The Real World: Israel – No October Surprise

Date: 09-26-2008 | Category: Articles, Middle East

The Real World: Israel - No October Surprise


By Ariel Cohen


Will Israel’s Prime Minister designate Tsipi Livni order a strike against Iran? Highly unlikely, at least not before the November elections in the United States, and possibly not at all. The anti-Israel fear mongers in Washington and elsewhere are likely to be proven wrong once again.

In a recent poll, many Israelis complained they had no idea how Livni intended to deal with what most perceive as a grave and growing existential threat. She may not know that herself. Unlike her political rivals Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu (Likud), Livni has no military background to speak of.

Despite her early days as a trainee Mossad agent in Europe, when it comes to military matters, Livni may turn out to be not much better than her predecessor, Ehud Olmert, the disgraced outgoing Prime Minister and Kadima party leader.

Golda Meir, the last woman who led Israel, was a near-disaster as strategist, allowing the Israeli army to be caught in "The Concept" – an over-estimation of its own strength and the weaknesses of Israel’s foes, and an assumption that after the 1967 victory Egypt and Syria would not dare to attack.

If Livni manages to cobble together a coalition with Barak’s Labor Party and the Sephardic Ultra-Orthodox Shas Party, one of the priority issues of the day will be what to do about the Iranian nuclear weapons program, which the European Union now suspects is getting closer to completion.

In addition, Russia’s refusal to engage with the European Union and the United States in designing further Security Council sanctions against Tehran provides Iran with a green light to do whatever it wants in relation to the nuclear program.

Facing an existential threat, Livni may have to choose between striking now, before the nukes are in the mullahs’ hands, or waiting and relying on deterrence and what in the Cold War days was known as "mutually assured destruction," or MAD.

But in reality, Livni may have no choice. The bottom line is that Israel can’t and won’t execute an "October surprise." There are three key reasons for this: foreign, military, and domestic.

First, foreign: Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U. S. joint chiefs of staff, recently warned Israel not to attack Iran. Because of its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the growing instability in Pakistan, the United States did not want to risk opening "a third front."

The George W. Bush administration, swamped with a financial crisis, has lost its appetite for new high risk initiatives, such as a military strike against Iran. If such a military operation is launched, the conventional wisdom in Washington goes, oil prices will skyrocket, and the already disastrous economic situation is likely to get worse.

If attacked, Iran is likely to mine the Strait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the oil in the world is shipped, and things will get much, much worse. Last year The Heritage Foundation’s war game and economic modeling predicted that if this scenario were to play out, oil prices would double, and a global economic recession could ensue.

The U.S. State Department and the Democratic Senator Barak Obama campaign are committed to launching a dialogue with Tehran in the future, and are not interested in either a U.S. or an Israeli strike against Iran. According to media reports, Senator Joe Biden, Obama’s vice presidential candidate, told Israeli leaders behind the closed doors that Israel may need to "learn to live" with a nuclear-armed Iran.

Thus, Livni recognizes that there is little she can do on her own. The military considerations are working against Israel. They don’t have enough planes of the right range and lift to deliver the necessary bunker buster bombs to the targets, and not even enough ordnance.

Israel can deploy its 20 long-range F-15I fighter-bombers against 100 plus Iranian targets. These may not have sufficient range without the air refueling, and the United States controls the air space over Iraq – the shortest route into Iranian air space.

Recently, there has also been a dust-up between Washington and Jerusalem over whether the United States would supply new bunker buster bombs to the Israeli Air Force. The U.S. agreed, but clearly the supply will not become available before the November elections. Washington let it be known that it won’t allow Israeli warplanes to pass through U.S.-controlled Iraqi airspace if Israel decides to attack Iran.

Finally, the domestic factor. With Olmert’s resignation, Livni is the designated candidate to form the cabinet. According to the law, she has up to 45 days to assemble a coalition that can be supported by her left-of-center Kadima (Forward) party; the leftist Labor party; the Shas party; and possibly the ultra-left Meretz party.

Until Livni forms a coalition, Olmert remains Acting Prime Minister. He does not have a mandate to pull off the strike, and Livni, even if she miraculously cobbles together a coalition before Nov. 4, may not have the international support, the popular mandate, the military backing, and the bureaucratic timetable to pull off a strike before the U.S. elections.

This being the case, Livni and Barak had better accelerate deployment of Israel’s survivable second strike capability to keep Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at bay.



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