Bibi Is Bluffing

Israel may one day bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. But it won’t be as soon as Netanyahu wants you to think.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC’s annual policy conference on Monday

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Israel is on the verge of bombing Iran. Discussions of whether Israel has the bunker-busting bombs or planes to destroy underground Iranian nuclear facilities, abound. Loose talk of when such a strike could take place frequently refers to a matter of months. The head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency recently traveled to Washington to ask what the U.S. reaction would be if Israel disregarded American objections and started bombing. The United States is so worried about a forthcoming Israeli attack that the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff went on CNN to say a military strike now would be “premature.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington this week hoping to reach agreement with President Barack Obama over what nuclear “red lines” Iran shouldn’t be allowed to cross. Instead, Obama encouraged Netanyahu to allow more time for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Netanyahu told the powerful, pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Israel couldn’t wait much longer.  

Then again, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised to learn of this imminent attack. It seems as if Israel has been about to strike Iran every six months for the past three years. Before the May 2009 meeting between Obama and Netanyahu, there were reports that Israel was getting impatient and wanted to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities. In September 2009, the Los Angeles Times, citing “Israel watchers,” reported that Netanyahu would give the West until the summer or fall of 2010 to get results. “After that, the likelihood of an Israeli military strike against Iran goes up,’’ the newspaper reported. In September 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg, who interviewed President Obama to talk about Iran last week, wrote an Atlantic cover story under the headline: “Israel is Getting Ready to Bomb Iran” and predicted it would happen by the end of the year if sanctions failed to halt the program.

There’s little doubt that Israel is making preparations for the possibility. But there’s also a better chance that Netanyahu is bluffing, hoping that all the media hype about an attack will somehow prod the United States and its allies to take stiffer action or perhaps scare Tehran into compliance with international demands. Netanyahu’s language remains tough. But unless the Israeli government is trying to keep the element of surprise — certainly a possibility—there isn’t much evidence that an attack is actually imminent.

Consider the issue that concerns Israelis most of all: the safety and security of fellow Israelis. Some people in Tel Aviv, I’m told, are quietly stocking up on water, cash, and groceries, and getting their own gas masks. That is understandable, given the dire warnings in the media. But hundreds of thousands of Israelis still lack gas masks, according to a December report by Israel’s state comptroller, and there has been no public urging for Israelis to get one. Tel Aviv, a metropolis of 2 million people, unveiled a new underground shelter this month for 2,000 people. But the same state comptroller report found that most Israelis have no designated shelter.

Of course, these shortcomings could be remedied. It may be that Israel is afraid to make too many public preparations to avoid tipping off Tehran. But this is a matter no Israeli government could afford to bungle. The debacle of the Second Lebanon War, when Hezbollah’s Katyusha rockets rained down on northern Israel, is too fresh of a memory to neglect the home front before any major military operation. In that unanticipated, 34-day summer campaign, Israelis were caught by surprise and authorities were scathingly unprepared, as an inquiry later showed. Thousands of Israelis fled the bombardment for a makeshift beach camp further south, near the coastal city of Ashkelon, a tent compound that cost $200,000 per day to operate and was paid for by a rich Russian-Israeli oligarch. The war left the Israeli economy paralyzed, wreaked psychological havoc by showing Israel’s profound vulnerability to what previously had been considered an inferior foe, and led to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s downfall.

Any war with Iran would be expected to cause far greater mayhem. Iran has medium-ranged ballistic missiles that could hit Israel. But Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, already has an estimated 40,000 rockets positioned across south Lebanon to strike as far south as Tel Aviv. In a clear sign of how serious Israel considers that threat, senior Israeli Defense officials summoned me to the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv last year to give me a classified map of the sites when I was working for the Washington Post. Israeli military officials believe the arsenal to be four times as large as what Hezbollah had in the 2006 war thanks to Iranian generosity and Syria’s smuggling help. When it comes to the home front, Israel, even with its advances in anti-missile missile technology, is simply not prepared for another air war.

Nor does the Israeli public see the immediate threat. When you have respected voices like Meir Dagan—the recently departed former head of the Mossad spy agency—saying Iran won’t reach the point of no return in its nuclear program until at least 2015, it will be hard to find Israelis clamoring for a strike now. In fact, the Republican presidential primary candidates, with their promises to attack Iran if elected, seem far more hard-line than concerned Israeli citizens. Only 19 percent of Israelis surveyed last week said Israel should attack Iran even without the support of Washington. The Iran issue, despite all of Netanyahu’s warnings of the dangers of an Iranian bomb, is simply not topping the domestic agenda. Israelis feel more outraged about soaring rent and gas prices than they feel threatened by Iran’s nuclear program. “Here, no one seems to be talking about Iran except journalists,” a friend of mine in Jerusalem told me in an email this week. “Israelis are more into Kochav Nolad”—the Israeli version of American Idol—“and Bar Refaeli’s latest bikini.’’

Of course, there are times when heads of state ignore public opinion and must act in their view of the country’s national interests. Anyone who has spoken to Netanyahu wouldn’t doubt the depth of his concern about Iran achieving a nuclear weapon, and the nightmarish consequences for the Jewish state. But here we need to remember who we are dealing with: Bibi is first and foremost a politician. Like Obama, who would be disinclined to launch an air war nine months before an election, Netanyahu has his eye on Israeli elections set to take place next year. A costly, risky military operation that could cause mass casualties is not an option he is likely to undertake until all other options are exhausted.

And those options seem far from spent. Tougher American financial sanctions, which Netanyahu himself praised, have just been imposed and a new European Union oil embargo is slated to take effect in July. The new sanctions, along with a series of spectacular covert measures including assassinations of Iranian scientists and malicious computer viruses, have all served to set back Iran’s nuclear program, experts say. It is precisely because of Israel’s lack of an appetite for a strike that all these measures are being taken.

Amid all of this, there is truly something farcical—and dangerous—about all the hyperbolic discussion over an Israeli strike. The Obama administration clearly feels spooked enough about the prospect that it sees the only surefire way to halt it is to preach against a strike publicly. Israel believes to be feared it needs to speak often and loudly about its readiness to bomb. But the trouble here is that Israel’s leaders have resorted to such talk so often that it is hard to know when they are serious. If they are indeed on the verge of war, portions of the Iranian government probably see it as more bluster. Or worse, if they take it on its face, it may have the inadvertent effect of provoking a war that never had to happen.