Thursday, March 17, 2016

 Vic Rosenthal's Weekly Column

Anyone who has ever tried to babysit a group of Israeli kids knows the expression translated as “this will end in crying.” Sometimes you just know that there will not be a good ending for certain kinds of behavior.  Maybe a boy can pinch his big sister and run away once or twice, but ultimately she is going to catch him…and it will end in crying.

I am beginning to think that the Iranian campaign against Israel is in this category. There will come a time when the Iranian regime’s assistance to Hamas, its massive military presence in the form of Hezbollah on our northern border, its development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, its sponsorship of worldwide terrorism against Israeli and Jewish targets, and its continuing trumpeting that our nation will be destroyed, can no longer be ignored.

What is a real existential threat? It’s when someone says that he is going to kill you, you believe him, and you know that he has a weapon capable of doing it. Iran has met two out of three of these conditions. The only part we’re unsure about is whether it has the ability to carry out its threats.

The only reasonable response to an existential threat is to strike the enemy hard enough to eliminate the threat. That could mean bringing down a regime, destroying its military capabilities, or both. If there is no other option, it could mean a massive strategic attack that would also cause a large number of civilian casualties and damage.

Such a threat means your back is against the wall. It means you fight or die. It means that you do whatever is necessary to win because if you lose you are finished. It means that what the EU or Barack Obama think are irrelevant (unless you think they will intervene militarily).

No, Iran is not at that point yet. We don’t think the regime has deliverable nuclear weapons yet and we think we can handle whatever Hezbollah and Hamas can throw at us.

Even a coordinated attack including missile barrages from Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, along with incursions in both the North and South via attack tunnels, plus numerous terror attacks from the PA and local ‘sleepers’ could be repulsed. We would suffer painfully, but we would prevail. Probably southern Lebanon and Gaza would end up looking like the surface of the Moon when it was over. Iran would lose its developing nuclear capability, too. That’s why it isn’t attacking us today.

But some things could change the equation. One would be Iran’s acquisition of deliverable nuclear weapons. This could happen tomorrow, and is almost certain to happen within a  few years unless the regime is overthrown, which seems unlikely.

Another would be the establishment of a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria. That would mean that in addition to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, we would be fighting an American-trained and equipped PLO army on our eastern border, and that border would be right next to our most critical infrastructure.

A takeover of Egypt by Islamic extremists could also upset the balance. Although it might take a while before Egypt became a danger itself, an open Egyptian border to Gaza could multiply the threat from Hamas. There is also the possibility of the king of Jordan being overthrown, either by IS or Iran-backed radicals. There are probably other scenarios that would have the same effect.

What I am trying to say is that the situation is unstable. Any balance of power is temporary. And if – more likely, when – it tips against us, we will have no choice but to act to neutralize the threats. Once that happens, the usual constraints on action will be gone.  It won’t be a limited ‘mowing the grass’ operation and it may not be possible to employ the kind of tactics to minimize collateral damage that we have used in the past.

The greatest challenge will be to our leadership, which will have to overcome habits developed during decades of deterring or managing conflict.  If you doubt the importance of this, consider the 2006 Second Lebanon War, in which Israel was in a far better position vs. Hezbollah than today, and even had a tacit green light from the Bush Administration and the Sunni Arabs to finish off Hezbollah. But the team of Ehud Olmert, Tzipi Livni, Amir Peretz and Dan Halutz were not up to the job – and their military failure was followed by a diplomatic one, as the toothless UN Security Council resolution 1701 that they negotiated did not disarm Hezbollah or prevent the massive buildup that threatens war today.

Until recently, many Israelis felt that their leaders were too concerned about security, and wanted their government to place more emphasis on social and economic issues. As Olmert unfortunately put it at a speech to the Israel Policy Forum in 2005, “We are tired of fighting, we are tired of being courageous, we are tired of winning, we are tired of defeating our enemies…” Before the last election, PM Netanyahu was accused of making too much of a fuss about the weaknesses of the Iran deal. 

But the lack of day-to-day personal security as well as revelations about how damaging the Iran deal has actually been have focused attention on security issues in general, including the broader strategic ones. If there were an election next week, it’s not likely that the candidates would base their campaigns on who would do a better job reducing the price of apartments.

No politician wants to be in the position of Golda Meir, who made the wrong decision in 1973 and did not preempt (or even prepare for) the Yom Kippur war, or Olmert, who bumbled his way to blowing an opportunity that, in hindsight, might have made the  picture look very different today. So these issues are very much at the forefront of our leaders’ minds.

I don’t think the folks sitting in Tehran understand us, and I think they are listening to their own braggadocio a little too much, because they don’t seem to grasp how dangerous it is for them to continue on their aggressive path. Sooner or later it will reach the point that we see them as a true existential threat. Then we will have no options except to preempt that threat.

It will end in crying.

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