For now, Israel willing to watch, wait on Iran
By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN
Published February 11, 2007
JERUSALEM - In its 58-year history, Israel has survived several wars and developed - though never officially acknowledged - one of the world's larger nuclear arsenals.
So it would be an exaggeration to say Israelis are quaking in their shoes about a possible nuclear attack from Iran, which could be years away from making even one bomb. Still, like many in the United States, there is concern here that the Bush administration is moving toward military action against the Iranians regardless of the consequences.
"The response of Iran would be first against Israel, even if Israel is not involved in this activity. This is the first thing you have to understand," said Col. Schlomo Mofaz of Israel's Institute of Counterterrorism. "Second point, I think Israel should not be in the front of a coalition or any kind of activity" against Iran.
Iran has long battled Israel through its proxies, Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Armed and financed in part by Tehran, Hezbollah fought a war with Israel last summer that killed 159 Israelis and more than 1,000 Lebanese.
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has also rattled Israel and the West with his push to enrich uranium - a key step in making a nuclear bomb - and his strident verbal attacks on the Jewish state. Yet in recent weeks it has become clear that even many Iranians are nervous about Ahmadinejad, whom they fear may be leading them to international isolation or worse.
That's why continued economic pressure on Iran may be the best recourse for now.
"The students burning pictures of him and voting against him do not want to become North Koreans and be subject to a total embargo," said Gerald Steinberg, a political scientist at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv.
"The fear is that if Iran is isolated internationally, they will not be able to travel or have interaction with their peers. That does have an impact and it does weaken the regime."
Steinberg acknowledges, however, that a loose cannon like Ahmadinejad makes it hard to predict what Iran might do down the road.
Is it a reckless threat to world peace and Jewish existence like Adolf Hitler's Germany, meaning it might use nuclear weapons against Israel even knowing they wouldn't be "200 meters into the air before Tehran would be razed to the ground," as French President Jacques Chirac recently said?
Or by the time Iran develops a bomb, will Ahmadinejad be replaced by more moderate leaders who recognize that nuclear deterrence kept Americans and Soviets from annihilating each other?
"From an Israeli perspective, the number of unknowns is huge and that's why there is such a strong debate in Israel between those who favor a military option at some point and those who think it not a reasonable option," Steinberg said.
In 1981, Israel bombed an Iraqi nuclear plant. But there are vast differences between Iraq then and Iran now.
"Iraq had only one site, and it was very primitive, and Iraq didn't have a lot of capability to respond," Mofaz said. "Iran has learned a lesson from the attacks against Iraq, so it has eight or nine or 10 sites, and it may have other undercover sites that we don't know about."
If the United States or Israel did take pre-emptive action, they would have to use tactical nuclear weapons because conventional ones couldn't penetrate the defenses Iran has built around its nuclear facilities, Mofaz said.
But in any military action, he warned, "you have to be very accurate not to bring damage against the Iranian people because it could be some kind of Holocaust if you attacked population centers."
Ahmadinejad's claim that the Holocaust was a myth has convinced some Israelis his regime is so dangerous the nuclear program must be stopped soon. But in a country used to wars and terrorism, others are less concerned.
"Israelis do see Iran in Lebanon and Gaza, and they see its nuclear threat as echoing Hitler's threat, but it's not something they haven't lived with for years," Steinberg said. "Israelis have a lot of threats, and this doesn't raise the anxiety level beyond roughly where it is for other reasons."
[Last modified February 11, 2007, 01:20:22]
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