Features | Security | Central Asia

Why Israel Won’t Go It Alone

With speculation intensifying over whether Israel is planning to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, it’s worth remembering that it’s the U.S. that will have the ultimate say.

If you want to know whether Israel is about to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities then you’d be better served looking at Iran-related policy and statements emanating from Washington DC than speculative reports from the Israeli press.

The possibility of an Israeli strike has been thrust into the spotlight again following reports in the Israeli media speculating that an agreement has been reached between Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu to take the military option against Iran’s facilities. Although these reports were later denied by Barak, new reports quickly emerged that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman had also been convinced to back a military strike. Meanwhile, other members of the security cabinet, including Interior Minister Eli Yishai, are reported to be undecided and “losing sleep” over this matter.

The fact that Israel tested a new missile in the midst of all this added credibility to speculation that something could be afoot, especially with reports emerging that the Israeli Air Force recently took part in a joint NATO exercise focused on practicing long-range attacks.

Still, regardless of whether Netanyahu and Barak really do intend to attack Iran, it’s exceedingly unlikely Israel’s leaders, as hawkish as they may be, would attack Iran without U.S. permission. The Israeli government may feel comfortable challenging the United States over the issue of settlements, but striking Iran is a very different matter.

It wouldn’t matter who is in charge at the White House and how pro-Israel they may or may not be – a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, without U.S. consent, would likely have severe consequences for Israel-U.S. relations. After all, the building of settlements doesn’t directly risk American lives and the U.S. economy. Attacking Iran without U.S. permission could and would.

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For a start, the United States still has troops in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and any unilateral attack by the government of Israel against Iran could put the lives of U.S. soldiers there in jeopardy of Iranian retaliation. It could also create a massive spike in oil prices, something which could have severe consequences for an already struggling U.S. economy. To take such action without securing U.S. approval would risk undermining American interests in an unprecedented way, a reality that successive Israeli governments have been fully aware of.

Israel’s leaders have, of course, continued to threaten Iran’s nuclear program, stating that “all options remain on the table.” But such rhetoric masks an extreme pragmatism on Israel-U.S. ties over issues as serious as Iran, not least because of the $3 billion in aid that Israel receives from the United States, as well as the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. A unilateral attack without U.S. consent could put both at risk.

Some have suggested that Barack Obama, standing for reelection in 2012, has his hands tied as he needs both the Jewish and Evangelical vote. But this in no way guarantees support for a unilateral strike – the sight of U.S. casualties and a massive jump in oil prices following an Israeli attack would also infuriate Republicans if U.S. permission hadn’t been granted.

But it’s not only the risk to ties with the United States that’s likely to make Israel think twice about going it alone. The reported opposition to an attack against Iran by influential figures like Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, means that going ahead anyway would pose extreme political risks to Netanyahu and Barak should anything go wrong.

The fact is that when it comes to Iran, Israel has never had it better.

Thanks to the Arab Spring and Obama's successful dual track strategy of diplomacy and sanctions, Iran has never been so isolated.  Combine that with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's provocative denial of the holocaust and the regime's venomous attacks against Israel's right to exist, and you are left with a world that has never stood so steadfastly with Israel against the Iranian regime (in contrast Israeli leaders can only dream of such support over the Palestinian issue).

For now, Israel is likely to continue with its strategy of pressuring Iran to return to the negotiation table with a serious offer. 

Of course there’s still the matter of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency's report, which is due out next week and which could have a profound impact on Obama's approach toward Iran. Indeed, there is speculation that the new report could present fresh evidence of a possible Iranian nuclear weapons program.

If it does, then all eyes will be on Obama's reaction to such an important development. After all, when it comes to whether to strike Iran, the final word will be with the president of the United States, and no one else. And for now, at least, he doesn’t seem interested in backing a military strike.