The Middle East Channel

The Israeli debate on attacking Iran is over

For all practical purposes this weekend ended the Israeli debate on attacking Iran. What tipped the scales were two developments. The first was the decision of the country's president, Shimon Peres, to make his opposition to a military strike public. The second was an interview given by a former key defense advisor of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, questioning for the first time publically whether his former superior and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are fit to lead Israel in time of war.

Using every possible media outlet on the occasion of his 89th birthday, President Peres made clear last Thursday that "going it alone" -- attacking Iran without a clear understanding with the United States -- would be catastrophic. Peres did a great service to his country by focusing the debate away from some of the weaker arguments offered by opponents of a strike. Thus, the supposedly limited time that would be gained by such a strike was never convincing because in both previous experiences with such preventive action -- against Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 and against the Syrian reactor in 2007 -- Israel ended up gaining more time than even the most optimistic proponents of these strikes had anticipated.

Similarly, the warnings that an attack on Iran's nuclear installations would ignite a regional war were not persuasive in the absence of Arab states volunteering to join such a war. Iran's only regional state ally is Syria, but President Bashar al-Assad would not be able to direct his armed forces to attack Israel when these forces are mired in a civil war and barely control a third of the country's territory. 

Hezbollah, Iran's principle non-state ally, might react to an Israeli strike by launching its rockets against Israel, but with Iran weakened from the attack and Syria unable to protect it, such an assault would be suicidal. Certainly none of the region's Sunni Arab countries -- Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states -- will come to Iran's aid. None of these countries uttered a word when in 2007 Israel destroyed the nuclear reactor of Sunni-Arab Syria. Why the same countries would be expected to ignite the region in the event that the nuclear facilities of a Shiite Persian country would be attacked, was never clear.

Avoiding repetition of these weak arguments, Peres clarified what is really at stake in the event of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities in the next few months: Israel's relations with the United States. The basic divide is not the two countries' different time constraints due to very different capacities to deal militarily with Iran's nuclear installations. Instead, it has to do with two issues. The first is the U.S. electoral timetable. The presidential election creates an imperative for U.S. President Barack Obama to avoid any unexpected fallouts -- economic or otherwise -- of a military strike against Iran. Peres understands that ignoring Obama's concerns and instead banking on a victory by Republican candidate Mitt Romney in November, as Netanyahu seems to have done, is very risky if not irresponsible. 

The second issue concerns the timeline for the drawdown of U.S. forces in the region. Clearly, the Joint Chiefs are worried about the prospects of becoming embroiled in a military conflict with another Muslim country as long as U.S. forces continue to be deployed in Afghanistan and hence exposed to Iranian retaliation. By going public Peres gave expression to what almost every former and presently serving Israeli defense chief understands: namely, since the Obama White House has accommodated Israel's defense needs above and beyond all previous U.S. administrations, and given the intimate relations between the Israeli and U.S. defense communities, Israel simply cannot take action that would be framed in Washington as "putting American lives at risk."

The second important development of this past weekend was an interview given by the former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Director of Military Intelligence General Uri Sagi. A highly regarded senior military officer who served in various capacities under Barak when he was IDF chief of staff and prime minister, Sagi went beyond the questions that many of his former colleagues have already raised about the wisdom of attacking Iran.

Sagi questioned, for the first time publicly, whether Israel can rely on the judgment and mental stability of its current leaders to guide it in time of war. Listing a number of past strategic errors made by Barak and hinting at Netanyahu's ascribed tendency to traverse rapidly between euphoria and panic, Sagi expressed grave doubts whether Israel's current leaders can take the pressures and stress entailed in managing a major military confrontation.

Despite being a regional power Israel is a small country operating within narrow security confines. It has done wonders when operating within a national consensus as during the 1948 and 1967 wars. But after the 1973 war it was torn by the debate about the wisdom of fighting the Egyptians along the Suez Canal and after 1982 it was divided over the war in Lebanon.

Contrary to what many think, Netanyahu and Barak never bluffed -- they did not threaten war simply to extort an American commitment to take care of the problem. They genuinely believe that a nuclear Iran poses Israel with untold threats that should be avoided at almost any cost. They did not bluff, but they were defeated. With President Peres publicly joining the many formidable opponents of a military strike and General Sagi raising questions about the competence of Israel's current leaders, Israel now lacks the minimal consensus required for a demanding military campaign to destroy Iran's nuclear installations. The debate has been settled. At least for now.  

Shai Feldman is the Judith and Sidney Swartz Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University and is a Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/GettyImages

The Middle East Channel

Libyan forces arrest 32 alleged Qaddafi loyalists for car bombings

Libyan forces have arrested 32 alleged pro-Qaddafi militants in connection with twin car bombings that hit Tripoli on Sunday. Libya's Supreme Security Committee said it had dismantled an "organized network of remnants of the previous regime." Both attacks, which occured near dawn, killed at least two people and injured several others. One explosion took place near a women's police academy, and the other hit Libya's interior ministry. The attacks came on the eve of the one-year anniversary of Tripoli's fall to rebel fighters, and were the first deadly bombings since the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi last year. Violence in the country has however increased during the Muslim holy-month of Ramadan.

Syria

The U.N. observer mission in Syria has formally ended. It was incapable of standing up to mounting violence. The U.N. Security Council met on Thursday and decided that conditions to extend the mission had not been fulfilled with the breakdown of Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan. The United Nations said that instead of the observer mission there would be a small civilian "liaison office" setup in efforts to achieve a political settlement. United Nations and Arab League envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is replacing Annan after his resignation in early August, said he will work as a mediator to end the civil war in Syria. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare public appearance Sunday attending a prayer service in Damascus for the first day of Eid al-Fitr marking the end of Ramadan. He was not joined by Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa, whose whereabouts are uncertain. There are unconfirmed rumors he has been intending to defect. However, Assad and Sharaa are rarely together due to security concerns. Violence continued in Aleppo, Daraa, Azaz, and around Damascus over the weekend as activists reported they had found 40 bodies on the streets of a suburb of the capital. On Monday, Syrian forces began an offensive to retake Mouadamiya, a southwestern suburb of Damascus. Meanwhile, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said the United Nations may need to create a "safe zone" inside Syria for refugees. There are currently near 70,000 displaced Syrians in Turkey, and Davutoglu said they country would not be able to accommodate more than 100,000 refugees.

Headlines  

  • Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi has announced a plan to visit Iran, seemingly attempting to repair relations. This move has been deemed an "excellent" step by the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Weekend attacks in Yemen left at least 20 people dead at the Intelligence Headquarters of the southern port city of Aden.
  • A Shiite Bahraini teenager was killed on Saturday in clashes with police near the capital of Manama.

Arguments & Analysis

Why Syria's revolution is not like Libya's' (Husam Dughman, Informed Comment)

"When a popular uprising started in Tunisia less than two years ago, it took the world by surprise. Not many observers had anticipated the outbreak, let alone the success, of popular uprisings in a region far better known for the longevity of its tyrants and despots. Contrary to what some analysts have stated, the region loosely known as "the Arab world" had in fact seen important, albeit failed, uprisings: the Muslim Brotherhood's revolt against Hafez Al-Assad's regime in Hama, Syria, was brutally put down in 1982. The mass uprisings in both the northern and southern parts of Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War of 1991 were crushed just as mercilessly by the Saddam Hussein regime."

The Emergence of Salafism in Tunisia' (Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta, Jadaliyya)

"Political Islam did not really play a prominent role in the success of the Tunisian revolution. Islamists were notably absent from the protests and the revolutionary slogans were about freedom, dignity, and jobs rather than Sharia law or the creation of an Islamic state... The October 2011 elections, however, offered a different and surprising, at least for some, picture of the country. The Islamist party Ennahda became by far the dominant political movement and now leads a three-party government coalition together with two secular left-leaning parties. This means that former Islamist political prisoners and exiles are today in power. Ennahda's landslide victory contradicted the assumptions of many analysts and scholars about Tunisia, which was believed to be a haven of secularism in North Africa, thanks to the modernizing policies of both Bourguiba and Ben Ali. If the electoral strength of Ennahda was not enough to question the effective penetration of Tunisian elite-led secularism in society, the very public emergence of Salafism certainly did the trick."

Obama Needs U.S. Debate Before Making Pledges to Israel About Attacking Iran' (Peter Beinart, The Daily Beast)

"For years now, Israelis have been noisily debating military action against Iran. And their conclusion, according to polls, is that America should do it. That's somewhat ironic given that self-reliance-never again putting Jewish destiny in non-Jewish hands-is core to the Zionist ideal. But it's also quite rational: an American strike would likely set back Tehran's nuclear progress far more than an Israeli one would. And an American strike would not leave Israel as isolated in the world. The problem is that back here in the United States, we haven't been noisily debating military action against Iran. Yes, we've watched the Israeli debate voyeuristically. Countless pundits have weighed in on whether the Iranian regime would really risk its own survival to end Israel's, on what Israel's military capacities really are, on how Iran might strike back. But there's been much less discussion of whether an attack on Iran is in America's interest. And that needs to change."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

AFP/Getty Images