Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Washington: What to Say

02/02/2015 02:33 pm ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015
GALI TIBBON via Getty Images

With the prospect of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's address to the U.S. Congress looming, it seems necessary to revisit the possibility that Israeli leaders, increasingly isolated because of Iran's foreign policy -- support of Hamas, Hezbollah and now the Houthis in Yemen -- might once again feel compelled to call for and mount a preemptive assault against Iranian nuclear facilities in places such as Bushehr, Arak, Natanz, and the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Center.

Encirclement is the condition Israel faces, and the fear and other similar sentiments that result in a "strike now" mindset is certainly understandable. It does not constitute "paranoia" as some have put, because Israel is increasingly surrounded by enemies in Gaza, Syria and Lebanon. As if that were not enough of a problem, the prospect of a "Third Intifada" within Israel is real. Indeed, while some have previously called the spate of "lone-assailant" attacks in Jerusalem, Tel-Aviv, and elsewhere in Israel a third "Knife Intifada," a true "Third Intifada" that is broader and more systemic in nature is possible if the building of settlements continues as it has, and the current Israeli leadership still ignores the basic reality that efforts to approach conflict with the Palestinian-Arabs should revolve around systemic political efforts, not military ones. Be that as it may, with all that pressure to find a "silver bullet" to solve its problems, even to contemplate an Israeli preemptive attack against Iranian targets is folly.

Over the past few years, the Middle East has been characterized by change and continuity. What has changed since the Israelis have last talked publicly and in earnest about the possibility of an attack on Iran is that the "Arab Spring" is at best, in a condition of "Arab Spring suspension." The consolidation of Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government, as illustrated by his unprecedented outreach efforts to the Copts, the parallel governments in Tripoli and in Tobruk in Libya, with proxies in fierce competition to support either secular or Islamic revivalist goals, the civil war in Syria between proxy groups such as al-Nusra Front and ISIS, and Harakat Hazm and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and now recent developments in Yemen, all point to a reassertion of time honored "balance of power" politics. This is the case both within countries, as governments play off different ethnic groups and militias internally as the imperialist powers once did, and across countries as states support various ethnic groups and militias in other states to promote their own national interests. The Saudis are old hands at this with payments made to ensure that terrorist groups do not attack Saudi Arabia or Saudi interests in other locales.

A mark of continuity is the Iranian nuclear program: it is important to recall that Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear capabilities are neither new nor original to the Islamic Republic, but date back to the early 1970's with the Shah of Iran. The exact reasons why still remain unclear to many analysts but the Iranian assertion that such efforts are necessary because Israel has not signed the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and is estimated to have built between two hundred and four hundred nuclear weapons is spurious under international law. That is precisely because of the reason Israel has never threatened a nuclear attack against Iran and only a "preemptive attack," legal under "anticipatory self defense" principles, in contrast to statements Iranian leadership have oftentimes made that call for Israel's destruction.

Iran's drive to develop nuclear capacities is in part likely a product of thinking that the West does not take developing countries seriously unless they have "the bomb." Equally important, it is the product of many historical events and dynamics that amplify the resonance of others: some include the horrible British and Russian treatment of the Qajar Dynasty in their "Great Game" (c.1785- 1907) against the "Peacock Throne," tensions with the United States because of American involvement in the removal of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq in 1953, continued American support for Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and his SAVAK police force in the aftermath, the U.S. commitment to Saddam Hussein in the Iran-Iraq War, and the shooting down of an Iranian commercial jetliner by the U.S.S. Vincennes.

Ironically, the isolation Iranians feel towards many governments in the West and its own encirclement fears, closely parallel dynamics associated with Israeli encirclement fears, but the basic difference is that in the case of Israel, those fears reflect contemporary events unfolding, and not past historical experiences. Another example of continuity in this stand-off situation found at a functional level are the logistical realities the Israelis must confront: these nuclear facilities remain located deeply underground. Even with U.S. GBU-28 "blockbuster" weapons that Israel has, it remains doubtful that Israel Air Force (IAF) sorties could penetrate and destroy all of those facilities. While talk about the use of Israeli commandos called "frogs" or "Bat Men" who are otherwise known as "Shayetet 13" was rife in the last outbreak of bellicose talk from the Israelis, some experts doubt that those commandos on the ground, either before or during an Israeli air attack, would make much difference to the overall outcome. Simply put, what an Israeli preemptive strike against Iran would do is initiate a regional conflict in the Middle East.

With all of that in mind, one piece of advice for Prime Minister Netanyahu is to support what I suggested to the Obama administration last week in my last Huffington Post essay (January 27, 2015), namely that the United States should favor and provide support for the Houthis in Yemen as part of a larger geopolitical initiative in the region to confront Islamic radicalism. What should be clear is that at least for now, power politics is " the name of the game" in the Middle East. For the Israelis, who know this all too well, what that means is at least tacit Israeli support for American efforts to back the Houthis, and in the broader sense, establish a quilt of U.S. proxy group arrangements in the region that cross traditional Sunni-Shia divisions, and thereby in effect reduce the prospect of full blown war between states.

Here's the theoretical reasoning: Professor Joseph S. Nye, Jr.of Harvard University suggests that when the lines of potential conflict between warring parties become more clearly distinguished, the likelihood of war increases (Nye, Joseph S. 1993. Understanding International Conflicts: an introduction to theory and history New York: Harper Collins College Publishers). While Nye's analysis focuses primarily on the Peloponnesian War (434 B.C.- 404. B.C.) and the First World War (1914-1918), this is the present condition in the Middle East where the outlines of potential participants already in fierce struggle with one another in Libya and Syria, are clear to see: in one camp are the Saudis, and other pro-Western Sunni Arab states (and even Israel) all with American backing, in contrast to its opposition, a camp comprised of Iran. Syria, Lebanon, and sub-national actors such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian National Authority, which the PLO represents in international affairs.

This "second camp" has the backing of the Russians and the Chinese who, within the context of European and American sanctions against the Putin government as a result of events in the Ukraine, have drawn closer to the Russians in political and economic terms. The Chinese government continues to provide investment income to Russian businesses, especially those that dovetail well with Russian state interests, provided those do not conflict with Chinese national interests. If extreme polarization or what Nye calls "movement to bipolarity" is the manifestation of the lurking catastrophe of war, then we can extrapolate from Nye's work that efforts to blur those distinctive boundaries between those two camps in the Middle East promotes stability. Therefore, U.S. Department of State efforts to establish cross cutting linkages between the United States and proxy groups, across traditional Sunni-Shia divisions, actually helps to promote stability in the region because as a consequence of those linkages, there are vested political, military, and economic interests to lose by nation-states in any major conflict. In addition to traditional forms of political and military assistance, those ties can also be comprised of "positive inducements" to proxy groups and their constituents in the form of schools, educational programs, medical facilities, and medicine, and infrastructure such as roads, thereby putting a twist on traditional power politics to also employ what Nye calls "soft power."

The use of such a cross-cutting system of alliances is one part of a broader American strategic initiative. From the Israeli perspective, the reality is that it will be difficult, if not impossible to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capabilities if that is what Iranian leaders want. In essence, both the United States and Israel must become more mature in their approaches to Iran, treating Iran as a nation-state with leaders capable of making rational decisions. It seems clear that the option of Israel as a full NATO member does not appeal to most Israelis for the very reason that Israel does not have the manpower nor the desire to send Israeli peacekeepers out on far away missions in countries where anti-Israel sentiment runs high and where Israelis in the role of "peacekeepers' are likely to be attacked.

So, in response to the threat the Iranians pose, in addition to speaking privately to President Obama about Israeli support for the notion of an American patchwork of cross-cutting alliances across the Sunni-Shiia chasm to fulfill American strategic interests, what Netanyahu should ask Congress for is their support for the development of a full blown nuclear deterrence capability that relies on a modified "triad" framework similar to the one at the heart of the American system of deterrence used during the Cold War.

Theoretically, the "triad" has three elements to it: a land based system, an air wing, and a "sea-leg" component. The air and land based systems are usually assigned "first strike" responsibilities with the "sea leg" in place to ensure the system of deterrence works. With the guarantee of a retaliatory "counter-value" strike aimed at civilian targets to ensure a first strike "bolt out of the blue" attack never happens, the system is complete. In Israel's case, the system would probably consist of two legs because Israel is too small a country to make effective use of a land based missile system; it is also simply too small to absorb a first strike nuclear attack. In turn, Israel has most of what it needs for an effective air-strike component, although a strategic bomber fleet based on Strategic Air Command (SAC) principles would augment Israel's already existing capacity for nuclear air strikes. What is most critical for Israel is the "sea-leg" of the "triad" system. Israel needs to upgrade and retire its German built conventional submarine fleet in favor of American built nuclear submarines to possess the firepower, range, and flexibility that a full blown "second strike capability force" to devastate a nation-state that threatens Israel with imminent nuclear attack requires.

If this requires Congressional authorization, let Prime Minister Netanyahu lobby for that, in part making the case that Israel already has launch platforms in its F-15's and F-16's that can be used to deliver nuclear weapons. The United States needs to start to think in stronger strategic terms about its interests in Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East, while the Israelis need to do the same - first, with a commitment to this new American strategic initiative to combat the threat of Islamic radicalism and second, with a new focus on comprehensive nuclear deterrence to minimize Iranian attempts to change the existing power balance in the Middle East, always the most dangerous of threats to the international political system.