Why Israel Will Bomb Iran
The rational argument for an attack.
Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America's favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won't work. Shorn of its nuclear program and unable to retaliate against Israel through conventional military means, Iran would be shown to be a paper tiger—to the not-so-secret delight of America's Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf. Iran's local clients like Syria and Hamas would be likely to distance themselves from an over-leveraged Persian would-be hegemon whose ruined nuclear facilities would be visible on Google Earth.
The only real downside for Israel of an attack on Iran is Washington's likely response to the anger of the Arab street and the European street, both of which are likely to express their fierce outrage against Israel and the United States. The price of an Israeli attack on Iran is therefore clear to anyone who reads Al Ahram or the Guardian: a Palestinian state. It seems fair to say that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak see the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state as inevitable and also as posing real security risks to Israel.
Yet, in a perverse way, the idea that the price of an attack on Iran will be the establishment of a Palestinian state makes the logic of such an attack even clearer. Israel's leaders know that the security threats inherent in giving up most of the West Bank will be greatly augmented or diminished depending on how a Palestinian state is born. A Palestinian state born as the result of Israeli weakness is a much greater danger to Israel than a state born out of Israeli strength. Ariel Sharon was able to withdraw from Gaza because he defeated Arafat and crushed the second intifada. Desperate to rid themselves of the bad PR and the demographic threat posed by maintaining Israel's hold over the West Bank, Sharon's successors have been unable to find a victory big enough to allow them to retreat. Nor are they able to reconcile themselves to the threat posed by images of a defeated Israel being forced to withdraw from Hebron and Nablus by triumphant Palestinian militias backed by Iran.
The inevitability of a future Palestinian state is the most powerful argument for the inevitability of an Israeli attack on Iran—unless the Iranian nuclear program is stopped by other means. Taking out the Iranian nuclear program is the one obvious avenue by which Israel can turn the debilitating drip-drip-drip of territorial giveaways and international condemnation into a convincing appearance of strength. Destroying a respectable number of Iranian centrifuges will end Iran's march to regional hegemony and eliminate Israel's chief rival for America's affections while also allowing Israel to gain the legal and demographic benefits of a Palestinian state with a minimum of long-term risk.
Israel's version of a nuclear grand bargain that brings peace to the Middle East may be messier and more violent than what the Obama administration imagines can be accomplished through sanctions, blandishments, and the invocation of Barack Obama's magic middle name. But who can really argue with the idea of trading the Iranian nuclear bomb for a Palestinian state? Saudi Arabia would be happy. Egypt would be happy. Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates would be happy. Jordan would be happy. Iraq would be happy. Two-thirds of the Lebanese would be happy. The Palestinians would go about building their state, and Israel would buy itself another 40 years as the only nuclear-armed country in the Middle East. Iran would not be happy.
But who said peace won't have a price?
David Samuels is a contributing editor at Harper's and a frequent contributor to the Atlantic and The New Yorker.
Photograph of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by Menahem Kahana/Getty Images.