I spent last week in Israel as part of a delegation and met with Israeli and Palestinian officials. It was not the stalled peace process which was on top of the agenda but the possibility of a nuclear Iran. Israel is acutely aware of the complexity and severity of the situation. A military strike is considered to be highly risky and the Arab Spring makes it even more unpredictable and explosive.
But the bottom line is that a nuclear Iran is simply unacceptable. It is no option for Netanyahu’s government.
Nuclear weapons in the hands of the regime in Teheran are regarded as an existential threat to the state of Israel. Not because many believe they would use them, in fact that is unlikely, but the possibility that they will pass on their know-how or trigger an unstoppable arms race in the region. The strategic power balance would drastically shift and change. That, too, is perceived as an existential threat.
It leaves Netanyahu’s government with little option and he is increasingly under pressure, especially from Barak’s quarter, to deal with the problem. Iran is a master of survival under isolation, which is why sanctions are most likely not going to work and affect the civilian population more than the potency of the regime.
Containment and appeasement policy allowed Iran’s arch enemy Saddam to play the international community for over 12 years. Netanyahu does not have the time. In fact, time is running out for him rapidly. Israel must act soon, decisively, and precisely.
A military strike against Iran will not necessarily result in a full-scale war. It is possible that Israel will successfully take out strategic targets, vital for developing nuclear weapons, and thus effectively destroy or at least compromise Iran’s nuclear programme for years.
But Israel is realistic enough to understand that Iran is not an isolated case. The conflict could easily escalate and spill over to other countries, destabilising the entire region. Iran has been fighting Israel through surrogates ever since the Revolution in 1979 and its firm grip on Hezbollah and Hamas is an important factor in the equation.
One Israeli commentator went so far as to predict a Blitz-like attack on Tel Aviv in case of a military strike against Iran. But even under these bleak predictions he concluded that Iran must be dealt with. His opinion mirrored the consensus from across the political spectrum.
Israel will rather strike with great risk and might be not as successful as it wishes to be than doing nothing. Netanyahu is not the Prime Minister under whose leadership Iran is going to go nuclear. He is also not the Prime Minister to test whether Iran is a rational or messianic, apocalyptical actor. The stakes are simply too high.
If necessary, Israel will act unilaterally. It has the required capabilities and has done so many times in the past. Israel will not put the existence of its state in the hands of a US President who visited the country not once since his election. When it comes to its survival Israel trusts itself – and only itself.
An attack on Iran is inevitable. It is not a question of if but when.