Feb 25, 2012 4:45 PM EST
Skeptics say the Jewish state may not be able to deal a fatal blow to an Iranian nuclear-weapons program. But maybe that’s what Jerusalem wants you to think.
Israeli officials are pushing back against what appears to be a growing perception among experts and analysts that its military lacks the capability to deal a significant blow to Iran’s nuclear installations, warning skeptics not to underestimate the Jewish state.
The officials, including currently serving political figures and retired military officers, pointed out in interviews with The Daily Beast that Israel has a history of surprising its enemies and surpassing expectations, from the lightning assault of the 1967 war to the daring rescue operation for hostages at Entebbe in 1976.
Their remarks seemed calculated to counter reports like the one in The New York Times last week that suggested Israeli planes would face huge challenges in reaching Iran and destroying its nuclear installations, which are buried deep in the ground and scattered throughout the country.
But even as the officials sought to cast doubt about the assessments, they were unlikely to dispel the suspicion that Israel might be deliberately overstating its capabilities in order to prod the United States and other powers to deepen economic sanctions against Iran and, if necessary, launch their own military action to stop Tehran’s uranium enrichment.
“These reports don’t tell the whole story,” said one senior official who, like all the others, asked not be identified discussing Iran. “If we need to do it [attack Iran’s nuclear facilities], believe me, there are enough ways.”
Others echoed the remarks, including a retired senior officer who said: “People take us seriously because we have a record in these things. Nobody should doubt us.”
Israel has been warning for years that Iran is developing nuclear weapons capability, a claim that was largely substantiated by an International Atomic Energy Agency report last November. Tension over the Iranian program has risen dramatically in recent months, with Israeli leaders repeatedly vowing to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold by whatever means necessary.
The United States takes the threat seriously. Fearing an Israeli attack would set the Middle East ablaze and tilt the world economy back toward an economic recession, President Obama has dispatched to Jerusalem a series of high-ranking officials to pressure Israel to give the latest round of sanctions – including an oil embargo and measures against Iran’s central bank—a chance to work.
Obama is expected to press the point personally with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when the two men meet in Washington next month.
But a growing number of analysts, including Israelis, are now saying openly that Israel’s warnings are at least partly a disinformation campaign.
The skeptics include Martin van Creveld, Israel’s preeminent military historian and theorist, who said in an interview that Israel could do some damage to the Iranian program but could not knock it out.
“I would not be surprised if there was a strong element of political theater” to the Israeli threats, he said.
Barry Rubin, an Israeli expert on terrorism and international affairs, described the notion that Israel would attack Iran as “an absurd idea” and concluded: “It isn’t going to happen.”
“So why are Israelis talking about a potential attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities? Because that’s a good way—indeed, the only way Israel has—to pressure Western countries to work harder on the issue, to increase sanctions and diplomatic efforts,” Rubin wrote on Pajamas Media.
The officials who spoke to The Daily Beast said the doubters weren’t seeing the whole picture. One alluded to advanced technology that Israel possesses that could not be factored into the analysis of experts because it remains secret. Others said some skepticism—from analysts or even from government insiders—always preceded Israel’s major operations, including its 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear plant.
One former Israeli official, speaking to a group of journalists recently, also rejected the idea that Iran’s response to an Israeli attack would upend the region.
“My assessment is that Iran will react but it will be calculated and according to Iranian means. The Iranians cannot set the Middle East on fire,” the former official said. “It will not be the doomsday promises of Iran… They do not have the capability to do what they threaten to do.”
Asked if Israel has the capability to deal a serious blow to Iran’s program, he said: “If not, why is everybody worried?”