As is usually the case with the Israelis, we probably won’t know about an attack until the morning after.
But if an Israeli strike on Iran does occur between now and Nov. 6, it is highly likely that U.S. election politics, and how Israel weighs the prospects for an Obama second term or a Romney presidency, will be key factors — maybe even the most important factors.
Many Israelis still mistrust President Obama, despite his dramatic promise last spring that he “has Israel’s back” and will not allow Iran to get a bomb. They fear that he will grow more distant from Israel in a second term, with no more elections to worry about. And despite Mitt Romney’s close relationship with hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli officials also fear they can’t rely on his election. Romney’s foreign-policy advisory team is considered to be somewhat adrift and dysfunctional, even by some on the inside of it. The Israelis are also worried about how long it will take an incoming President Romney to get his administration and policies in place as the window for hitting Iran’s hardened nuclear centrifuge facility at Fordow slowly closes, says David Makovsky, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace and coauthor of a book with Dennis Ross, Obama’s former top Iran adviser.
Led by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, hawks in the divided Israeli government are growing more alarmed that Fordow is rapidly reaching the point at which Israel’s military will no longer significantly damage the facility, ceding to Iran what Barak calls an unacceptable “zone of immunity.” Meanwhile sanctions and diplomacy have not met Israel’s declared threshold for progress. The International Atomic Energy Agency is coming out with a report soon that appears to have further divided the U.S. and Israel over how much progress Tehran is making on a bomb, and diplomatic negotiations are stalemated. Iran is also seeking to fracture the international coalition against it by hosting a giant conclave of nonaligned nations this week to be attended by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
The best evidence that an Israeli attack may be imminent is that some senior members of the Israeli military and defense apparatus are speaking out against it with unprecedented public frankness. “It’s important to underscore that this is not going public because pundits are speculating about it, but because people are finishing the preparations for an attack,” says Mark Hibbs, an investigator at the Carnegie Endowment’s Nuclear Policy Program, based in Berlin. “The debate is driven by people in the military and intelligence world who clearly believe this is for real.”
One challenge the Israelis have now is that Netanyahu, Barak, and other hawks have issued so many warnings that their credibility is on the line if they don’t attack. “I think the odds have gone up over the last couple of months,” adds Hibbs. “I don’t think it’s necessarily going to happen, but you have to remember when diplomacy began in March and into April, we were all told by people in Israel that the talks had to reach successful conclusion in a small number of weeks.” Instead, the negotiations went nowhere.
The Obama White House is also clearly worried about what Dennis Ross calls Israel’s “march to war.” Ross conveyed this in an op-ed last week in The New York Times when he “urged” his former administration colleagues to “ask Israeli leaders if there are military capabilities we could provide them with — like additional bunker-busting bombs, tankers for refueling aircraft, and targeting information — that would extend the clock for them.” In addition, Ross said, “the White House should ask Mr. Netanyahu what sort of support he would need from the United States if he chose to use force — for example, resupply of weapons, munitions, spare parts, military and diplomatic backing, and help in terms of dealing with unexpected contingencies. The United States should be prepared to make firm commitments in all these areas now in return for Israel’s agreement to postpone any attack until next year."
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor, asked by e-mail whether the administration is making concrete offers to the Israelis along these lines, responded that he would not “comment on our specific conversations with the Israelis” but added that “we continue to cooperate closely with our close ally Israel on addressing all facets of the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program. We do not believe the Israeli government has made a decision regarding possible use of force against Iran, as the Israeli defense minister implied recently."
Obama has tried to restrain the Israelis by making clear that the U.S. will strike Iran itself if necessary, thus also neutralizing one of his GOP opponents’ chief charge of weakness against him. At the same time, Obama has sought to prevent what he considers a premature Israeli attack. It’s not clear whether such a strike would help or hinder his election campaign. On one hand, voters tend to rally around the commander in chief in times of war; on the other, Republicans have accused Obama of indecisiveness in the embroiled region, especially in dealing with Iran and the Arab Spring.
Makovsky says Israelis are in knots over what they all regard as an existential issue with no obvious solution. “While most would be thrilled if the U.S. handled this issue, the Israeli view is that you don’t outsource your most vital national-security concerns.” He thinks the odds are still about “50-50” that Israel will decide to attack by Nov. 6. “It’s a divided picture. You have two guys, Barak and Netanyahu, who clearly think if that Israel’s going to do this, it should do it before November. You’ve got skepticism among the top security establishment and a sense of ambivalence among key Cabinet members. The story here is to what extent are these two guys going to be able to prevail. Historically generals are overruled all the time.”