03/01/2012 05:48 pm ET Updated May 01, 2012

Is Attacking Iran "a Just War"?

Those who advocate an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities have claimed the air strikes would be preemptive and thus legitimate. This position is dangerous for two reasons. Their argument is specious, and the lesson of Israel's history is that a preventative attack -- unlike preemptive strike -- will likely weaken Israel and destabilize the region.

Since its establishment in 1948, the State of Israel has participated in ten wars, and was involved in various types of violent operations in between these wars. The wars are distinguished from each other by duration and number of casualties. The War of Independence, for example, lasted over a year and cost over 6,000 lives, one percent of the entire Jewish population at the time in the nascent state. The June 1967 War lasted barely a week and cost only 779 Israeli lives.

But beyond their duration and number of casualties, Israel wars should be classified into three types. There were those in which the Israel Defense Forces responded to an offensive attack by Arab states, such as was the case in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In other cases, the IDF initiated a preemptive strike when it became convinced the enemy was soon going to initiate a war -- this is what happened in June 1967. There were also wars defined as preventive, those in which Israel opened fire when its policy makers assessed that sometime in the future the enemy might be tempted to initiate a war.

Leaders of non-militaristic societies, Israel being one of them, who are engaged in protracted conflicts, require a solid foundation of legitimacy before sending soldiers yet again to risk their lives in the battlefield. This is especially true of citizen-armies such as the Israeli military that is a conscript army and relies in times of war on mobilization of its reserve units.

This is why Israel's political-military culture has, since the state's founding, defined the meaning of a just war thusly: It is only permissible to enter a defensive war, a "war of no choice," when it is clear that all other options for a solution to the crisis have been exhausted.
Yet, in 1982, Israel experienced a totally different kind of war. That summer, Israeli military invaded its northern neighbor to deal a blow to the PLO, which was situated in the south of Lebanon, and to alter the power structure in the capital, Beirut.

Then Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin published an article in August of that year in which he argued that not only war of no choice should be fought, and preventive wars could also be just wars. The difference between the two is clear: Only when it is evident that the enemy is going to wage war, and the war is certain and imminent, an early counter attack will be defined a preemptive strike.

The failure of the Lebanon War -- ironically described by Mr. Begin "peace for the Galilee operation" -- sent him into a deep depression, led him to resign from the government and leave politics. Among the political-military leadership in Israel, the debacle in Lebanon reiterated the tradition of the just war concept: only a preemptive strike -- and not a preventive war -- are considered legitimate course of action.

Analysts who define the projected Israeli attack on Iran as a preemptive strike are erroneous. This is not the case with Iran. With all the risks that a nuclear-armed Iran poses for Israel and the entire world, the chance that the Ayatollahs will commence a war with Israel anytime soon is strictly theoretical. There is little doubt that it will weaken Israel's security and impair the strategic posture of the U.S. and its allies in the region. But these factors do not constitute the certainty of a looming war, and these two conditions -- certainty and imminence -- are what justify a defensive war.

An Israeli attack on Iran will not constitute a preemptive strike, but rather a preventative war, which contradicts Israel's notion of a just war. Israel's bombings of nuclear reactors in Iraq (1981) and in Syria (2007) were not full-scale wars but rather highly limited military operations. An operation targeting Iran's nuclear facilities will turn into an all-out war and previous outcomes of preventative wars proved to be more damaging than they were beneficial.
Dr. Yoram Peri, a former political advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin is the author of the book, Generals in the Cabinet Room: How the Military Shapes Israeli Policy.