international analysis and commentary

How Israel is using Iran

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The Iranian threat has been making even more headlines in Israel since the election of the new Netanyahu government. One of the main reasons: spreading fear of nuclear annihilation is effective in managing Israel’s divisive politics.

Former Prime Minister Olmert repeatedly singled out Iran as the greatest threat to Israel’s own future, but his government never brought forward a concrete proposal. The Netanyahu government, however, has made it clear that the Iranian issue will be linked to the peace process with the Palestinians and the Arab States, thus de factoprioritizing Iran, no matter what the preferences of the international community may be. In fact, this means reversing the order of priorities set by the “Quartet”, which is now perceived as an unacceptable infringement on Israeli sovereignty and security.

The Netanyahu government views Israel as the main regional actor and intends to restore the country’s deterrence power by upping the ante and acting as a totally autonomous player in the Middle East.

Although it is understandable that the Israeli government should press for a tight negotiating schedule on Iran’s nuclear program – as each passing week may shrink the safety margin of a possible military action – the tune and approach of the Netanyahu government seems instrumental, and only partly consistent with the nature and extent of the (potential) threat.

So, why is Israel playing this bullish game? Evidence points to a mostly political rather than military strategy.

Militarily, Israel is investing huge amounts of money in building a Triad deterrent posture, strengthening the air force (equipped by new F-15s and F-16s), the navy (restocked with brand new dolphin submarines), and land force (with new “Jericho” missiles whose average range attains over 2,000 miles). Israel has recently launched five satellites, supplying enhanced intelligence coverage to its armed forces. These measures seem to point in the direction of conventional warfare rather than nuclear actions. It is also worth recalling that when Israeli authorities reviewed their nuclear policy in 1998, they decided to stick to the old policy of nuclear ambiguity to prevent further escalation in the region, de facto renouncing the ambition to remain the only nuclear power in the Middle East. This is confirmed by the view held by many Israeli experts that the old balance of power is not sustained. These opinions can be summarized by the public stance adopted from a 2006 interview by the historian and former Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami (in the daily Haaretz): “The question today is not when Iran will have a nuclear power, but when to integrate it into a policy of regional stability before its obtains such power. The answer to the Iranian threat is a policy of détente, which could change the Iranian elite’s pattern of conduct.”  The international community could not agree more: the danger of an escalation following an Israeli first strike at nuclear plants in Iran has been defined by the IAEA’s chief Mohamed El Baradei as ”insane”.

US and Israeli intelligence do not agree about the timing of Iran’s likely attainment of nuclear capability, but all relevant sources point to a span of time between one year and four years (2013). However, the Israeli government is putting pressure on the US administration to impose a negotiating deadline of just three months.

The Israeli government’s rationale can be summed up as not being ready to adjust its strategy to the emerging conditions: a context where deterrence is no longer totally in Israel’s favor vis-à-vis the surrounding Arab states and Iran. However, such policy stance is popular domestically, as talking up the Iranian threat helps the government justify a high military budget in times of economic crisis while also defusing the emergence of a national debate on the resumption of the peace process. The latter is indeed a far more difficult dossier for the current Israeli government, given the lack of cohesion within the governing coalition and the electoral and symbolic power of West Bank settlers. Netanyahu’s main objective is to postpone any substantive peace talks for the next two or three years, by rejecting the two-way linkage between the unsolved Palestinian question and the growing Iranian paramilitary presence in the region (i.e. arguing only that the latter complicates the former but not the reverse). Focusing on a greater and dreadful threat such as nuclear annihilation at the hands of the Iranians seems to be mostly an effective way to manage Israel’s internal politics. The price to be paid is the removal of any meaningful distinction between Iran’s willingness to bankroll terrorists and its intention to launch a nuclear attack on Israel.

A fundamental problem with the Iranian case is that many do not deem it a mere regional threat to be left to Israel alone. Neither the US nor the EU countries seem ready to see their broader security interests jeopardized by an impatient and reckless Israeli government. President Barack Obama has stated that he opposes any autonomous action by Israel, be it during negotiations on the Iranian nuclear issue or following a possible negotiation failure. Besides, his explicit request that Israel sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty is a sign that the US is working to regain credibility as an honest broker among the Arab States, and vis-à-vis Iran itself. Of course, the Arab League has long officially held that Israel’s military stance, and particularly its de facto nuclear status, is the key obstacle to regional peace and security.

Israel has never really waited for a green light from Washington before launching wars and striking first, but it is obviously aware that a minimum level of coordination with the US is needed to gain some international backing to its operations.

The regional implication of this conundrum is that the rhetoric adopted by both Jerusalem and Tehran is proving very effective in influencing their respective public opinions. This, in turn, is making nuclear proliferation more, rather than less, likely – which would be a global, not just regional, consequence.

What Western countries should bear in mind is that Israel is powerful but not almighty, while Iran is emboldened but not necessarily reckless. Walking the fine line between these constraints is truly a challenge of global proportions.