JERUSALEM Nov 7 Menachem Begin did not pull his
punches. In 1981, as work neared completion on an Iraqi nuclear
reactor that Israel believed would produce plutonium for
warheads, the Israeli prime minister dispatched eight F-16
bombers to destroy the plant. Begin later said that the raid was
proof his country would "under no circumstances allow the enemy
to develop weapons of mass-destruction against our people".
The event defined a strategy that became known as the "Begin
Doctrine" and is best summed up by the phrase "the best defence
is forceful preemption."
Israel's message is now more guarded. In a civil defence
drill of unprecedented scale last June, sirens summoned
schoolchildren to shelters, radars searched the skies for
computer-simulated missile salvoes, and Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu's cabinet descended into the Jerusalem foothills to
inaugurate a nuclear bunker with a mock war-session.
Why would a country that has long vowed to stop its foes
attaining nuclear weapons need a nuclear bunker? The question
highlights a new, reluctant restraint that has quietly infused
Israeli decision-making in recent years as regional threats have
grown more complex and sapped the applicability of classic force
of arms. Nowhere is this felt more than in the Netanyahu
government's posture toward Iran.
The spin of the Islamic republic's uranium centrifuges stirs
mortal fear in the Jewish state. In defiance of western pressure
to curb the project's bomb-making potential, Iran has pushed on
with its nuclear programme, saying it has no hostile
designs. The International Atomic Energy Agency will say this
week that Iran now has the ability to build a nuclear weapon,
the Washington Post has reported. Israeli officials have
long hinted they may launch a preemptive strike.
That threat has taken on fresh intensity in the two years
since Netanyahu -- a right-wing ideologue like Begin --
assumed office. Media speculation that Israel might launch a
unilateral strike has surged again in the past two weeks.
In October, the dean of Israeli pundits, Nahum Barnea,
suggested on the front page of the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth
newspaper that the government was hatching an imminent attack.
Days later Netanyahu warned of the "direct and heavy threat"
posed by Iran's nuclear programme and then, on Nov. 2, Israel
test-fired a missile. The same day the military said it had
completed air exercises in Sardinia, "practising operations in
(a) vast, foreign land".
Such talk robs Israel of some of the element of surprise if
it really is planning an assault on Iran. Could it instead be a
loud reminder to the rest of the world of its problem with Iran
in the hope that Washington or another power might intercede?
Interviews in recent months with government and military
officials -- most speaking on condition of anonymity -- and
independent experts suggest that Israel prefers caution over a
unilateral strike against the Iranians.
The country has been digging in under sophisticated
strategic defenses with at least as much energy as it has been
preparing offensive options. Netanyahu's own circumspection is
As opposition leader in 2005, he told Israel Radio that in
dealing with Iran he would "pursue the legacy" of Begin's "bold
and courageous move" against Iraq. But as prime minister he has
been less explicit -- both in public and, to judge by leaked
U.S. diplomatic cables dated as recently as 2010, in closed-door
meetings he and aides held with visiting American delegates.
Instead, Israel has pushed its demand that world powers stiffen
sanctions on Tehran and that the United States provide the
vanguard of any last-ditch military move.
"The military option is not an empty threat, but Israel
should not leap to lead it. The whole thing should be led by the
United States, and as a last resort," Deputy Prime Minister and
Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel's Army
The Prime Minister's Office declined to comment directly on
whether Netanyahu felt bound by the Begin Doctrine regarding
NO SILVER BULLET
Israelis have known for years that an attack on Iran would
be much more difficult than their Iraq strike. Iran is larger,
more distant and, perhaps because it learned the lessons of
Iraq, has built numerous and well-fortified facilities. Taking
these out would require a sustained campaign by the Israeli air
force, which is more geared for precision strikes through the
use of advanced technology.
"With Iran it's a different project. There is no one silver
bullet (with which) you can hit," a senior Israeli defence
official told Reuters, in a rare admission of his country's
tactical and strategic limitations.
Iran has guerrilla allies across its borders in Lebanon and
Gaza, against whom Israel fought costly wars in 2006 and
2009. With the Netanyahu government facing growing isolation --
its impasse with the Palestinians is deepening; its alliances
with Turkey and Egypt fraying -- Israel acknowledges that it is
reluctant to go it alone against the Iranians.
"We have to learn that the situation is changing, the region
is changing. Not everything that was possible before is possible
now and new possibilities open up," said Dan Meridor, deputy
prime minister in charge of Israel's nuclear and intelligence
It was Meridor who recommended "defence" as a fourth pillar
of Israeli national security in a secret memorandum he authored
on behalf of the government in 2006. That report added to the
three doctrinal "D's" set out by Israel's first prime minister,
David Ben-Gurion, soon after the country's founding in a 1948
war with neighbouring Arabs: detect enemies' threats, deter them
with the promise of painful retribution and, if hostilities
nonetheless ensue, defeat them quickly on their own turf.
"This was something counter-intuitive for Israel, especially
for the military. Israelis like to be on the attack, not on the
defensive," Meridor said.
While he declined to discuss the prospect of military action
against Iran, Meridor distanced himself from the idea that the
Begin Doctrine commits Israel to such a course.
"I am not sure what people mean when they use this term. In
any event, there is no contradiction between any attack doctrine
and a defence doctrine. They are complementary. If the attack
doesn't does not solve the problem, then you need to be able to
LIMITS OF SHIELDS
The most obvious example of Israel's shifting stance is its
pioneering missile shield, which incorporates a network of
radar-guided interceptors designed to shoot down everything from
the ballistic Shehab and Scud missiles of Iran and Syria to the
lower-flying, Katyusha-style rockets of Hezbollah and
In artist renditions at Israeli defence conferences, the
shield covers Israel in overlapping bubbles, like some huge
plexiglass Babushka doll. That sits in contrast to the publicity
images of warplanes or tank columns taking the offensive, which
used to define Israel's military self-image.
The shield is a work in progress. Its lowest tier, the
short-range Iron Dome interceptor, was deployed this year. The
top tier, Arrow, is designed to blow up threats above the
atmosphere, high enough to safely vaporise a nuclear warhead.
The Arrow III upgrade, due for live trials by early 2012,
features a detachable satellite that will collide,
kamikaze-like, with incoming missiles in space.
Many Israelis rankle at the idea that the shield, which was
conceived following Iraq's use of conventional Scud missiles
during the 1991 Gulf war, should be relied on to stave off
"Hermetic protection will be impossible," Colonel Zvika
Haimovitch of the air defence corps told Tel Aviv University's
Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in a Sept. 5
speech. "I assess that, in any conflict, rockets and missiles
will fall here."
But others, including INSS scholar and retired Israeli
general Shlomo Brom, argue for Israel's defensive posture to be
expanded, and perhaps even for the secrecy to be eased around
the country's own, reputed atomic arsenal. Aiming to avoid a
regional arms race and skirt international anti-proliferation
scrutiny, Israel currently neither confirms nor denies having
"The answer is mutual deterrence, with the other side
knowing the price it would pay for launching a nuclear strike --
mutual destruction," said Brom.
Like Meridor, Brom dismissed the suggestion that the Iraqi
reactor strike set a precedent for a potential Israeli strike on
Iran. He notes Israel's decision not to take military
action against suspected chemical weapons programmes of Syria
and Iraq has already undermined the Begin Doctrine.
SIGNALS FROM SYRIA
Israel did loose its jets on Syria in 2007, to destroy a
desert installation that Washington later described as a
nascent, North Korean-supplied atomic reactor. Damascus denied
having such a facility and Israel has never formally taken
responsibility for the raid. In his memoir, former U.S.
President George W. Bush said Israel's prime minister at the
time, Ehud Olmert, preferred the reticence "because he wanted to
avoid anything that might back Syria into a corner and force
(President Bashar) Assad to retaliate".
Former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney was not surprised
that Israel went it alone. "I ... remembered 1981, when the
Israelis had ignored world opinion and launched an air strike to
destroy a nuclear reactor Saddam Hussein was building at Osirak
in Iraq," Cheney wrote in his autobiography. "For the Syrians
and the North Koreans ... the private message was clear --
Israel would not tolerate this threat."
But some argue the attack on Syria was designed to send a
message to Iran.
"We noted a whole lot of Iranian interest in what happened
in Syria -- trips by consultants, intense communication," said a
one-time adviser to Olmert, breaking Israel's official silence
around the episode.
By tackling Syria, Israel hoped to make the Iranians think
twice about pursuing their nuclear programme. To illustrate, the
ex-adviser cited "Family Business", a 1989 crime drama in which
a veteran jailbird, played by Sean Connery, counsels his
grandson on how to survive prison: "You pick out a tough guy,
kick his ass right away ... Word gets around, and it makes your
Of course, the Americans also took note. Visiting Israel
last month, U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was asked by a
reporter about the possibility that the 2007 sortie augured an
Israeli attack on Iran. Panetta did not answer directly. He made
clear that Washington disapproved of the idea of unilateral
action, but said "a number of countries in this region recognise
the threat from Iran," and that concerned countries would "work
together to do whatever is necessary to make sure that they do
not represent a threat to this region."
TIME RUNNING OUT
Israelis often question U.S. President Barack Obama's
resolve in the Middle East. But even if he loses power in next
year's presidential election to a more hawkish Republican, it
may be too late for Israel, which predicted last January that
Iran could have its first nuclear device in two years. That
forecast was echoed by Britain.
"If they (Israel) feel they could achieve their objective,
or at least initiate the kind of conflict that would meet their
objective, through a one-off strike, that would be feasible,"
said Richard Kemp, a retired British army colonel who has
studied Israeli strategy.
Israel's military does not comment on prospective
operations. But many in Israel's defence establishment have gone
out of their way to downplay the feasibiilty of a unilateral
attack. Former Mossad spymaster Meir Dagan has repeatedly
ridiculed the idea in briefings to Israeli reporters.
"Attacking the reactors from the air is a stupid idea that
would have no advantage," he said in May. "A regional war would
be liable to unfold, during which missiles would come in from
Iran and from Hezbollah in Lebanon."
The Mossad under Dagan, who retired in January, is widely
believed to have been behind the Stuxnet software attack on
Iran's nuclear computer systems as well as the assassination of
several Iranian scientists. Israel has neither confirmed nor
denied those allegations.
And even Netanyahu has shown signs of being gun shy --
certainly when compared to his predecessor, the centrist Olmert,
who ordered the Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza.
The prime minister's swift deployment of short-range Iron
Dome interceptors outside the Hamas-ruled territory of Gaza in
April helped scotch Palestinian rocket attacks that might have
otherwise drawn an Israeli invasion.
In January 2010, after the United Arab Emirates accused the
Mossad of murdering a senior Hamas arms procurer in his Dubai
hotel room, Israeli officials whispered that such skulduggery
was preferable to the civilian toll of another Gaza war.
Keeping the world guessing as to how -- and if -- a
confrontation might happen is in itself part of Israel's
"I hope that the Iranians see an Israeli conspiracy in
this," said Yaalon of the mixed messages emanating from the
Netanyahu government and its detractors, like Dagan. "That could
(Edited by Simon Robinson, Crispian Balmer, Chris Kaufman and