With this week's episode of The Call, we welcome our fifth and last regular participant, Amos Harel, the distinguished military reporter and defense analyst for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz. Amos led off our discussion by summarizing some of his recent reporting about a possible Israeli military strike on Iran.
The panelists concluded that the combination of increasingly aggressive and uniform rhetoric issuing from Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak combined with the public alarms being sounded by high-ranking members of the Israeli security establishment indicate that something has changed quite recently in Israel's evaluation of the plausibility and potential benefits and drawbacks of a strike. Among the possible reasons for this change cited by the panelists are:
1. The American Presidential campaign, which some of the panelists and some Israelis see as offering an ideal moment to pressure Obama without fear of retaliation.
2. The degrading of Syrian military capabilities and the increasingly embattled position of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
3. An important -- but as yet unnamed -- shift in the Israeli attack plan that has altered the calculus of the country's leaders.
The five regular participants on The Call are:
Pepe Escobar -- author of the "Roving Eye" feature for the Asia Times.
David Goldman -- aka "Spengler" of the Asia Times.
Amos Harel -- Military correspondent and defense analyst for Ha'aretz.
David Samuels - Contributing Editor of Harper's Magazine
Rotem Sella -- journalist at Ma'ariv
Amos Harel: Even by the Israeli media's standards, the recent coverage of the possible attack on Iran probably sets some kind of record. Since Thursday we've heard one ex-chief of Mossad and two ex-chiefs of the Military Intelligence warning that an Israeli strike might occur in the next 12 weeks – and coming out publicly against it.
How much of this represents actual knowledge of Netanyahu's not-so-secret intentions and how much is sophisticated psychological warfare against the Iranians? (Or maybe the Americans?). I've met with two of the three recently, and talked to them by phone yesterday. I assume they're not part of any intentional spin. They are genuinely worried about the possibility of a decision being made soon – and the outcome of such a strike. Barak is a more difficult case to decipher.
This guy does not say what he means and I doubt if he ever means what he says -- a real case of a riddle wrapped in an enigma. I think his (and Netanyahu's) main concern at the moment is maintaining a credible military threat. As long as Israel seems serious about this, the international community will have a hard time avoiding the growing pressure on Iran.
But will Netanyahu risk an Israeli strike before the presidential elections? I think David Samuels [http://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/3243/netanyahu-plays-the-romney-card] did a good job of describing the Israeli visit on Romney's assault-the-world tour last week. But I suspect David is also slightly underestimating the importance of the Panetta visit. Netanyahu and Barak will have to work against two major factors: the Obama Administration's objection – and the doubts raised by both current chiefs of the IDF and Mossad who apparently fear a direct conflict with the Americans. Benny Gantz is crucial here. It will be extremely complicated to persuade the ministers to vote for a strike, when the IDF's chief of staff tells them he thinks this is not the right time.
Caveat Emptor: One far-fetched scenario that should nevertheless be considered. Is it possible that Obama actually decided, for his reasons, that an Israeli strike is inevitable at this time and is only
concerned of surprising the Iranians and avoiding accusations of being an accomplice to Israel's plans?
David Goldman: Welcome, all. I think the floor goes to David S. to respond to Amos.
David Samuels: What we can all see right now is that Netanyahu and Barak have ratcheted up the rhetoric over the past few months and have stopped their prior bad cop-good cop routine at least in public. Also, this shift in rhetoric has been greeted with alarm by members of the Israeli security establishment who are not known for crying wolf. So the possibilities that occur to me are:
1. The Israelis are precisely taking advantage of the American election year to exert maximum pressure to create the appearance of a credible threat.
2. Something has changed in Israeli strategic thinking.
3. This is all part of a clever plan to create distance between Israel and America for a strike that Obama has already ok-ed.
Amos Harel: I think both 1 and 2 are correct. There is a change in favor of a strike. It still doesn't mean they'll actually go for it. I'd put #3 as a 10% chance, max. One more advantage for Bibi: nobody speaks about the Palestinians (what Palestinians?) any more.
Rotem Sella: I agree with Amos on number 3. I would suspect the Israel and the United States aren't coordinated, and that we aren't ok-ed. Also back to what Amos wrote in the opening remarks - The voices we are hearing against the strike are NOT part of a psychological warfare. They create a lot of pressure on Netanyahu and try to tilt the public opinion against a strike.
David Samuels: The technical shift has to be something about the way an attack is configured since the targeting stuff was settled a while ago. I think Netanyahu and Barak are former commandos and there is a new plan that captured both their imaginations -- which has to be something that uses technology in an unexpected way to produce less risk, a higher chance of success and some element of surprise.
David Goldman: There is the issue of the degree of success of the attack and the issue of retaliation.
The success part can be measured in time. How many months or years can the Israelis hold off an Iranian program, given that a large number of centrifuges are in "isolation" (this assumes that no-one has found a way to toss dirty bomb down a tunnel).
The retaliation part depends on Iran itself, Syria and Hezbollah. How does the present situation in Syria affect Iran's capacity to respond via proxies? Hezbollah has a lot of missiles but can they be resupplied? With the Syrian army busy elsewhere do the Israelis have a free hand to mop up in a way that was not true in 2006?
Technical issues might include 1) non-aerial attacks by commando teams on the ground, 2) additional capacity to interdict missiles from Iran and Lebanon, 3) others?
Pepe: My question to Amos: So we have Benny Gantz, Ya'akov Ayash. Tamir Pardo, Aviv Kochavi, Mossad department heads, the head of the Israeli Air Force Amir Eshel and at least four of Bibi's 8-man "kitchen cabinet" currently against an attack. How could Bibi possibly order an attack when the best informed minds in Israel know that would inflict a 6-month delay max on Iran's nuclear program (the Americans have already calculated it); and that a strike would definitely lead Tehran to abandon its current "latency period" and go for weaponization in no time?
Moreover, only Alice in Wonderland characters believe Israel would attack without a full Obama administration OK.
David Goldman: Pepe, Israel never got a full administration OK for any major attack. That goes for 1956, 1967, Osirak, and so on.
Amos Harel: According to Barak, an attack will achieve a one to two year delay. Hezbollah would join Iran. That's what they're paid for. Assad would be otherwise occupied, if he's still there.
Pepe, remember Diskin blaming the duo (Bibi-Barak) for being "messianic"? Here is your answer.
David Samuels: So Amos, you think the technical shift is the disintegration of Assad's army?
David Goldman: How degraded are Syria's capacities now? In general, what would IDF operations in southern Lebanon look like today vs. 2006, in a scenario where Israel attacks Iran and Hezbollah retaliates with missiles?
David Samuels: Hezbollah has lost a lot of public support in Lebanon, and Suleiman, the Lebanese President, is now making noises about staying out of war and sectarian militias not being acceptable. The Syrian Army appears to be otherwise occupied these days.
Amos Harel: Assad's problems might benefit Israel regarding Iran. But at least Farkash is worried that Assad might be tempted to join the Iranians, seeing this by mistake as a possible way out. Syria's capacities are terrible, conventionally speaking, but their missile and chemical capabilities are troubling. Lebanon next time: we won't hesitate for 30 days about sending in the ground forces and the air force would be much more aggressive.
Rotem Sella: What I'm hearing is that, with Syria in its present state, Hezbollah and Hamas are not the big-questions. The big question is can we lunch a successful operation in Iran and are the media and the veterans over-stating the danger to the home front.
The question considering the strike is also what will be seen by the Israeli public as a success - it's very political. Israeli Mk's and ministers from the right sees a strike before the US elections as something that can help Obama win the elections by making him a War President.
David Samuels: Assuming Lebanon and Syria unleash missiles immediately, where do Israeli planes land after an attack? You don't have to hit planes with missiles. You only have to hit their landing strips.
David Goldman: It would frighten and surprise me if Lebanon and Syria together had enough missiles to knock out every F-15 capable landing strip in Israel.
Amos Harel: David, the air force maintains that they would still be able to land and then fly more sorties. I think that some of our capabilities would be damaged.
David Samuels: What base is physically out of range of the missiles or protected?
Amos Harel: None are absolutely out of range. Those in the south are better protected
David Samuels: There is a trade-off then in protecting the bases and protecting the cities that becomes political, yes?
Amos Harel: Sure. There's an ongoing debate about where to place Iron Dome batteries during a war. The generals will probably win this. The air bases will be better defended.
David Samuels: I was also interested in what Rotem Sella said earlier about right-wing MKs in Israel believing that a pre-election strike will re-elect Obama.
Rotem Sella: They think that Obama will have to support a strike that is very popular in the US. And will become by default a war president. So if the strike is successful he wins – and if it fails he also wins.
David Samuels: Except when shopping centers start blowing up in America. And the price of gas doubles.
David Goldman: Precisely. The administration is more worried about the economy than anything else, and the economy is probably 10 times as important as foreign policy right now. The only constituencies who care about foreign policy are Jews and evangelical Christians, and if this happens, the Jews will have given their money to Romney, and the evangelicals won't vote for Obama anyway.
Romney would support a strike because he is ideologically and religiously joined at the hip to Israel. Mormons are the ultimate Judeophiles, Christian Zionists and American exceptionalists -- they make the evangelicals look like pansies.
Amos Harel: Too much of a gamble from his point of view. My guess: he will remain against it. And this is probably why Romney would support an Israeli strike now, won't he?
Rotem Sella: Obama for another four years in the White House also might be considered by Bibi as a threat to Israel.
David Samuels: Obama makes a big point of announcing that he isn't a member of the Likud party in his speeches and conversations with American Jews. So maybe Netanyahu will repay the favor by announcing that he isn't a member of the Democratic Party in America – an announcement accompanied by a big boom in Iran.
David Goldman: There is an issue of timing. We are talking about an Iranian bomb a year from now, not three months from now. If Netanyahu attacks Iran before the election, Obama can't punish Israel too badly (although he would wait until after the elections and then really screw Israel). Netanyahu doesn't gain a lot in terms of the US relationship by hitting before November. But if Romney is elected, the US will be in full support of Israeli action starting in late January. That makes a good case for waiting.
Read Marty Peretz' interview in the WSJ on Saturday -- Peretz was the Zionist who gave Obama the hechsher in 2008, and now he hates Obama with a passion. That's true of a lot of big Democratic Jewish donors.
Amos Harel: Guys. I'll have to sign off now. I can hear the planes overhead here... Just kidding. Previous obligations. Regarding president Romney: Barak assumes he won't be able to discuss anything before next May.
Rotem Sella: David, If Israel strikes Iran before the elections can Obama take the credit for a successful operation, and claim in the case of blow-up's in the US/surging oil price, "I'm not a Likudnik."
David Samuels: No, he can't. The very fact that Israel mounted a successful operation will make him look weak. No one thinks he is a secret supporter of Bibi Netanyahu or of Israeli military action against Iran, even if logic dictates that he could be, or even should be. And if Israel flops then he looks weak and not in control and the global economy probably goes haywire right before the election – none of which seems like a big plus for him.
David Goldman: Any last thoughts?
David Samuels: Pepe, I would love to read one of your far-out imaginings of Mitt and Bibi going out for drinks together one night in Boston in the 1970s, back when they were both young bankers at the Boston Consulting Group.
Pepe: I WILL think about a screenplay soon!