The dangers to Israel's existence, from a nuclear-armed Iran, are real. Equally real are the dangers of a pre-emptive military attack on Iran. Perhaps the greatest danger to Israel, however, is Prime Minister Netanyahu.
America is Israel's most important ally, providing financial (~$3 billion/year), military, and diplomatic support. In response to the Iranian nuclear threat, the U.S. has been the main sponsor and supporter of sanctions against Iran. Yet Netanyahu seems determined to reduce this vital relationship to rubble by the time he leaves office.
Israel is about the size of New Jersey with a population of 7.6 million people. It's only about 10 miles wide at its narrowest point. A surprise nuclear attack on Israel by Iran, combined with a ground attack from Gaza and the West Bank, could potentially cause a second holocaust. Iran's leaders have openly threatened Israel with genocide.
Further, Iran's possession of nuclear weapons could ignite a regional nuclear arms race with Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and/or the UAE. Nuclear weapons proliferation in the Middle East vastly increases the likelihood an unstable non-state actor (e.g., al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah) will acquire nuclear weapons. All these possibilities are bad for world peace, and bad for Israel. Netanyahu is demanding commitments to a pre-emptive attack on Iran's nuclear weapons program in the near future, unless Iran gives up its nuclear ambitions.
The U.S. and many Israelis believe it's premature to discuss a pre-emptive strike on Iran as the attack could trigger some combination of the following: Hezbollah (Iran's ally) launching missiles on Israel from Lebanon; Hamas launching missiles from Gaza; Syria (another Iranian ally) deflecting attention from its civil war with a "patriotic" war against Israel -- potentially using chemical weapons, or providing them to Hamas or Hezbollah (Syria has one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons); Iraq becoming an Iranian satellite and declaring war on Israel; Jordan and Egypt revoking their peace treaties with Israel and joining the carnage.
Iran has threatened to respond to an attack by retaliating against American assets in the region, and using military force to cut world oil supplies (thereby creating a much larger regional conflict). The Europeans (who've made clear their lack of support for a pre-emptive strike) could impose economic sanctions on Israel. America's isolationist wings (from both political parties) might demand the U.S. distance itself from Israel.
Further, a pre-emptive attack on Iran could fail -- allowing Iran to develop nuclear weapons on an accelerated basis, also setting the stage for a second holocaust.
The scenarios above are simplified worst cases, but my point remains: there are no easy solutions. The U.S. (currently) believes the risks from a pre-emptive strike outweigh the risks of waiting for sanctions to pressure Iran into ending its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. has made clear: It's committed to preventing Iran from having nuclear weapons and all options are still on the table, but it believes additional public threats against Iran are counter-productive, and will only make it more difficult for Iran to back down.
Many Israelis agree with the American risk assessment. For example, Shaul Mofaz (who leads the largest party in Israel's parliament, and is a former Defence Minister) recently commented that a pre-emptive attack on Iran would cause:
"... loss of life, grave damage to the home front and deep erosion of Israel's political situation -- such action is immoral and operationally illogical under the circumstances."
Instead of treading carefully in this complex situation, Netanyahu has: Stridently criticized the Obama administration, and demanded that the U.S. (and the world community) set public "redlines" (e.g., on "the size of Iran's stockpile of close-to-bomb-grade uranium") which, if crossed, trigger an automatic American mlitary response.
Netanyahu's demands are particularly odd, because his own Cabinet doesn't agree with him. Netanyahu's deputy prime minister for intelligence and atomic affairs has stated he doesn't want to set "redlines" or deadlines. Netanyahu's own Foreign Minister believes, based on Israeli government intelligence, that sanctions are having a substantial impact.
Verbal attacks on Israel's most important ally about Iran is "meshuggah" (crazy) -- when Netanyahu has failed to convince his own government, let alone Israel's opposition parties, about the wisdom of his approach.
Criticizing the Obama administration is popular with Netanyahu's political party (77 percent of his supporters want Romney elected, compared to 5 percent for Obama), but has a cost. President Obama likely refused to meet with Netanyahu recently because Bibi used prior meetings to criticize/embarrass Obama and generate positive press for Obama's opponents (instead of focusing on promoting Israel's national interests).
Netanyahu's speech at the UN had no influence on American policy, and didn't influence any other country at the UN. But it was good politics in Israel. All his talk of war is estimated to have increased Netanyahu's standing by several points in the upcoming opinion polls, as voters rally to the government.
Supporters of world peace can honestly debate the best way to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions. But not open for debate is the importance to Israel of a close working relationship with the U.S. Bibi's clumsy attempts to bully an American president and influence American politics might improve Bibi's own re-election prospects, but they damage that vital relationship.
About the Author: Steven Strauss was founding Managing Director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). He is a 2012 Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University. He has a Ph.D. in Management from Yale University and over 20 years' private sector work experience. Join over 4,000 other concerned citizens by following him on Twitter @Steven_Strauss, or on Facebook.
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