Will Israel attack Iran on a large operational scale? The debate has once again come center stage thanks to what is perceived in Israel as a lack of a clear message emanating from Washington. The plain message Israeli leaders seek is whether or not Washington has actual intentions behind its own hyperbole to stop Iran's march to nuclear weapons capability. Israeli interlocutors have made it known they would rather not act on their own. But if her leadership perceives that the international community, and the United States in particular, IS NOT going to take real action to stop Iran's quest, Israel will act in her own interests for two main reasons. First, concluding they have been left with no other choice. Second, due to influences and internalization of her unique set of "human cultural factors".
Understanding and assessing human cultural factors is important for US policy makers and intelligence community. In my first hand experience, they are often not weighted properly by intelligence analysts. Too much focus is placed on the objective technical aspects; the order of battle or various strike scenarios. While necessary, these don't paint a full picture.
What do I mean by human cultural factors and how do I assess them?
First, there is the influence of historical precedent. Israel's two previous unilateral attempts against Iraq and Syria, nuances aside, worked out in her favor.
Second, is the character of the key relevant political personalities involved. There could not be a more challenging lineup of political egos in Israel's national body politic than at present. Prime Minister Netanyahu's interests lie in sealing his place in Israel's history books. If he cannot do this via the vaunted Peace Process, like the majority of his predecessors have sought, then being remembered for launching one of the boldest and likely most controversial pre-emptive strikes in Israel's history is the next best thing. Minister of Defense Barak, once clearly singled out for his military achievements but reduced in stature for his overwhelming political failures, is in the same vein. Last, but not least is Foreign Minister Lieberman, whose cold and unemotional Russian based calculations and demonstrated passion to disdain logical analysis of actions and reactions make his predilection clear.
Third, are the relevant military personalities, primarily the position of the IDF Chief of General Staff, held by Lieutenant General Benny Gantz. Gantz also has a distinguished military history but disdains the need for its revelation. In Gantz's view, he performed his duties as a soldier and went off into the sunset after serving as Chief of Israel's Ground Forces. Unexpectedly back in uniform, Gantz's ego is in check, a welcomed counterweight to his political leadership. But Gantz is also the son of holocaust survivors. As such, Ahmadinejad's inflammatory rhetoric and distortion of history have likely burned themselves on Gantz's conscience. In his position, he does not have the priority of considering historic political outcomes, only the very tangible defense of not only Israel's citizens, but world Jewry as well. The weight of these demands coupled with continued Iranian unyieldingness should not be underestimated.
Finally, are the influences of contemporary Israeli military culture and history. There is no higher honor bestowed to an Israeli than the term "warrior." In modern times, the leading case in point of this personal character trait is Ariel Sharon. His exploits are legendary in civilian and military institutions alike. It is hard to find a past or serving military official who does not want to join Sharon on this pedestal. Moreover, Israeli academies of all disciplines embed the heroic principles and actions of their founding fathers noting the 1948 war of Independence; the IDF's surprise 1967 air campaign and routing of multiple Arab armies; the IDF's 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal; the 1976 Entebbe raid; and the 1981 raid against Iraq's nuclear reactor. But it has been a long time since Israel achieved something along these same heights. The 1982 Lebanon invasion; both Intifadas; the 2006 War against Hezbollah; and the 2009 assault into Gaza do not conjure equal historical billing. Many Israelis think it is long overdue to add another bold exploit to their historical archive. I deem it the lure of "historical footsteps".
In fairness to Israel's political leadership and their own egos aside, neither Israel's political nor military leadership can afford to ignore the interplay of the egos of their Iranian counterparts combined with their continued actions. Israel conducted pre-emptive strikes in 1956 and 1967 in view of her neighbors armament buildup coupled with the fomenting of Arab nationalism calling for Israel's destruction. Even more instructive, however, is in the fall of 1973 Israel did not act in the face of information and indicators that an attack was imminent. The ghosts of this indecision remain front and center in Israeli psyche today.
In sum, the debate above is instructive in its own right. But it is clearly in US interests to be more cognizant of the complex human cultural factors regarding Israeli decision making processes that are not as apparent in traditional intelligence channels as assessments of Israeli military force structure, operational readiness and technical capabilities. Our foreign policy and intelligence community should not limit analysis to Israel's decision-making processes via an objectively rational calculus. It is more that the rationality used will be bounded and influenced by key human factors, some objectively rational, but others tied more to personal ego, culture, tradition, and local historical influences.