Israel faces a hard dilemma, but it should carefully reflect on two of its most recent mistakes: the isolation of Hamas after it swept elections in the Palestinian territories, and its ill-conceived war against Hizballah in Lebanon. In both cases, Israel (with the US standing behind it) took strong, aggressive measures to safeguard its security. In both cases, these measures failed. Not only did Israel fail to achieve its short-term objectives, it destabilized the region and created disastrous strategic outcomes.
The election of Hamas to power in the Palestinian territories was a frightening development, but isolating Hamas did not force Hamas to moderate its positions; instead, it hardened anti-Israeli attitudes, caused the Palestinian Authority to tear itself apart in a bloody conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and dragged Israeli-Palestinian relations to their lowest point in years. Furthermore, the ostracization of Hamas undermined the American commitment to democracy and added to charges of Western hypocrisy. However much one dislikes Hamas, its isolation was a pragmatic disaster. It precipitated a slide into violence that worsened Israel's overall security situation.
The Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006 was similar. Israel had rightly grown weary of Hizballah's cross-border rocket attacks and kidnappings, but when it finally retaliated, it was with a massive campaign designed to destroy Hizballah once and for all. The campaign failed miserably. Around the world, rightly or wrongly, the media largely portrayed the war as an unjust and disproportionate assault on innocent Lebanese people. Initially the Lebanese were furious with Hizballah for provoking the war, but as the weeks dragged by, Hizballah gained popular sympathy as a legitimate resistance group to Israeli aggression. When the war finally ended--with none of Israel's short-term goals achieved--Hizballah was stonger and more popular than ever. The conflict set back years of reconstruction and development since the Lebanese civil war, put Hizballah on the Lebanese political scene as a major political actor, and precipitated the breakdown of the Lebanese government. Lebanon very nearly descended into a second civil war. Such an outcome is still possible. However justified Israel's war on Hizballah might have been, it was a strategic failure. Israel's security situation was worse afterwards.
Israel should think carefully on these mistakes before bombing Iran. Granted, the stakes are much higher than ever before. A single nuclear weapon would devastate Israel, and history has taught the Israelis to take such existential threats seriously. But Israel must ask the hard pragmatic questions: will attacks on Iran work? Will they increase Israel's security? Will the short-term gain amount to a strategic success in the long run?
Most experts on the region believe the answer to these questions is no. The Iranians have learned from Israel's attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in 1981. They have distributed their nuclear facilities across the entire country. Many of these are hardened and underground. It is unlikely that airstrikes alone will be sufficient to destroy the Iranian nuclear program; at best, they will delay it. Attacks now are also likely to provoke conventional retaliation. The head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard recently announced that Iran would respond to Israeli airstrikes by launching cruise missiles into Israel and shutting down oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz. The conflict spiral could worsen from there.
Hawks will respond that Israel has a simple choice between two evils: launch airstrikes and risk major conventional conflict now, or face nuclear annihilation. Given such a choice, the right policy decision is obvious. But this is a false dichotomy. More diplomatic and economic tools exist to pressure Iran into giving up its nucleaer weapons program; these should be tried. Even if Iran does obtain the bomb, it is not a foregone conclusion that Iran will use it. As frightening and anti-Semitic as Iran's president is, the Iranian foreign policy establishment is more pragmatic. Firing a nuclear warhead into Israel would invite retaliation that I don't want to imagine.
These are hard choices. I don't envy the Israeli leaders who must wrangle with them. But Israel should think carefully and realistically about what attacks on Iran would actually achieve. Its recent track record with hawkish policy decisions warrants caution.
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