JERUSALEM (Mar. 12)
In handling Iran, Israel has long combined tough rhetoric with tactical reticence. Motivating this delicate counterpoint was the need to prompt international action against Iran’s nuclear program and, simultaneously, nourish the idea the Israel could strike first in self-defense, all the while avoiding saber-rattling.
Some say remarks made last week by a retired Israeli general upset this delicate balance, ahead of the U.N. Security Council’s discussing possible sanctions against the Islamic republic this week. Israeli officials consider these talks the triumphant culmination of years of quiet lobbying in Washington and European capitals.
“In the end, we want to cause the international community to prevent the Iranians from developing nonconventional capabilities,” interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told Israel Radio.
But there are no promises of a quick resolution, and with some experts asserting that Iran is just months away from having the ability to produce nuclear weapons, Israel is not ruling out a military last resort.
The problem is the Osirak attack. In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s main reactor. That preemptive move, while depriving Saddam Hussein of the bomb, also deprived Israel of the element of surprise in any similar actions against Iran.
“We have excellent military, but in this sort of conflict, originality of thought in planning is the top priority,” said a senior Israeli security source. “It is also a major challenge, given that the world is watching the space between Tel Aviv and Tehran so closely.”
Moshe Ya’alon, the former chief of Israel’s armed forces, unwittingly provided a gauge for the depths of jitters in Jerusalem.
The retired lieutenant-general was quoted as telling a Washington think tank, the Hudson Institute, last week that Israel, with the help of American and European air forces, could feasibly attack Iranian nuclear sites.
The remarks set off a political firestorm in Israel, with Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz accusing Ya’alon of rashly speaking out of turn.
Ya’alon responded that he did not give away operational secrets, and accused political rivals of using him as a scapegoat ahead of March 28 general elections.
Ya’alon’s military career was curtailed last year by Mofaz, a senior member of the ruling Kadima Party, and the lieutenant-general is widely assumed to be close to the rival Likud.
“I will not allow anyone to co-opt me for their cause,” Ya’alon told Army Radio Sunday.
According to one military analyst, Ya’alon may have ruffled feathers in Israel not by revealing secrets, but by revealing limitations.
Rather than giving a perfect prognosis in his speech, he said that an attack would at best retard the Iranian nuclear program, rather than destroy it. He also said Iran was likely to retaliate with missile fire or by ordering its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah to step up violence against Israel.
“His remarks, ironically, show to what extent Israel lacks an aggressive option against Iran,” Ofer Shelach wrote in Yediot Achronot.
“If, as Ya’alon put it, what is needed is a protracted aerial assault against dozens of targets inside Iran, along with a capability for realtime intelligence, it is clear that the situation is far different from the smashing single blow delivered against the Iraqi reactor in 1981.”