There was a great deal of speculation just prior to the 2012 US election that it was the perfect time for Israel to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities. It was thought that President Obama would be constrained by the oncoming election from punishing Israel, for which there was great sympathy in the US. It was expected — and it has turned out to be true — that the President’s oft-expressed ‘love’ for Israel would become much ‘tougher’ in his second term, and that there would not be a better time for Israel to strike.
It didn’t happen, and now a well-connected Israeli general explains why. The following article by Ma’ariv journalist Rotem Sela appeared on the Israeli news site mida yesterday, in Hebrew. My translation follows:
Exposed — Giora Eiland: Netanyahu was about to attack Iran, Obama cast a veto
Exclusive: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was about to order an attack on Iran [last October] but canceled the operation following American pressure, according to Gen. Giora Eiland (res), former head of [Israel’s] National Security Council.
Eiland, who made the claim two weeks ago at a closed meeting, added that “Israel has the real capability to destroy the nuclear program of Iran,” and that it is possible that the veto cast by the Americans was connected to the presidential race in the US that was in its final stages.
By Rotem Sela
“At that time the Prime Minister thought that we had reached a critical point on Iran, and planned to launch an attack,” Eiland said at a meeting August 19. He noted that “Although Israel does not in principle need American permission for military action, except when the US unequivocally demands that Israel refrain from a specific action,” such a demand was made at a meeting between Netanyahu and American officials, where it was made clear that the planned attack was not acceptable, leading to its cancellation.
Since the cancellation of the attack, the Iranian nuclear program has continued to progress. Today, Eiland said, Israel again faces a difficult choice. “Time has passed, and Israel stands at exactly the same critical junction, with less time to choose between bad and worse choices [lit: between plague and cholera].” He added that “not deciding is also a dramatic decision.”
In a discussion with us, Eiland confirmed that “on very many subjects Israel can do things independently. For building in Jerusalem, attacking Gaza, or other things in our sector, we don’t have to ask the Americans before we act, even though they may not like what we do. Nevertheless, when we are talking about things that touch broad American interests, we can’t act in opposition to their judgment. And he confirmed that Netanyahu had come to the conclusion then that it was necessary to preempt, and attack Iran.
The best outcome for Israel would be an American attack on Iran, suggests Eiland. “The lack of American enthusiasm to act in Syria indicates that the possibility of this is unlikely.” The question of permission for an Israeli attack is still open. “There are variables that have changed since last year, in particular internal matters in the US, which was then in the final stages of an election.” At that precise time, Obama was in difficulty as a result of his failure in the first televised debate with Romney. It’s possible that he preferred to avoid igniting a war which might damage his campaign. …
Would today’s circumstances permit Netanyahu to attack? It’s hard to say. But while the story of Syria and Obama’s hesitation captures the headlines, it is important to remember that the real drama remains the countdown to the Iranian bomb.
The combination of an unfriendly US president, at a time of existential threat from a not-entirely-rational enemy which is on the verge of going nuclear, is something of a perfect storm. The fact that Obama is also proving weak and indecisive, as well as lacking in understanding of the importance in the Mideast of intangible factors like honor, shame and deterrence, does not increase my confidence that he will make the right decision when the time comes (if it isn’t already here).
What is particularly distressing is the degree to which a sovereign state like Israel can be forced to compromise the most critical decisions because of domestic American politics.