear its intents in dialogue, in which also the American president could determine the possibilities for saving the deteriorating situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan, i.e. Israel should wait till then before it can consider any military act. In addition, president Obama might try in this period pressuring Netanyahu for some renunciations that would appeal to Obama’s Arab allies, strengthen the position of the PA and weaken that of Hamas and other opposition movements; e.g. stop building the settlements, releasing Palestinian prisoners, opening the crossings and going back to negotiation tables with the PA even if Netanyahu didn’t announce commitment to establishing a Palestinian state or to the two-state solution. Hence we will be facing another few months of stagnancy without witnessing any essential progress, and without any serious basic commitment on behalf of the Israeli side. However, the Israeli government will then most probably seek expanding the normalization circles with Arab countries, on the basis of besieging the “Palestinian Extremism” teamed up with Iran who hinders the peace process. This calls for the attention not to slip into what the Israelis and Americans favor of igniting the Palestinian-Palestinian division; for awareness from the possible assassination of resistance leaders, or from limited military operations in the Gaza Strip specifically; and for seriousness in dealing politically and media-wise with the attempts of establishing an Arab-Israeli front for “facing the Iranian threat” in the region.
Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations would like to sincerely thank Dr. Talal Atreesi for writing the original text on which basis this assessment was written.