Israel is now several days in to a major operation intended to attrition Hamas and degrade its ability to launch indiscriminate rocket attacks against Israeli civilians. In November, just before Obama won, I predicted that the Kadima-led Israeli government would launch an attack on Iran in the month before the February 10 parliamentary elections. I argued that this ”January Surprise” would, among other things, help Kadima and party leader Tzipi Livni against the favored Likud Party and Benjamin Netanyahu. Given the timing of the attack on Hamas, has it taken the place of a January attack on Iran? My answer: probably.
Since I made my prediction, Obama has selected a foreign policy team which is much better than any I (or probably anyone else) could have anticipated. By retaining Robert Gates as Defense Secretary and putting Hillary Clinton at the head of the State Department, we can dismiss my postulated worst case foreign policy scenario from further consideration. With few exceptions, pragmatists will be running U.S. foreign policy in the Obama administration, which ironically means that Obama’s first term really will be something like a Bush third.
From the Israeli perspective, U.S. foreign policy isn’t going to change that much, though that is not necessarily an appealing prospect. As I wrote back in January, 2007, “With Gates in the administration, everyone surrounding Bush now appears to be counseling that the only option in dealing with Iran is diplomatic because the military option isn’t feasible…”. The Obama administration is not going to be hostile to Israel but it is also not likely to do anything to denuclearize Iran. In fact, there are indications that the Obama administration will adopt a policy first articulated by Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary campaign.
According to a report in Haaretz, the U.S. will propose to extend its nuclear umbrella over Israel and massively retaliate in the event of an Iranian nuclear attack. Such a policy would only be contemplated if the standard deterrent theory view has prevailed: that Iran is deterrable. The Haaretz article agrees:
But America’s nuclear guarantee to Israel could also be interpreted as a sign the U.S. believes Iran will eventually acquire nuclear arms. Secretary of state-designate Hillary Clinton had raised the idea of a nuclear guarantee to Israel during her campaign for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency. During a debate with Obama in April, Clinton said that Israel and Arab countries must be given “deterrent backing.” She added, “Iran must know that an attack on Israel will draw a massive response.
Actually, Hillary’s exact words were that the U.S. would to “obliterate Iran”. That statement, though bracing at the time, was and remains strategically wrongheaded. As I’ve previously discussed, a nuclear Iran will either attack Israel out of religious zealotry or, more likely, provoke a nuclear exchange through hyperaggressiveness. Even if a war with Israel is somehow avoided, Iran will merely shift its attention to its ultimate adversary: the U.S. It will develop ICBM’s and play chicken some time in Obama’s second term.
Whether or not the U.S. deterrent strategy is valid (see, for example, my counterargument to preempting against Iran), it is unlikely that it will ever be acceptable to Israel. To quote a famous U.S. politician: “[I]f you’ve gone through the Holocaust, then that does not offer the same sense of confidence and security as the idea that the Jewish people can take care of themselves no matter what happens.” The famous U.S. politician was Barack Obama. He offered this insight during the primary campaign.
Israel developed an independent nuclear deterrent precisely because history has shown that Jews can ultimately only depend on themselves for defense. Obama’s statement suggested that he understood this. Why then would his administration float the idea that the Israelis should become totally dependent on the U.S. deterrent? I prefer not to speculate.
What is obvious is the U.S. is not going to attack. Therefore, Israel must. The absolute last chance for Israel to denuclearize Iran is this year. The only question remaining is when. The answer is, sometime after the general election and the formation of a new government. The “January Surprise” attack on Iran is not going to happen. The reason for this is purely political, not military.
The Israeli Air Force has ample resources to carry out the reference strike on Iran even as it conducts operations in Gaza. The aircraft that would be used in the Iran strike are special purpose and are almost certainly not being used in the Gaza operation. In fact, the Gaza operation could provide a degree of operational cover: no one is going to expect Israel to launch an air strike on Iran in the midst of a major operation by the IDF in Gaza.
The only resource that Israel has in short supply is political credit. The U.S. is the lone support for Israel’s Gaza campaign. If U.S.-Israeli relations are going to be strained by an Israeli attack on Iran, it is best that this happen after the Gaza campaign is over and U.S. support is less critical. Right or wrong, I expect this is the thinking of the current government.
So, Gaza is the January Surprise. Politically, it’s at best a damp squib.
My final prediction: Likud will emerge from the 10 February elections as the leading vote getter and Benjamin Netanyahu will form a government. Shortly thereafter, Israel will attack Iran.