Netanyahu is playing poker and hiding his most important card: the Israel Defense Forces’ true capabilities to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations. If he attacks, he is risking a war of attrition in which Tel Aviv will be hit by missiles and Ben-Gurion International Airport will be closed. And the longer the violence continues, the more international firms will leave the country; the talented and wealthy will abandon it, too.
Netanyahu sees the same danger, but from the other side. He believes that if Iran goes nuclear, the elites and high tech will leave and the economy will be destroyed, so an Iranian bomb must be prevented.
Netanyahu managed to convince the world that Israel is on the verge of a preemptive war to try to foil Iran’s nuclear program. His speeches on a second Holocaust and Amalek, the acceleration of military preparations, the exercises on the Home Front, the distribution of gas masks and even the stockpiling of dollars by the Bank of Israel all suggest that Israel is preparing to strike Iran, as it did when it attacked the nuclear plants in Iraq and Syria. The preparations for war give Israel unprecedented international significance.
Ahmadinejad is also playing poker, and in recent weeks he upped the ante when he posed the destruction of the Zionist regime not merely as a religious-ideological ambition, but as a practical goal. Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who is functioning as a super-adviser to Netanyahu for national security affairs, said in response that “the clock for the Iranian regime’s downfall is ticking.”
Israel and Iran are gambling that only one of them will survive the confrontation. Is this threat serious? History suggests it is. In the Six-Day War and the War of Attrition, Israel defeated Nasserism, which, like Ahmadinejad today, preached the wiping of Israel off the map of the Middle East. The price was high and cost Israel the Yom Kippur War, but the Arabs became convinced that the Jewish state is not a passing phenomenon.
The third player, Obama, holds the weakest hand. This is so because of domestic political weakness and because he can’t seriously threaten Ahmadinejad or Netanyahu. Obama doesn’t want to attack Iran himself and will find it hard to restrain Israel at the moment of truth.
What will he do? Will he turn off the American early warning radar in the Negev and announce that there will be no airlift and no diplomatic support, and as far as he’s concerned Tel Aviv can burn because Israel acted against his advice? It’s hard to imagine that Obama will abandon Israel to its fate. He can only complain and signal to Netanyahu that American support is not guaranteed for any Israeli action.
Before war breaks out – if indeed it does – the real hands the leaders are holding will not be seen. But in the meantime the stakes are constantly rising with the expectations that one of the players will recognize his weakness, blink and leave the table.
The Bushehr nuclear power plant could be operational in March-July of 2010 The exact state of Iran’s nuclear bomb program is not clear.
In the Wall Street Journal, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the provocative foreign-policy icon who was White House national security adviser when the Iranian revolution erupted three decades ago and has followed the case ever since, gives his advice. Although it is advice from someone who failed to get the correct results at the start.
Mr. Brzezinski lays out his formula. Try to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and make Tehran pay a price if it keeps pursuing it, but don’t count too much on sanctions; offer a robust American defense umbrella to protect friends in the region if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold; give rhetorical support to Iran’s opposition while accepting America’s limited ability to help it; eschew thought of a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities; and keep talking to Tehran.
Above all: Play the long game, because time, demographics and generational change aren’t on the side of the current regime.
“This is a country with a growing urban middle class, a country with fairly high access to higher education, a country where women play a great role in the professions,” he says. “So it is a country which I think, basically, objectively is capable of moving the way Turkey has moved.” That is, it can evolve into a country where Islam and modernity co-exist, even if somewhat uncomfortably.
Israelis don’t know whether, at the end of the day, they can count on Obama to use force against Iran if other measures fail to change its nuclear behavior.