Analysis: From Israel, urgings of caution on Iran

March 6, 2012 - 4:25 PM
US Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds two letters, one of which he read from, as he addresses the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Policy Conference in Washington, Monday, March 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces significant pressure at home to coordinate with the United States in any attack against Iran's nuclear program, despite his public insistence on Israel's right to act alone.

With the clock ticking toward a monumental decision by Netanyahu, it largely could come down to whether he trusts President Barack Obama — a man with whom Netanyahu, often jokingly referred to as an "Israeli Republican," seems markedly ill at ease.

The signs from this week's summit at the White House are not particularly good. The two allies agree that Iran is on a path that could eventually lead to the production of a nuclear weapon, but part ways over urgency: Netanyahu seems impatient with Obama's statements that tough new economic sanctions imposed by the West be given time to work.

But if he decides to strike alone, Netanyahu would be courting an astounding array of consequences.

An Israeli attack would likely unleash retaliation, in the form of Iranian missiles as well as rocket attacks by Iranian proxies Hezbollah and Hamas on its northern and southern borders. Especially daunting is the prospect of sustained missile strikes on Tel Aviv, a bustling business and entertainment capital whose populace is psychologically ill-prepared for a homefront war.

It also would likely cause oil prices to skyrocket at a time when the global economy is already struggling — risking a new recession for which Israel would absorb much if not most of the blame.

Iran is widely expected to attack American targets in response to any Israeli strike — a scenario that could directly influence the outcome of this fall's U.S. presidential election. Israel can hardly contemplate a genuine rift with its closest ally; without U.S. diplomatic, military and financial support the Jewish state would be dangerously exposed on multiple fronts.

Few here would dispute that a nuclear-armed Iran is an existential threat, mindful of Iranian calls for Israel's destruction, support for anti-Israel militant groups, and development of sophisticated missiles capable of striking Israel. Concerns were only heightened by a recent report by the U.N. nuclear agency that found Iran continues to enrich uranium — a key step toward developing a bomb — and by Iran's movement of enrichment facilities deep underground.

But after months of strikingly open debate about an Israeli military strike, awareness of the colossal risks involved appears to be sinking in. A growing number of senior figures have raised concerns that Israel should not act alone.

Two former Israeli military chiefs on Tuesday lambasted Netanyahu's heated rhetoric about Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying the threats of an imminent military strike are actually weakening Israel.

"This is not a Jewish problem," Shaul Mofaz, who headed the military from 1998 to 2002 and later served as defense minister, told Israel Radio. "It is a strategic problem facing the whole world."

Mofaz, who was born in Iran and moved to Israel as a child, said Israel "is not a ghetto" and that despite its military might must fully coordinate with the U.S. on any plan to strike Iran.

Both Mofaz, who is now an opposition lawmaker, and Dan Halutz, the military chief from 2005 to 2007, criticized Netanyahu for invoking Holocaust imagery in describing the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran.

Halutz said the Holocaust references diminished the actual genocide of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and blew the Iranian threat out of proportion.

"We are not kings of the world," Halutz said. "We should remember who we are."

Both echoed a similar warning issued recently by Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency.

A recent poll suggested the public, normally hawkish on security matters, agrees. The survey, conducted by the Israeli Dahaf agency for the University of Maryland, said 81 percent of Israelis oppose a solo attack on Iran. At the same time, it said two-thirds of Israelis would support military action if coordinated with Washington.

The poll, released last week, questioned 500 Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.3 percentage points.

At their high-stakes White House meeting on Monday, Obama appeared to make little headway with Netanyahu. In public comments both before and after the meeting, the Israeli leader repeatedly stressed his country's right to act alone.

"Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat," he declared to raucous applause in a speech to the pro-Israel lobby group AIPAC — the same forum that heard Obama, a day before, decry "too much loose talk of war."

At a news conference Tuesday, Obama implied that Israeli pressure for urgent action was not supported by the facts, saying that a decision was not necessary within the next weeks or months.

Efforts to find a diplomatic solution appeared to get a boost Tuesday when world powers agreed to a new round of talks with Tehran, and Iran gave permission for inspectors to visit a site suspected of secret atomic work.

While stressing his preference for a diplomatic solution, Obama said Monday that the U.S. would strike Iran if necessary and pointedly rejected suggestions that "containment" of a nuclear-armed Iran would be acceptable. The tough talk was clearly aimed at convincing Netanyahu that the United States accepts that the problem is global and truly "has Israel's back," as Obama insisted.

The U.S., which has large forces stationed near Iran in the Persian Gulf and far more powerful weapons at its disposal, is in a much better position to strike.

A recently retired senior security official said Tuesday that Israel's military — armed with sophisticated American warplanes, missiles and unmanned drones — has sufficient military capability to damage Iran's program in coming months. But afterward, key installations will be hidden underground and out of reach of Israeli capabilities.

At that point, the United States with its superior firepower — B-1 and B-2 bombers, powerful bunker-busting bombs, aircraft carriers — would still be able to act even if Israel could not, the former official said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the issue, he added that Iran is not pushing its program forward at full speed, preferring to inch ahead just enough to make progress while not providing a clear pretext for attack.

The official said it was in Israel's interest not to attack but receive real assurances that the United States would do so if sanctions had conclusively failed.

The official said Iran is capable of being persuaded to drop its nuclear ambitions — but that this required a more determined and airtight sanctions regime than currently in place.

Israel sees two critical deficiencies in the current sanctions, despite their escalation to include oil exports and the Iranian central bank: First, the U.S. oil sanctions have been delayed until summer — pushing their beginning, and certainly any effect — past Israel's perceived window of opportunity; second, China, Russia and India have not been compelled to join in — making the measures less than truly crippling.

If Israel loses faith, Israeli defense officials and external military analysts say its threats are far from empty.

Israel has been warning of an Iranian nuclear threat for nearly two decades, and the military has been systematically planning ways to stop the Iranians for years.

Scott Johnson, an analyst at the IHS Jane's military research firm, said Israel's air force is now believed to possess some 300 U.S.-made F-15 and F-16 warplanes, along with at least eight aircraft capable of refueling warplanes during a mission to Iran. He said Israel is also believed to have about 100 "bunker-busting" GBU28 bombs. The U.S.-made bombs pack 5,000 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of explosives and can go through six (yards) meters of concrete and penetrate up to 30 yards (meter) of dirt.

Israeli defense officials say the air force has practiced a number of long-distance exercises that could serve as models for striking Iran, where targets are believed to be some 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) from Israel.

In 2008, 100 air force jets participated in a drill in Greece that simulated similar distances. Israel has carried out similar drills more recently in Greece and Italy, the officials say. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified military information.

Backing up any Israeli air attack, foreign analysts say that Israel could use its arsenal of Jericho ballistic missiles, which are reportedly capable of reaching Iran. Israel is also believed to possess German-made Dolphin submarines that could fire missiles at Iran.

As part of its preparations, Israel has developed a series of missile-defense systems. Last year, it activated its "Iron Dome" rocket defense system, meant to defend against short-range rockets from Gaza and Lebanon. It also has activated its "Arrow" missile defense system, meant to stop missiles from longer distances. The third generation of the Arrow is currently in development.

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Dan Perry is the Associated Press bureau chief for Israel and the Palestinian areas, and Josef Federman is Jerusalem news editor.