- Israel is probably less-sensitive to the possibility of failure than Larison thinks they might be, if failure is defined as “not slowing down progress much.” Israelis do not, in general, think very far into the future – take care of today’s problems, and let tomorrow worry about tomorrow, is the national attitude. Today’s problem is the Iranian nuclear program. I think it’s safe to say that there is, essentially, a near-universal consensus in Israel that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, that such a development would be profoundly threatening, and that Iran is unlikely to change course in response to diplomatic pressure. That doesn’t mean the Israeli consensus is right, but that is the overwhelming consensus. That being the case, the political risks to trying and failing are smaller than they might otherwise appear.
- Israel is also probably less-sensitive to the risks of retaliation than Larison would assume – or than many other states would be. It’s not that Israel always responds massively to provocation or perceived threats – provocations happen all the time, and Israel hasn’t attacked Iran yet, and has been warning about the Iranian bomb for years. But Israel doesn’t assume a harmonious relationship with its neighborhood is likely no matter what it does, so it doesn’t have the kind of bias against action that most states would have. The Israeli assumption is that those rockets Hezbollah has are most likely going to be used one day or another. The question for Israeli planners probably isn’t so much “can we avoid retaliation by not attacking?” but “are we adequately prepared for the inevitable retaliation; do we want this fight now, or later?”
- Precisely because of the ongoing conflict in Syria and political developments in Egypt, Israel may believe that, short-term, neighboring governments will be in a poor position to deploy military force in defense of Iran (even if they were inclined to do so, which is not clear), and that the long-term prospects for relations with neighboring states are worsening anyway because of the rising tide of Islamic parties. So the political window for action may appear more open now than it is likely to be in the near future. Given that Israel already believes that the operational window will close shortly, we’ve got multiple factors aiming at a near-term timetable.
- The electoral calendar in the United States also points to short-term action – or at least to threats of short-term action. If America really wants to stop Israel from acting, Israel can exact a price during the campaign season, because President Obama doesn’t want an open break with Israel to be a campaign issue. By the same token, if Israel wants to ignore America’s warnings not to attack, during the election season it would be more difficult for the Obama Administration to take any kind of forceful response.
- It’s not clear to what degree Israel’s political leaders are responsive to the concerns voiced by Israeli military and intelligence officers who have argued against action against Iran. Obviously, those concerns won’t be completely ignored, but I don’t know that they will prove decisive. (Note that they did not prove decisive in the United States with regard to either the Iraq War or the smaller recent Libyan war.) The Israeli military was manifestly unprepared for the Lebanon incursion. Both that war and the Gaza incursion (Operation Cast Lead) were undertaken primarily for domestic political reasons – the need to “do something” about a threat, and not be perceived as impotent. That sounds very much like the template for action against Iran.
- Israel has exercised restraint in a variety of circumstances when America pressured it to do so – Israel allowed the Egyptian Third Army to escape encirclement at the end of the 1973 war, halted its advance into Lebanon in the 1982 war, refrained from retaliating against Iraq’s scud missile attacks in 1991, and American influence may have been a factor limiting Israel from either assassinating or exiling Yasser Arafat during the second intifadah (though I, for one, doubt it). But in all of these cases, the larger context of American involvement with Israel’s actions was broadly supportive – Nixon had just resupplied Israel to help it stave off the initial Syrian assault; Reagan agreed to send American troops into Lebanon; Bush I was prosecuting a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; and Bush II was engaged in a Global War on Terror. The most probable context for a successful American campaign to restrain Israel from taking unilateral action against Iran would be a clear American commitment to dealing with the threat some other way. That’s one way to understand precisely what the Obama Administration has been up to, but it doesn’t appear to have been terribly convincing in Jerusalem.
None of this means that Israel will definitely attack Iran. If Israel was just trying to goad the United States into doing more to isolate Iran, it would be doing exactly what it’s doing – making us think that it was planning to attack. But I don’t think Israel is likely to opt against an attack simply out of a fear of failure or out of a fear of retaliation. Israel would need to believe either that an attack was genuinely unnecessary, or that the timing for taking action would be more favorable in the future, or that the threat wasn’t actually as serious as they go around claiming it is.