Monday, June 7, 2010

Operation Opera Opportunity Cost: Why Israel will not attack Iran's nuclear facilities

The recent tragedy in the Eastern Mediterranean in which a flotilla of aid ships headed for Gaza were violently stopped and diverted by the Israeli blockade has heightened tensions between Israel and most of the rest of the world. Such drama always raises temperatures and kicks up a lot of dust and, as always, our species is only too eager to lose all perspective. This series of blog posts attempts to weave a single disjointed thread through similar episodes in the violent recent history of the Middle East with the objective being to establish the historical, albeit anecdotal, framework in which to correctly view and appreciate this crisis. It is my belief that only by building a nuanced understanding of the issue by fostering an open and objective discussion (especially within the community) may one ever hope to arrive at an adequate treatment of this festering problem.

June 7, 1981. The morning in Saddam Hussein's Baghdad is eerie and quiet, unfaithful to the raging conflict with Iran that shows no signs of abating. Worshipers in the Iraqi capital make their way back home after the morning prayer. Along the banks of the Euphrates far to the east, the dull thump of artillery has just begun to shake weary Iraqi and Iranian soldiers out of dreamless, zombified stupor. It is just another day in the Middle East. The calm is shattered by the sound of jets diving from the sky; a hail of bombs streaks from the warbirds. Lazily, almost as an afterthought, the sound of air raid sirens and anti-aircraft fire fills the air with a ceaseless, maddening din. The jets are already long-gone: the wreck of Saddam's nuclear reactor lies buried beneath tons of rubble. It is no longer just another day in the Middle East.

The preemptive Israeli airstrike on Osirak was hotly debated and analyzed to no end during the latter half of the decade and several times thereafter. The eventual consensus that did develop amongst all except Israel and her staunchest allies, was that Osirak's value as a weapons facility was dubious at best, and that the airstrike had exacerbated the non-proliferation issue in the Middle East by emphasizing the deterrent value of nuclear weapons and the need to keep such strategic assets secure against surprise attacks. Most analyses did not, however, factor the local political gains made by the Israeli government at the time as a causative agent. Begin's Likud government, which had previously lagged behind its political rivals in the polls, managed to win the largest share of seats in the neck-and-neck elections for the tenth Knesset three weeks later.

Operation Opera did, however, come with a significant opportunity cost. It served as a catalyst for the hitherto-nascent Iraqi nuclear program, established the strategic strike capabilities of the IDF for their potential adversaries to learn from, and expounded the need for adequate hardening of strategic facilities against similar attack. In a nutshell, the success of this feat, the first of its kind, was so great as to instantly make a repeat performance extremely likely to meet with failure. Israel expended diplomatic capital and military capability, and actually exacerbated its security situation for the decades to follow. This puzzling, self-destructive behavior, at odds with the remarkable ability for self-preservation that Israel has demonstrated amply throughout its turbulent history can only be explained by the unexpected victory in the electorate that Begin gained by capitalizing on the success and exaggerating the threat that had been neutralized. Public support in Israel for the incumbent administration ran high following the miraculous deliverance of the Tribe of Israel from a phantom threat of nuclear apocalypse posed by the Osirak reactor. Miraculous because an airstrike on a nuclear facility was too audacious an idea to have been taken seriously before it happened; phantom because Iraqi nuclear weapon ambitions were neither substantial nor directed against Israel.

All politics is local, and nowhere is this more true than in the reunited diaspora of cross-cultural immigrants who are defined and identified not so much by introspective adhesion and ideological common ground as by the forces – imaginary and otherwise – that are alleged to threaten its existence from within and without. Israel exists in a parallel universe where every mundane choice is between black-and-white, every shadow is either with us-or-them, every banality of life is make-or-break, and even inconsequential actions are defined in do-or-die terms; a paranoia in which the Holocaust was not a freak accident in which a bunch of middle-aged men in trench-coats perpetrated a grievous crime in thrall to a madman, but an apocalypse that has almost-happened too many times too easily and must never be allowed to happen again.

Denizens of the Civilized World cannot be blamed for scratching their heads and wondering why Israel behaves so unilaterally with brazen displays of disproportionate force. Muslims in particular, antagonized in equal measure by the inability of the Arab world to intimidate Israel, and the ignominious existence of Palestinian refugees, feel justified in shaking their fists at Israel and ascribing all of their woes: from the mayhem in Somalia to the drone attacks in Pakistan to the Australian intervention in East Timor, to some grand Zionist conspiracy against Islam. That may very well be true, and one may neither refute nor validate such emphatic assertions while holding oneself to standards of rationality and logic. There may, however, be a somewhat simpler and less glamorous explanation: In the most recent episode involving the flotilla of ships bearing aid for impoverished Gazans, imagine that the aid flotilla had been allowed unimpeded access to Gaza and allowed to unload its supplies freely and without hindrance from officious Israeli politicians and soldiers. In this set of ideal circumstances, whenever the next rocket attack on Israeli settlements from Hamas-controlled Gaza takes place, irrespective of whatever damage it may cause, if any, and despite the fact that the rockets were not supplied by the aid flotilla, the political opposition in the Knesset would charge the government with neglecting its sworn duty to protect the lives and property of Israeli citizens. The allegation would run something like this:
  1. Aid ships were allowed to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza
  2. This symbolic victory and the actual aid delivered by the flotilla bolstered support for Hamas in Gaza
  3. The Israelis maintain that the people of Gaza should not support Hamas because of the latter's perceived rejection of co-existence with Israel (on Israel's own terms, no less, it should be noted). Israel should drive home the point that Hamas is a lose-lose for the people of Gaza by making the people of Gaza suffer for having voted for Hamas, hence the blockade
  4. The recent rocket attacks were carried out by Hamas only because (this is where the politics get scary for the incumbent administration) the aid ships were allowed to dock, carrying weapons and aid that Hamas was able to use to shore up its support base, undoing perceived gains in Israeli efforts to isolate and topple Hamas
  • Hypocritical? Perhaps.
  • Plausible course of action for self-serving politicians? Most certainly.
As noted: all politics is local. The Israelis' botched handling of the interception of the flotilla may come under fire on the international stage and in the media, but given Washington's unequivocal support for Israel's actions, however heavy-handed, it is not a PR crisis that threatens the domestic standing of the Israeli government, the actions of which are driven by political self-preservation. An ineffective hailstorm of rockets landing near the blast walls of fortified Israeli settlements built on occupied territory, on the other hand, could create a domestic political maelstrom the hardliner Likud administration cannot afford. One may cry foul and allege double standards, and one may well be right, but one's opinions – right or wrong – carry no weight in Tel Aviv for the simple reason that the Israeli electorate is the sole consideration.

Let us, then, look elsewhere for a propitious handle on the issue.

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