Israelis Grow Confident Strike on Iran’s Nukes Can Work

By Jeffrey Goldberg

In 2005, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then Israel’s finance minister, made an official visit to Uganda.
For Netanyahu, visits to Uganda are weighted with sadness. It was at the airport in Entebbe that his older brother, Yonatan Netanyahu, was shot dead by a Ugandan soldier. Yonatan was the leader of an Israeli commando team dispatched by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in July 1976 to rescue Jewish hostages held by pro-Palestinian terrorists. The terrorists had diverted an Air France flight to Uganda, where the then-dictator, the infamous Idi Amin, gave them refuge.
The raid was a near-total success. The hijackers were all killed, along with dozens of Ugandan soldiers posted to the airport by Amin to protect the terrorists. Only three hostages died; 102 were rescued. (A fourth was later murdered in a Ugandan hospital.) Yonatan was the only Israeli soldier killed.
In his 2005 visit, Benjamin Netanyahu was welcomed by the current president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, who was an anti- Amin guerilla leader at the time of the Entebbe raid. Museveni accompanied Netanyahu to the airport, and unveiled a plaque in his brother’s memory. The Ugandan president told him that the Israeli raid on Entebbe was a turning point in the struggle against Amin. It bolstered the opposition’s spirits and proved to them that Amin was vulnerable. Amin’s government would fall some two and half years later.

Unclothe the Emperor

A widely held assumption about a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is that it would spur Iranian citizens -- many of whom appear to despise their rulers -- to rally around the regime. But Netanyahu, I’m told, believes a successful raid could unclothe the emperor, emboldening Iran’s citizens to overthrow the regime (as they tried to do, unsuccessfully, in 2009).
You might call this the Museveni Paradigm. It’s one of several arguments I’ve heard in the past week, as I’ve shuttled between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, that have convinced me that Israeli national-security officials are considering a pre- emptive strike in the near future.
Last week, I argued that Netanyahu’s campaign to convince the West that Iran’s nuclear program represents a threat -- not only to his country but also to the entire Middle East and beyond -- has worked so well that it could represent the perfect bluff. After all, on his recent visit to Washington, Netanyahu managed to avoid discussing the Palestinian issue with President Barack Obama, and he heard Obama vow that the U.S. wouldn’t be content to merely contain a nuclear Iran.
After interviewing many people with direct knowledge of internal government thinking, however, I’m highly confident that Netanyahu isn’t bluffing -- that he is in fact counting down to the day when he will authorize a strike against a half-dozen or more Iranian nuclear sites.
One reason I’m now more convinced is that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are working hard to convince other members of the Israeli cabinet that a strike might soon be necessary.
But I also heard from Israeli national-security officials a number of best-case scenarios about the consequences of an attack, which suggested to me that they believe they have thought through all the risks -- and that they keep coming to the same conclusions.

All-out War

One conclusion key officials have reached is that a strike on six or eight Iranian facilities will not lead, as is generally assumed, to all-out war. This argument holds that the Iranians might choose to cover up an attack, in the manner of the Syrian government when its nuclear facility was destroyed by the Israeli air force in 2007. An Israeli strike wouldn’t focus on densely populated cities, so the Iranian government might be able to control, to some degree, the flow of information about it.
Some Israeli officials believe that Iran’s leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture, rather than declare all-out war. I’m not endorsing this view, but I was struck by its optimism. (A war game held by the U.S. military this month came to the opposite conclusion, according to the New York Times: A strike would likely lead to a wider war that could include the U.S.)
Another theory making the rounds was that Obama has so deeply internalized the argument that Israel has the sovereign right to defend itself against a threat to its existence that an Israeli attack, even one launched against U.S. wishes, wouldn’t anger him. In this scenario, Obama would move immediately to help buttress Israel’s defenses against an Iranian counterstrike.
Some Israeli security officials also believe that Iran won’t target American ships or installations in the Middle East in retaliation for a strike, as many American officials fear, because the leadership in Tehran understands that American retaliation for an Iranian attack could be so severe as to threaten the regime itself.
This contradicts Netanyahu’s assertion, first made to me three years ago, that Iran’s rulers are members of a “messianic, apocalyptic cult,” unmoved by the calculations of rational self- interest. It also contradicts the results of the U.S. war game. But it does make sense if you believe that regime survival is an important goal of the ayatollahs.
Finally, and even more disquieting, was the contention I heard repeatedly that an Israeli strike in the next six months - - conducted before Iran can further harden its nuclear sites, or make them redundant -- will set back the ayatollahs’ atomic ambitions at least five years. American military planners tend to think that Israel could do only a year or two worth of damage.
The arguments I’ve outlined here -- and those I’ll describe in my next column -- all lead to a single conclusion: The Israeli political leadership increasingly believes that an attack on Iran will not be the disaster many American officials, and some ex-Israeli security officials, fear it will be.
These were vertigo-inducing conversations, to say the least. Next week, I’ll discuss why, from Netanyahu’s perspective, a strike on Iran, even if only marginally successful, might be worth the risk -- and may be historically inevitable.

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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