(Previously published in The Jerusalem Post)
An Israeli pre-emptive attack against Iranian nuclear facilities is theoretically still a reality.
Will President Barack Obama again say to Israel “atem lo levad” (“you are not alone”), if Israel strikes Iran? Will the American administration commit to approve an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities if Iran violates the agreement? In April, opposition leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni of the Zionist Union proposed just that in a position paper, according to Yediot Aharonot.
Despite the recent revelation by former defense minister Ehud Barak that both he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu favored an Iranian strike, but were stymied by Yuval Steinitz, Moshe Ya’alon, Meir Dagan and Gabi Ashkenazi, an Israeli pre-emptive attack against Iranian nuclear facilities is theoretically still a reality.
(The rationale, of course, is that the Iranian leadership repeatedly calls for Israel to be “annihilated” or “wiped off the map.”) Whether this is wise or unwise in the post-Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action world is another story.
According to Norman Podhoretz writing in The Wall Street Journal: “With hardly an exception, all of Israel believes that the Iranians are deadly serious… to wipe the Jewish state off the map… once Iran acquires the means to make good on this genocidal commitment, each side will be faced with only two choices: …rely on the fear of a retaliatory strike… or… launch a pre-emptive strike of its own.”
In light of this overwhelming Israeli sentiment, here are four questions: • If Israel decides, for self-preservation, to strike Iran after a deal is in place, what happens to the US-Israel relationship? • Would Israel choose not to strike to preserve that relationship, which in the eyes of many is of existential importance to Israel? • Are you confident that Iran won’t give Hezbollah a nuclear device? If not, are you confident Hezbollah would not put it on a missile headed for Tel Aviv? • Would the world be safer if Israel did strike, upending conventional wisdom? Just as the pre-emptive Israeli strikes on the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and (allegedly) the Syrian reactor in 2009 made the world a less dangerous place, a strike against Iran, even post-agreement, has the potential for many unintended consequences, not all of them necessarily bad. Imagine the apocalyptic scenarios we could be facing today if the Syrian reactor had not been struck in 2009. A nuclear weapon might now be in the hands of the Syrian regime or Islamic State – both of which have already used chemical weapons. When the US president tells Israeli supporters that he has Israel’s back, they should look at how he turned his back on the Kurds.
This may all be moot as it assumes Israel still has the capability to deliver a meaningful strike, setting the Iranian nuclear program back many years. But the recent Russian announcement that it will sell the advanced S-300 anti-missile system to Iran in defiance of existing sanctions may close Israel’s window of opportunity.
Those Russian missiles could actually force Israel to strike sooner rather than later.
President Obama believes American interests are best served by the nuclear deal. Yet the American people and an overwhelming majority of Israelis, from the Right to Left, think the nuclear deal is dangerous. This is because the agreement spared Iran the need to choose between its nuclear program and economic prosperity. Iran received both in the deal.
Four more questions to ponder: • Could Israel, against the wishes of every nation on the planet, pre-emptively attack Iran to save itself? • What would follow an Israeli strike? • Will international terrorism rise; will the Iranian proxy Hezbollah and Iranian ally Hamas coordinate a conventional attack against Israel? • Would Iranian hegemonic ambitions be dampened or accelerated? With the conclusion of the deal, Iranian proxies and allies may feel freer to ramp up terrorism against Jews in Europe and South America again, testing Israel and the American response. There is no doubt that the administration would condemn such actions, but then rationalize that no military response should be allowed to threaten the greater benefits of the deal.
Netanyahu and the Israeli public may not be so forgiving if Hezbollah emerges from underground tunnels in the north, Hamas joins them via tunnels dug with Iranian largesse, missiles fly from the south or north to the heartland, or Jewish civilians are killed on a tourist bus in Prague, London, or Nairobi.
Perhaps the greatest damage caused by an Israeli strike would be to the US-Israeli relationship. Could it mean a permanent end to the special relationship? Would the president allow UN Security Council sanctions against Israel? American military support might be suspended or could end during this administration. The president might even welcome the opportunity as part of his long-term goal of realigning American interests to the Muslim world.
AT THE same time, allies of Israel in Congress will worry that the most important US ally in the region will be weakened and isolated, hurting US national security and surveillance interests. On the other hand, there is a potential backlash of anti-Semitism if Israel is perceived as drawing the US into another Middle East war.
When the deal becomes effective, most pro-Israel members of Congress and Jewish organizational leaders will have a two-fold strategy: increase US military aid to Israel to compensate for the deal’s devastating impact on Israeli security interests, and lobby the Israeli government not to strike Iran – even if the US imposes no consequences when Iran cheats.
If Israel strikes Iran before President Obama’s term ends, the president will likely stand aside as the European nations and the international community lead the charge to make Israel a pariah nation. But what would the next American president do? It is likely he or she will try to bridge the divide between the countries.
However, if the world is significantly destabilized by Iranian retaliations either in the form of terrorism or economic blockades of the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb, then many on the Democratic side of the aisle will demand that the US remain permanently distanced from Israel.
The fraying of the US-Israel relationship as we know it is real – especially if the United States does not impose consequences for Iranian cheating. Congress, the American people, the American Jewish community and, most importantly, the next American president must anticipate this eventuality and act to prevent it.
The author is the director of MEPIN™ (Middle East Political and Information Network™), and a regular contributor to The Jerusalem Post. MEPIN™ is a Middle East research analysis read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisors, members of the Knesset, journalists and organizational leaders.
He regularly briefs members of Congress on issues related to the Middle East.