When Would Israel Attack Iran?

The Strategic Interest

Getty imaGes

By Yossi Alpher

Published September 01, 2010, issue of September 10, 2010.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The prospect of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is very much in the news. Jeffrey Goldberg recently published a controversial article in The Atlantic citing what he called a “consensus” view among current and former Israeli decision makers that “there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.” Meanwhile, Iran and Russia are activating the Bushehr electric power reactor, spurring super-hawks like former American U.N. ambassador John Bolton to urge Israel to attack immediately.

There is a lot of bad judgment and misinformation, or perhaps disinformation, at work here. At the end of the day, an Israeli attack against Iran is conceivable, but not in the way Goldberg or Bolton imagine.

The Israeli strategy regarding Iran’s nuclear threat is premised on the need to persuade the global community to deal with it as an international, not just an Israeli, problem. Most of Goldberg’s interviewees fully understand that America can do the job far better than Israel and that an Israeli attack not coordinated with Washington would be disastrous for Israel’s relations with the United States. But Israeli threats to attack Iran sound good, because they could conceivably spur the Obama administration to take preemptive action.

Further, there are plenty of serious officials in Israel who don’t believe Iranian strategic decision-making is in the hands of “a messianic apocalyptic cult” (Goldberg quoting Netanyahu) and who have something to say in the Israeli chain of command. The Israeli army’s chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, for example, is understood to doubt the wisdom of an Israeli attack. Obviously (now that the Bushehr reactor is being fired up and has not been attacked), the government of Israel does not believe an electric power reactor is a key element in a military nuclear program.

Under what conditions would an Israeli leader, left or right, civilian or military, actually consider attacking Iran’s nuclear infrastructure? By my reckoning, the following set of conditions would have to exist in its entirety:

First, the regime in Tehran continues to call for Israel’s destruction. This is indeed the case today.

Second, the Iranian nuclear program is crossing a “red line” and the timetable for Iran to obtain the capacity to attack Israel with nuclear weapons has become extremely short. This has not happened yet.

Third, all international efforts based on diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions are understood unequivocally to have failed. Right now, those efforts are actually escalating.

Fourth, all clandestine efforts to slow the Iranian program (which have apparently been very effective over the past 15 years) are understood to have failed.

Fifth, it is clear to Israel that neither America nor any other international actor is prepared to deal militarily with Iran, but that Washington is giving Israel at least a “yellow light” to move. This is not the case today; the United States itself frequently hints that it might ultimately resort to military means.

Sixth, Israel has a safe air corridor for its aircraft via one or more of the countries separating it from Iran. Turkey may recently have dropped off this list.

And seventh, an Israeli attack can set back the Iranian military nuclear program for a significant period of time, while a sober cost-benefit analysis persuades Israeli planners that the strategic advantages of damaging the Iranian program outweigh the very heavy potential ancillary costs of the strike: rocket attacks on Israel from the north and south and missile attacks from Iran; regional and international outrage and isolation; a possible historic crisis in Israeli-American relations; dangers to Diaspora Jewish communities from terrorist attacks, etc.

We are clearly not there yet.

Yossi Alpher is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of Internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.