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Shai Baitel Headshot

Does Israel require a 'Green Light?'

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"[Israeli] Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert hadn't asked for a green light, and I hadn't given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel."

-- Former U.S. President George W. Bush in his recently released autobiography

Now here is a statement that one should let sink in. The year is 2007 and Syria was suspected of initiating a nuclear program. A U.S. President acknowledges that on September 6 of that year its closest ally, Israel, had destroyed a structure under construction, thought to be an undeclared nuclear facility, possibly for military purpose. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was alarmed by Syria's activities and asked the United States to act. President Bush stated he could not order the bombing of Syria without warning or announced justification, which would lead to a severe blowback. Moreover, the CIA had expressed low confidence in the allegations against Syria. Olmert did not mince words and called Bush's strategy disturbing. It should be noted that three years later pre-eminent experts confirm that if the reactor hadn't been destroyed it would be producing plutonium by now for Syria's first nuclear bomb. So when it became clear the United States would not intervene in Syria, Israel went for it herself, without having asked or having been given a "green light." Israel acted out of conviction of the necessity of a strike and belief that it is the supreme duty of a state to protect its citizens.

The precedent of striking a nuclear program without a "green light" was Osiraq. In 1981, Israeli intelligence estimated that in summer of that year Iraq would be loading the nuclear reactor at the Osiraq facility with nuclear fuel and start using it for the development of a nuclear program. In a single, unilateral, coordinated air strike on June 7 of that year Israel put an end to this enterprise. Because of that strike Iraq's threat potential was instantly diminished and the United States and the international community did not face nuclear blackmail by Saddam Hussein in 1991. It has been argued that Israel's attack on Osiraq had been the single most important and successful, military operation since World War II.

Menachem Begin, then Israel's Prime Minister, did not seek a "green light" from U.S. President Ronald Reagan who was said to have been furious after the attack and supported a United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution dealing with the strike. However, he was later quoted as saying that Israel might have sincerely believed that the Osiraq attack had been a defensive move. UN Security Council Resolution 487 ended up strongly condemning Israel's strike and did not see any problems with Iraq's actions. Due to a U.S. veto threat however it stopped short of imposing sanctions. Israel had weighed the options at hand and found that Iraq had crossed the proverbial red line. She acted based on her assessment of the available facts and in accordance with her security needs.

Looking at the strike on Iraq and on Syria, respectively, it is possible to identify a number of similarities. At the time both were Middle Eastern, Arab, and Muslim countries hostile to Israel, to the United States, and to the West. Both had aspirations to dominate in the region and were sources of considerable instability. Both were hubs of terrorism. And both chose to start a clandestine nuclear program for political and military purposes, aimed at their respective neighbors and first and foremost, at Israel.

In both cases, Israel saw the respective nuclear program, limited to a single location, as severe threat to her national security, which had crossed a red line. Ultimately, Israel made a sovereign decision to exercise her right for self-defense and to eliminate the threat, relying on the best available intelligence. In both cases, the fallout of the strike was contained. Neither Iraq nor Syria retaliated. The international condemnation was restrained (in the Iraqi case) or barely existent (in the Syrian case).

This issue of striking a dangerous nuclear program became pressing when Tehran started to aggressively pursue and approach nuclear weapons capability. So far diplomacy and sanctions regimes seek to prevent such a capability, which threatens not only regional peace and stability but would have dramatic ramifications for the international community. Israel would only be the first victim of an Iran gone nuclear. The issue President Bush brought up in his book, when mentioning the Syrian reactor bombing, is the U.S-Israeli dialogue and, more specifically, the degree to which Israel must ask for permission prior to acting militarily in a scope that would have consequences worldwide. Is Israel bound by the friendship, loyalty, and a relative dependence on military and financial support when it comes to protecting herself?

A country under siege, Israel is constantly fighting back terror attacks against her citizens on a local level. Regionally, groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas -- true "mezzanine" actors -- are endangering Israeli lives as well as regional stability. They are the spoilers in Middle East peace process. Internationally, Iran defies the West community with regard to its nuclear program and not only bluntly threatens Israel but endangers peace and stability beyond the Middle East. Confidential documents made public recently through WikiLeaks confirm that major Arab players strongly favor stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Therefore, in a neighborhood of hostile nations and with her security constantly challenged Israel is oftentimes faced with having to choose between bad options. When Israel finds herself at a junction, whichever path she picks there will be less than desirable ramifications.

At the end of 2010, the world is faced with the specter of a nuclear Iran, a scenario with far-reaching and downright scary consequences. Unlike Iraq in 1981 and Syrian in 2007, Iran poses a decidedly more complicated challenge. Its nuclear program is larger and spread out across the country. Iran's regime is at the pinnacle of its regional and international influence, despite being challenged domestically by the international community. The Islamic Revolution is arguably still strong and Iran has made rapid progress in creating ideological allies across the world. North Korea and Venezuela are to name but two.

Any decision with regard to the Iranian nuclear program easily is the most difficult one any Israeli Prime Minister had to face. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu most certainly discussed -- and will discuss the issue with the U.S. President Barack Obama. Yes, Israel's security needs have an immediate effect on U.S. security needs in the region and beyond. Yes, Israel relies on the support of the United States. And the interests of both countries with regard to the Iranian nuclear program are aligned. With the North Korean blackmail anything but reassuring in the ability of the international community to stop a hostile country from becoming a nuclear power, it is Israel that is facing an existential threat. And all things considered, Israel might again be forced by the circumstances to make an assessment and decision should Iran approach the breakthrough to nuclear weapons capability. Israel, in exercising her right to self-defense, might again save the world from a worse scenario, as she did twice before, without any "green light."