By Khaled Diab
Israel’s interior minister Meir Sheetrit – who is vying to take over the reins from outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert – has struck a welcome note of caution on Iran in his campaign for the ruling Kadima party’s leadership.
On Wednesday, he said: “Israel must on no account attack Iran, speak of attacking Iran or even think about it… Israel must defend itself only if attacked by Iran, but attacking Iran on our own initiative is a megalomaniacal [and] reckless idea.”
Earlier, former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy also struck alarm bells against calls to bomb Iran. He warned that an attack could hurt Israel’s interests for a century. “It will have a negative effect on public opinion in the Arab world.”
In fact, the ex-intelligence chief’s opinion is that, without doing anything, Israel wins anyway. “Ahmadinejad is our greatest gift,” he told the US-sponsored Arabic-language network al-Hurra on Tuesday. “We couldn’t carry out a better operation at the Mossad than to put a guy like Ahmadinejad in power in Iran.”
According to Time magazine, another senior Mossad official opined that: “Iran’s achievement is creating an image of itself as a scary superpower when it’s really a paper tiger.”
Although these statements, as well as reported US opposition and murmurs of dissent in Tehran against the regime’s posturing on Israel, reduce the possibility of a military confrontation for the time being, tensions could flare up at any time.
“Paper tiger” or not, Tehran’s strident rhetoric is fuelling public fear in Israel, which plays into the hands of hardliners. In addition, Israel may not trust Iran’s reassurances about its civilian nuclear intentions because Israel itself gave similar assurances but, nevertheless, went on to acquire a nuclear weapons capability.
In fact, Israel’s quest to become a nuclear power started shortly after independence, and the main driving force behind it was the country’s founding father, David Ben Gurion. The Israeli leader – who admitted to having nightmares about “a combined attack by all the Arab armies”, despite Israel possessing more firepower than all the Arab countries combined – saw nuclear weapons as the main way of ensuring Israel’s strategic security. Like Iran, he was also lured by the prestige factor of joining the nuclear club.
Following the Suez fiasco, Ben Gurion became more adamant. However, many senior officials opposed his nuclear designs for a number of reasons: they feared it would spark a dangerous escalation, draw resources away from conventional forces and cripple the struggling Israeli economy.
Despite this opposition, Ben Gurion, whose status allowed him to circumvent the cabinet and the Knesset, struck a landmark deal with France in 1957 to build a large reactor that could separate plutonium. Concerned at where this was leading, all but one of the members of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission resigned in protest at the growing military orientation of the programme.
Although the Dimona reactor was constructed in great secrecy, with not even a whisper in the Israeli press, word leaked out and, in December 1960, rumours spread in the western press and were confirmed by U2 spy planes. This triggered concern in Washington and Moscow, and fear and condemnation in the Arab world. The news also took the Israeli public by complete surprise. Ben Gurion assured the world that the reactor was “designed exclusively for peaceful purposes”.
It was around this time that Israel formulated its policy of nuclear ambiguity. Faced with international criticism and internal opposition, the legendary military leader Moshe Dayan developed the concept of what he ominously called “the bomb in the basement”.
Israel began its line that it would not be the first to “introduce” nuclear weapons into the region. Pressed on what exactly that meant, the then ambassador to Washington, Yitzhak Rabin, vaguely responded that Israel would not be the first to “test” such weapons.
Israel resisted international supervision under the IAEA and only grudgingly agreed to pre-arranged American inspections to limited sections of the Dimona facility which, critics argued, allowed it to hide the military activity at the reactor behind false walls.
Experts estimate that Israel acquired a nuclear capability shortly after the 1967 war and today possesses up to 200 nuclear war heads, putting it among the top six nuclear nations, just behind the UK.
Interestingly, a 1963 CIA report predicted that a nuclear Israel would polarise and destabilise the region and would likely make: “Israel’s policy with its neighbours… more, rather than less, tough”. The report also touched on the attendant dangers, such as a possible Arab quest for their own “deterrent”, as well as the damage to western interests in the region.
And, as long as Israel holds on to its nuclear arsenal, the shadow of proliferation will not go away. For at least thirty years, Arab governments, as well as Iran, have been pushing for a nuclear weapons-free Middle East. If Israel is concerned about a nuclear Iran, or the possibility that other regimes in the region will acquire the bomb, the best way it can avert this is to offer to phase out its nuclear arsenal in return for cast-iron Iranian assurances under international supervision.