Today I’m going to engage in the popular sport of predicting when Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear installations.
Not ‘if’ — when. It is now clear that sanctions and diplomacy as they can be implemented in the real world will not — cannot — stop Iran. The attainment of nuclear weapons is a national goal of top priority, and the regime can tolerate a great amount of unhappiness on the part of its people in order to achieve it.
Although it is not impossible that the US will do the job, our red lines are farther away than those of Israel. Administration officials have alluded to a ‘decision to build a weapon’ as a trigger for action, while Israel considers the ‘capability’ as unacceptable.
It is also an Israeli strategic principle — well borne out by history — that it cannot depend on others when national survival is at stake. It considers nuclear capability of a state like Iran a danger to its existence. So even if the US makes convincing arguments that it will take action in the future, this is not a bet that Netanyahu can afford to take.
I am not sufficiently competent or informed to say when the point will be reached at which Israel feels that it must act before the Iranian facilities are hardened enough to make an attack too difficult. And of course I don’t know when the Iranians will have the “capability” that defines Israel’s red line. But there are political issues that I can discuss.
All of Israel’s wars involve the US as a silent ally or silent not-so-much-ally. The question of “what will the US allow Israel to do?” is almost as important as “what is Israel capable of doing?” And the timing of any action with regard to the upcoming election is very relevant to US behavior.
Because the majority of Americans support Israel, the administration does not want to appear unfriendly before the election (this is one reason that it has backed off the pressure to restart negotiations with the Palestinians). This will greatly restrict its freedom to act to restrain Israel or end the conflict that develops before Israel has achieved a clear-cut victory.
This is extremely important in connection with the campaign against Hizballah that will have to accompany action against Iran. Israel can not afford a conflict that ends in another toothless UN resolution like 1701, which ‘forbade’ Hizballah from rearming, and which was ignored.
After the election, the Obama administration — which is exceptionally cool toward Israel — will either be re-elected or become a lame duck. In either case, it will no longer be restrained by electoral considerations. It will no longer be afraid to be tough on Israel.
If Romney wins the election, one hopes that his administration will be more friendly. But practically speaking, it’s doubtful that there will be a major reversal of US policy. The State Department, the CIA, the various pro-Arab lobbies — none of these will go away, or change a whole lot. In that case, I think we can look forward to a return to ‘normal’ US-Israel relations, similar to what we had in the Clinton and Bush administrations. And that would be a good thing.
I don’t want to minimize the ideological distance between a Romney, who believes in American exceptionalism, and an Obama, who is the first American president to espouse “leading from behind.”
But a new administration would want to avoid an international crisis in its first days. And Israel would want to go out of its way to establish good relations with it. So the idea that a Romney victory would be a green light for Israel to attack Iran is certainly wrong. And it is highly unlikely that a new administration would want to jump into military action itself.
Regardless of who wins, then, it is advantageous for Israel to act before the election.