The Dark Cloud on the Horizon
Why Israelis eye a potentially nuclear-armed Iran and worry that a cataclysm can't be averted
Most Israelis simply don't believe that diplomacy-and specifically, pressure through proposed U.N. Security Council sanctions-will stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Israeli leaders, naturally, would much prefer that the United States use its greatly superior military resources to take out Iran's far-flung, heavily protected nuclear facilities, but if America passes on the mission, some 60 percent of Israelis, according to a recent survey, want their own armed forces to do the job. "I hope the world will deal with this," said Iris Hasid, 39, shopping in the mall at Israel's ground zero-the 50-story Azrieli twin towers across the street from Israeli military headquarters in the heart of Tel Aviv. But when asked what Israel should do if the world doesn't deal with Iran's incipient nuclear power, Hasid, a healthcare administrator, replied without hesitation: "Go to war." The risk that Iran might strike back with weapons of mass destruction doesn't alter her view. "Israel has those weapons, too. I'm confident Israel is capable of defending itself. And," she said, smiling and pointing heavenward, "God will help."
Yet Israelis worry that Iran's leaders believe that God will help them, and that God, in the Iranians' understanding, has commanded them to destroy the "Zionist infidels." A basic belief in Israel (and elsewhere) is that religious-based political radicals are more dangerous than the secular brand because they are incapable of changing or moderating their views, which they believe to be God's word. So the Cold War-era deterrence concept of mutually assured destruction-a nuclear balance of terror that worked for the United States against the Soviet Union and China-doesn't ease many Israeli worries. Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's China "were crazy regimes, but this crazy regime is crazier. Its ideology is jihad," said Labor Knesset member and former Mossad chief Danny Yatom, who added that his "working assumption" is that once Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will use them against the Jewish state.
Given Israelis' apocalyptic fears, would their leaders, as a last resort, order an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? The Israeli Air Force had stunning success with its 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, setting back Saddam Hussein's nuclear program. Yet it is clearly understood today that wiping out Iran's nuclear works, which are numerous, spread out, and often hidden deep underground, is a challenge of a whole different magnitude and may, in fact, be impossible. Iraq, preoccupied at the time with its war of attrition with Iran, didn't retaliate against Israel, but Israelis can't count on such good fortune if they strike at Iraq's former adversary.
But when so many Israelis see an Iranian nuclear attack as inevitable-unless the United States strikes Iran first-any risk may seem worth taking. Yatom acknowledged that Israel would "have to be ready for the possibility that Iran would use its chemical weapons and perhaps biological weapons." But if push came to shove, the ex-Mossad leader would still favor a pre-emptive strike; otherwise, he said, "there will be a nuclear attack against Israel, which is much more dangerous."
To attack Iran, however, Israel would first need a green light from Washington, and at the moment, that is hard to imagine. The United States has vastly superior military resources, and its homeland, unlike Israel, is out of Iranian missile range. Thus, if the United States decided to pass on the mission, there seems no reason why it would want Israel to handle the job-especially when Iran and its allies would inevitably see the "great Satan" behind Israel's "little Satan."
Israel's day of decision-the day its leaders become convinced the Iranian threat is untenable-could be anywhere from a year to several years away. For Israelis, this will very likely be a time of mounting tension, of dark memories resurfacing, of survival instincts taking over. "For us," Olmert said in Moscow, "when the head of a country says he wants to destroy us, it does not sound like an empty declaration but something we must prepare to prevent through all acceptable and possible ways." Much of Jewish history, and of Israeli identity, is contained in that message.