Netanyahu bringing Israel closer to war with Iran

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu considers the lifting of the Iranian nuclear threat his life’s mission. Before coming to power, he had mentioned that such an operation might cost thousands of lives, but the price was justified in view of the threat’s severity. His comments yesterday at the meeting of Likud’s Knesset faction put to rest Ariel Sharon’s doctrine that Iran is not just Israel’s problem but the entire world’s problem, and Israel must not be at the forefront of the struggle. Israel is now at the forefront.

The leaders of Iran and Israel escalated the verbal confrontation yesterday. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said discussions on the nuclear issue are over, which means Iran does not intend to give up enriching uranium. Netanyahu said that if Israel does not lead the defense against the Iranian threat and bring in the United States and other countries, no one else will.

In both cases, in Tehran and Jerusalem, it’s possible to justify the leaders’ comments by citing domestic political needs. But even if the immediate motive is domestic politics, the strategic implications cannot be ignored.

Netanyahu reiterated that he has come to an understanding with U.S. President Barack Obama on preventing Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capability. Unlike the dispute between Netanyahu and the United States on the Palestinian question, the Americans have not denied his statements on understandings reached on Iran.

A senior source close to the Obama administration has said that the dialogue Obama has offered Iran will come to nothing and that the U.S. will not strike Iran unless something unusual and unexpected happens. If this turns out to be the case, the Netanyahu government may have to decide whether to attack Iran’s nuclear installations.

Three arguments are normally made to reject the likelihood of an Israeli military option: the complexity of the mission, the U.S. veto and opposition in the government. It is usually assumed that Israel will seek to repeat the 1981 bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq. This is only one scenario and not a likely one.

There are other possibilities to consider: a war in the north that drags Iran in, or a strike against a valuable target for the Iranian regime, which leads Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Ahmadinejad to take action against “the Zionist regime.” If Iran attacks Israel first, the element of surprise will be lost, but then Israel’s strike against the nuclear installations will be considered self-defense.

The second argument, regarding American opposition to a strike, depends on the circumstances. It’s hard to imagine that Obama will order the interception of Israeli aircraft on the way to Natanz if all other ways of stopping the centrifuges have failed. Clearly the administration will have to chastise Israel, and let’s not forget the statements by CIA chief Leon Panetta, who warned against any operation not coordinated with the United States. But no one knows how Obama will behave in the moment of truth. He told Newsweek that he will not tell Israelis what their defense requirements are. Netanyahu liked this very much.

The third claim, about political opposition at home, is entirely mistaken. In talks on going to war, the ministers and officers compete over who is more patriotic, not who is wiser or more rational. At decision time, no one will dare go down in history as having reservations and risk being portrayed as a coward. If the Second Lebanon War is anything to go by, all the “heroes” who criticized the war in retrospect had voted to go to war. This will be the case if Netanyahu brings to the cabinet a plan to attack Iran, and the Israel Defense Forces will say that it can.

A war with Iran is not inevitable. But the prime minister took another step yesterday toward preparing the general public for the possibility that it might break out.