Middle East September 2010

The Point of No Return

For the Obama administration, the prospect of a nuclearized Iran is dismal to contemplate— it would create major new national-security challenges and crush the president’s dream of ending nuclear proliferation. But the view from Jerusalem is still more dire: a nuclearized Iran represents, among other things, a threat to Israel’s very existence. In the gap between Washington’s and Jerusalem’s views of Iran lies the question: who, if anyone, will stop Iran before it goes nuclear, and how? As Washington and Jerusalem study each other intensely, here’s an inside look at the strategic calculations on both sides—and at how, if things remain on the current course, an Israeli air strike will unfold.

IN MY CONVERSATIONS with former Israeli air-force generals and strategists, the prevalent tone was cautious. Many people I interviewed were ready, on condition of anonymity, to say why an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would be difficult for Israel. And some Israeli generals, like their American colleagues, questioned the very idea of an attack. “Our time would be better spent lobbying Barack Obama to do this, rather than trying this ourselves,” one general told me. “We are very good at this kind of operation, but it is a big stretch for us. The Americans can do this with a minimum of difficulty, by comparison. This is too big for us.”

Successive Israeli prime ministers have ordered their military tacticians to draw up plans for a strike on Iran, and the Israeli air force has, of course, complied. It is impossible to know for sure how the Israelis might carry out such an operation, but knowledgeable officials in both Washington and Tel Aviv shared certain assumptions with me.

The first is that Israel would get only one try. Israeli planes would fly low over Saudi Arabia, bomb their targets in Iran, and return to Israel by flying again over Saudi territory, possibly even landing in the Saudi desert for refueling—perhaps, if speculation rife in intelligence circles is to be believed, with secret Saudi cooperation. These planes would have to return home quickly, in part because Israeli intelligence believes that Iran would immediately order Hezbollah to fire rockets at Israeli cities, and Israeli air-force resources would be needed to hunt Hezbollah rocket teams.

When I visited Major General Gadi Eisenkot, the general in charge of Israel’s Northern Command, at his headquarters near the Lebanese border, he told me that in the event of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, his mission would be to combat Hezbollah rocket forces. Eisenkot said that the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel, which began when Hezbollah fighters crossed the border and attacked an Israeli patrol, was seen by the group’s Iranian sponsors as a strategic mistake. “The Iranians got angry at Hezbollah for jumping ahead like that,” Eisenkot said. American and Israeli intelligence officials agree that the Iranians are now hoping to keep Hezbollah in reserve until Iran can cross the nuclear threshold.

Eisenkot contended that the 2006 war was a setback for Hezbollah. “Hezbollah suffered a lot during this war,” he said. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, “lost a lot of his men. He knows he made a mistake. That is one reason we have had four years of quiet. What has changed in four years is that Hezbollah has increased its missile capability, but we have increased our capabilities as well.” He concluded by saying, in reference to a potential Israeli strike on Iran, “Our readiness means that Israel has freedom of action.”

Even if Israel’s Northern Command successfully combated Hezbollah rocket attacks in the wake of an Israeli strike, political limitations would not allow Israel to make repeated sorties over Iran. “The Saudis can let us go once,” one general told me. “They’ll turn their radar off when we’re on our way to Iran, and we’ll come back fast. Our problem is not Iranian air defenses, because we have ways of neutralizing that. Our problem is that the Saudis will look very guilty in the eyes of the world if we keep flying over their territory.”

America, too, would look complicit in an Israeli attack, even if it had not been forewarned. The assumption—often, but not always, correct—that Israel acts only with the approval of the United States is a feature of life in the Middle East, and it is one the Israelis say they are taking into account. I spoke with several Israeli officials who are grappling with this question, among others: what if American intelligence learns about Israeli intentions hours before the scheduled launch of an attack? “It is a nightmare for us,” one of these officials told me. “What if President Obama calls up Bibi and says, ‘We know what you’re doing. Stop immediately.’ Do we stop? We might have to. A decision has been made that we can’t lie to the Americans about our plans. We don’t want to inform them beforehand. This is for their sake and for ours. So what do we do? These are the hard questions.” (Two officials suggested that Israel may go on pre-attack alert a number of times before actually striking: “After the fifth or sixth time, maybe no one would believe that we’re really going,” one official said.)

Another question Israeli planners struggle with: how will they know if their attacks have actually destroyed a significant number of centrifuges and other hard-to-replace parts of the clandestine Iranian program? Two strategists told me that Israel will have to dispatch commandos to finish the job, if necessary, and bring back proof of the destruction. The commandos—who, according to intelligence sources, may be launched from the autonomous Kurdish territory in northern Iraq—would be facing a treacherous challenge, but one military planner I spoke with said the army would have no choice but to send them.

“It is very important to be able to tell the Israeli people what we have achieved,” he said. “Many Israelis think the Iranians are building Auschwitz. We have to let them know that we have destroyed Auschwitz, or we have to let them know that we tried and failed.”

There are, of course, Israeli leaders who believe that attacking Iran is too risky. Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli army chief of staff, is said by numerous sources to doubt the usefulness of an attack, and other generals I spoke with worry that talk of an “existential threat” is itself a kind of existential threat to the Zionist project, which was meant to preclude such threats against the Jewish people. “We don’t want politicians to put us in a bad position because of the word Shoah,” one general said. “We don’t want our neighbors to think that we are helpless against an Iran with a nuclear bomb, because Iran might have the bomb one day. There is no guarantee that Israel will do this, or that America will do this.”

After staring at the photograph of the Israeli air-force flyover of Auschwitz more than a dozen different times in more than a dozen different offices, I came to see the contradiction at its core. If the Jewish physicists who created Israel’s nuclear arsenal could somehow have ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and sent a squadron of fighters back to 1942, then the problem of Auschwitz would have been solved in 1942. In other words, the creation of a serious Jewish military capability—a nuclear bomb, say, or the Israeli air force—during World War II would have meant a quicker end to the Holocaust. It is fair to say, then, that the existence of the Israeli air force, and of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, means axiomatically that the Iranian nuclear program is not the equivalent of Auschwitz.

I put this formula to Ephraim Sneh, the former general and staunch advocate of an Israeli attack. “We have created a strategic balance in our favor,” he said, “but Iran may launch a ballistic missile with a nuclear bomb, and this F-15 in the picture cannot prevent that.”

This is a devilish problem. And devilish problems have sometimes caused Israel to overreach.

Benjamin Netanyahu feels, for reasons of national security, that if sanctions fail, he will be forced to take action. But an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, successful or not, may cause Iran to redouble its efforts—this time with a measure of international sympathy—to create a nuclear arsenal. And it could cause chaos for America in the Middle East. One of the few people I spoke with in Israel who seemed to be at least somewhat phlegmatic about Iran’s nuclear threat was the country’s president, Shimon Peres, the last member of Israel’s founding generation still in government. Peres sees the Iranian nuclear program as potentially catastrophic, to be sure. But he advocates the imposition of “moral sanctions” followed by economic sanctions, and then the creation of “an envelope around Iran of anti-missile systems so the missiles of Iran will not be able to fly.” When I asked if he believed in a military option, he said, “Why should I declare something like that?” He indicated he was uncomfortable with the idea of unilateral Israeli action and suggested that Israel can afford to recognize its limitations, because he believes, unlike many Israelis, that President Obama will, one way or another, counter the threat of Iran, not on behalf of Israel (though he said he believes Obama would come to Israel’s defense if necessary), but because he understands that on the challenge of Iran, the interests of America and Israel (and the West, and Western-allied Arab states) naturally align.

Based on months of interviews, I have come to believe that the administration knows it is a near-certainty that Israel will act against Iran soon if nothing or no one else stops the nuclear program; and Obama knows—as his aides, and others in the State and Defense departments made clear to me—that a nuclear-armed Iran is a serious threat to the interests of the United States, which include his dream of a world without nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, I agreed with those, including many Israelis, Arabs—and Iranians—who believe there is no chance that Obama would ever resort to force to stop Iran; I still don’t believe there is a great chance he will take military action in the near future—for one thing, the Pentagon is notably unenthusiastic about the idea. But Obama is clearly seized by the issue. And understanding that perhaps the best way to obviate a military strike on Iran is to make the threat of a strike by the Americans seem real, the Obama administration seems to be purposefully raising the stakes. A few weeks ago, Denis McDonough, the chief of staff of the National Security Council, told me, “What you see in Iran is the intersection of a number of leading priorities of the president, who sees a serious threat to the global nonproliferation regime, a threat of cascading nuclear activities in a volatile region, and a threat to a close friend of the United States, Israel. I think you see the several streams coming together, which accounts for why it is so important to us.”

When I asked Peres what he thought of Netanyahu’s effort to make Israel’s case to the Obama administration, he responded, characteristically, with a parable, one that suggested his country should know its place, and that it was up to the American president, and only the American president, to decide in the end how best to safeguard the future of the West. The story was about his mentor, David Ben-Gurion.

“Shortly after John F. Kennedy was elected president, Ben-Gurion met him at the Waldorf-Astoria” in New York, Peres told me. “After the meeting, Kennedy accompanied Ben-Gurion to the elevator and said, ‘Mr. Prime Minister, I want to tell you, I was elected because of your people, so what can I do for you in return?’ Ben-Gurion was insulted by the question. He said, ‘What you can do is be a great president of the United States. You must understand that to have a great president of the United States is a great event.’”

Peres went on to explain what he saw as Israel’s true interest. “We don’t want to win over the president,” he said. “We want the president to win.”

Jeffrey Goldberg is an Atlantic national correspondent, and the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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