for War with Iran
The postcard from the Home
Front Command that recently arrived in my mailbox looks
like an ad from the Ministry of Tourism. A map of Israel
is divided by color into six regions, each symbolized by
an upbeat drawing: a smiling camel in the Negev desert, a
skier in the Golan Heights.
In fact, each region signifies the amount of time residents
will have to seek shelter from an impending missile attack. If
you live along the Gaza border, you have 15 seconds after the
siren sounds. Jerusalemites get a full three minutes. But as
the regions move farther north, the time drops again, until
finally, along the Lebanese and Syrian borders, the color red
designates "immediate entry into a shelter." In other words, if
you're not already inside a shelter don't bother looking for
The invisible but all-pervasive presence on that cheerful map
of existential dread is Iran. If Israel were to launch a
pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, Tehran's
two terrorist allies on our borders—Hezbollah and Hamas—would
almost certainly renew attacks against the Israeli home front.
And Tel Aviv would be hit by Iranian long-range missiles.
On the other hand, if Israel refrains from attacking Iran and
international efforts to stop its nuclearization fail, the
results along our border would likely be even more
catastrophic. Hezbollah and Hamas would be emboldened
politically and psychologically. The threat of a nuclear attack
on Tel Aviv would become a permanent part of Israeli reality.
This would do incalculable damage to Israel's sense of
Given these dreadful options, one might assume that the Israeli
public would respond with relief to reports that Iran is now
considering the International Atomic Energy Agency's proposal
to transfer 70% of its known, low-enriched uranium to Russia
for treatment that would seriously reduce its potential for
military application. In fact, Israelis from the right and the
left have reacted with heightened anxiety. "Kosher Uranium,"
read the mocking headline of Israel's largest daily, Yediot
Aharonot. Media commentators noted that easing world pressure
on Iran will simply enable it to cheat more easily. If Iranian
leaders are prepared to sign an agreement, Israelis argue,
that's because they know something the rest of us don't.
In the last few years, Israelis have been asking themselves two
questions with increasing urgency: Should we attack Iran if all
other options fail? And can we inflict sufficient damage to
justify the consequences?
As sanctions efforts faltered, most Israelis came to answer the
first question affirmatively. A key moment in coalescing that
resolve occurred in December 2006, when the Iranian regime
sponsored an "International Conference to Review the Global
Vision of the Holocaust," a two day meeting of Holocaust
deniers. For Israelis, that event ended the debate over whether
a nuclear Iran could be deterred by the threat of
counter-force. A regime that assembles the world's crackpots to
deny the most documented atrocity in history—at the very moment
it is trying to fend off sanctions and convince the
international community of its sanity—may well be immune to
Opinion here has been divided about the ability of an Israeli
strike to significantly delay Iran's nuclear program. But
Israelis have dealt with their doubts by resurrecting a phrase
from the country's early years: Ein breira, there's no choice.
Besides, as one leading Israeli security official who has been
involved in the Iranian issue for many years put it to me,
"Technical problems have technical solutions." Israelis tend to
trust their strategic planners to find those solutions.
In the past few months, Israelis have begun asking themselves a
new question: Has the Obama administration's engagement with
Iran effectively ended the possibility of a military
Few Israelis took seriously the recent call by former U.S.
National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski to shoot down
Israeli planes if they take off for Iran. But American attempts
to reassure the Israeli public of its commitment to Israel's
security have largely backfired. Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton's recent threat to "obliterate" Iran if it launched a
nuclear attack against Israel only reinforced Israeli fears
that the U.S. would prefer to contain a nuclear Iran rather
than pre-empt it militarily.
On the face of it, this is not May 1967. There is not the same
sense of impending catastrophe that held the Israeli public in
the weeks before the Six Day War. Israelis are preoccupied with
the fate of Gilad Shalit (the kidnapped Israeli soldier held by
Hamas), with the country's faltering relations with Turkey,
with the U.N.'s denial of Israel's right to defend itself, and
with an unprecedented rise in violent crime.
But the Iranian threat has seeped into daily life as a
constant, if barely conscious anxiety. It emerges at unexpected
moments, as black humor or an incongruous aside in casual
conversation. "I think we're going to attack soon," a friend
said to me over Sabbath dinner, as we talked about our children
going off to the army and to India.
Now, with the possibility of a deal with Iran, Israelis realize
that a military confrontation will almost certainly be
deferred. Still, the threat remains.
A recent cartoon in the newspaper Ma'ariv showed a drawing of a
sukkah, the booth covered with palm branches that Jews build
for the autumn festival of Tabernacles. A voice from inside the
booth asked, "Will these palm branches protect us from Iranian
Israelis still believe in their ability to protect
themselves—and many believe too in the divine protection that
is said to hover over the fragile booths. Both are expressions
of faith from a people that fear they may once again face the