Dani Yatom, a member of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, was invited to attend a NATO conference in Brussels last year. While reviewing the agenda, Yatom, a retired major general, was surprised to see that the meeting was titled "The Iranian Challenge" and not "The Iranian Threat."
When a speaker with a French accent mentioned that a US military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be the most dangerous scenario of all, Yatom said, politely but firmly: "Sir, you are wrong. The worst scenario would be if Iran acquired an atom bomb."
Yatom, 63, has spent most of his life in the military. He was a military adviser to former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and, in the mid-1990s, was named head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency. Nevertheless, Yatom, a member of the Labor Party, is not some reckless hawk. Unlike most Knesset members, he flatly rejects, for example, a major Israeli offensive against the Islamist Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
But Yatom's willingness to strike a compromise ends when he is asked what he considers to be the best response to the Iranian nuclear program. "We no longer believe in the effectiveness of sanctions," says Yatom. "A military operation is needed if the world wants to stop Iran."
When Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister, expressed similar sentiments 10 days ago, they were viewed, especially in Europe, as the isolated opinions of a card-carrying hardliner seeking to score points with the electorate in a bid to succeed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In truth, however, there is now a consensus within the Israeli government that an air strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities has become unavoidable. "Most members of the Israeli cabinet no longer believe that sanctions will convince President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to change course," says Minister of Immigrant Absorption Yaakov Edri.
The one question over which Israel's various political groups disagree is the timing of an attack. The doves argue that diplomatic efforts by the United Nations should be allowed to continue until Iran is on the verge of completing the bomb. That way, Israel could at least argue convincingly that all non-military options had been exhausted.
The hawks, on the other hand, believe time is running out. They stress that there is now a "favorable window of opportunity" that will close with the US presidential election in November, and that Israel can only depend on American support for as long as current US President George W. Bush is still in charge in Washington. They are convinced that the country cannot truly depend on any of the candidates to succeed Bush in office. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic candidate, has already said that he favors direct negotiations with Tehran. And even if Republican John McCain wins the race, politicians in Jerusalem do not expect him to be ordering an attack as his first official act -- despite his performance, at a campaign appearance last year, of the Beach Boys' song "Barbara Ann" with the lyrics: "Bomb bomb bomb, bomb bomb Iran."
President Bush, however, has recently been sending out signals that are suspiciously reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq war. Then, as today, he insisted that "all options are on the table." And then, as today, he sought to appease the Europeans by saying that all diplomatic channels would be exhausted first. But during his recent visit to Slovenia, Bush said: "There's a lot of urgencies when it comes to dealing with Iran, and the Israeli political folks ... if you go to Israel and listen carefully, you'll hear that urgency in their voice."
An Iranian nuclear bomb would overshadow all other threats that Israel has faced during the 60 years of its existence. As costly as its wars have been, and as horrific the suicide bombings of radical Islamists may be, they can never pose a serious threat to the existence of the Jewish state.
But a single nuclear strike would have devastating consequences for this small country, which is only about half the size of Switzerland. In fact, international strategists commonly refer to Israel as a "one-bomb country."
Jerusalem's military leaders claim that Tehran could curtail every Israeli military campaign -- in the Gaza Strip, for example -- with only the credible threat of a nuclear strike. Despite its military strength, they say, the country would be practically defenseless. Even worse, the mere existence of an Iranian nuclear bomb, the government in Jerusalem believes, would trigger an exodus of the educated elite that could spell disaster for the country, both economically and culturally. "Iran would be in a position to destroy the Zionist dream without even pressing a button," says Ephraim Sneh, a retired general and cabinet minister for many years.
All experts agree that the Iranian bomb doesn't yet exist. Nevertheless, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to threaten the Jewish state with destruction at every opportunity. "If the enemy thinks they can break the Iranian nation with pressure, they are wrong," he said last week.
Even the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei, voiced in a recent SPIEGEL interview his concern that Iran is sending out the message that it could "build the bomb in a relatively short period of time."
And no one knows better than the Israeli leadership just how much power lies in the mere belief that a country has nuclear weapons. After all, Israel itself has used this belief as a deterrent for the past 40 years. It is believed that an estimated 100 to 200 nuclear warheads have been produced at the Dimona reactor in the Negev Desert. Israeli historian Benny Morris, who is not normally considered a hardliner, recently suggested using the weapons: "If the issue is whether Israel or Iran should perish, then Iran should perish."
Jerusalem has already demonstrated that it is not only prepared for, but also technically capable of, frustrating the nuclear ambitions of a hostile country. In 1981, the Israelis bombed Iraq's Osirak reactor. Flying in tight formation to avoid being detected by enemy radar, eight F-16 fighter-bombers traveled 900 kilometers (560 miles) from Israel to Iraq, where they dropped 16 thousand-kilo bombs, destroying the reactor. Victor Ostrovsky, a former Mossad agent, revealed that the Israelis had paid a French technician working in the reactor to plant a transponder there.
The second time was on Sept. 6, 2007, when Israeli F-16 fighter-bombers entered northern Syrian airspace along the Turkish border and destroyed a suspected nuclear site in eastern Syria. Before the attack, a group of special forces soldiers were reportedly dropped off on the ground to mark the target for a laser beam. To this day, the government in Damascus claims that the site was not a nuclear facility. However, images the Mossad has obtained of the building's interior allegedly reveal similarities with the North Korean reactor in Yongbyon.
Iran could be next. In a recent letter to Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak wrote that Tehran is not far from the "point of no return" at which the Israelis believe it could no longer be prevented from developing a bomb. Israeli intelligence officials believe that Iranian weapons engineers could have enough enriched uranium to build a nuclear warhead by 2009.
In reaching this conclusion, the Israelis are expressly contradicting the assertion, put forward in a report by US intelligence issued last December, that Iran shut down its nuclear weapons program in 2003. "The Iranians resumed the program at full speed in 2005," says Yossi Kuperwasser, the director for intelligence analysis with Israeli military intelligence at the time.
'We Will See a Middle East in Flames'
While the Europeans continue to pin their hopes on diplomacy and are convinced that a negotiated solution that would allow Tehran to save face is still possible, the Israelis already view the UN sanctions regime as a failure. Russia and China, they say, sabotaged the boycott from the very beginning, and even the Europeans have only half-heartedly supported sanctions.
According to the Israelis, companies from Austria and Switzerland have recently signed agreements for the delivery of natural gas with Tehran, and even the German government has only slightly limited trade with the mullah-run regime. "The Iranians don't even feel the sanctions," says Tzachi Hanegbi, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. According to Hanegbi, the international community will have to unite if it hopes to achieve anything -- "and soon."
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been reticent on the issue. During a visit to the ranch of US President George W. Bush in Crawford, Texas last November, Merkel promised to "take another look at economic contacts between German companies and Iran" and push for additional restrictions.
But there was little left of that resolve when Bush met with Merkel last Wednesday at Schloss Meseberg, the German government guesthouse outside Berlin. Her only comment about another round of UN sanctions was that she would "not rule them out." As one of her fellow Christian Democrats admits pessimistically, "Merkel is no longer pursuing this issue with any great enthusiasm."
Politicians in Berlin have noted with concern signs of the next war brewing in the Middle East. Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who travels regularly to Jerusalem and Washington for political talks, warns that Israel could see the Bush presidency as its last chance to gain American support for a military strike. "Politically speaking, the window for action is now, in the last months of George W. Bush's term in office," Fischer wrote recently. "The Middle East is headed for another major confrontation."
Others share this sense of unease. Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg, a foreign policy expert and member of the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU), says that he has "the unsettling feeling that the contemplation of a military option against Iran is gaining a new dynamic in Israel." He wants to see Berlin use its close relations with Jerusalem to deter it from launching a military strike.
This political offensive would not be without risk. "By issuing this warning, we are taking even more responsibility for (guaranteeing that) our favored approach will yield results," says Ruprecht Polenz, the chairman of the German Bundestag's Committee on Foreign Affairs. In other words, if Iran continues to pursue its nuclear program, the West will have to close ranks with Jerusalem. "Under no circumstances can the impression be created that Israel would be left alone with the possibility of an Iranian atom bomb," says Polenz.
Israel's main ally, the United States, is still at odds over what constitutes the right strategy on Iran. The Bush administration is divided. Vice President Dick Cheney "would still want an attack," says Flynt Leverett, a former official in the US State Department and now a Middle East expert with the New America Foundation. However he believes the secretary of state favors a different approach: "Condi Rice is buying time to get the president through his term."
Bruce Riedel, a Middle East expert who spent many years working for the CIA, says it would be "very difficult for this administration to start a war with Iran. There would be public uproar and congressional uproar." But the situation is different from Israel's perspective, says Riedel. "There is some risk that Israel thinks it has limited time to act and it has a green light from American politicians."
Besides, the Israeli Air Force is known for its "inventive solutions to military problems," says Riedel, who has strong contacts to Israel, referring to the feasibility of such an attack. "Israeli military planners tell me it is mission doable."
This is why Riedel sees an Israeli military strike, with the US government's consent, as the most likely attack scenario. But the consequences, according to Riedel, would not differ from those of an American attack. "An Israeli attack will be seen as a US attack. Iran will retaliate against both Israel and the US." The consequences, says Riedel, would be fatal. "We will see a Middle East in flames."
Nevertheless, in Israel it is no longer a matter of whether there will be a military strike, but when. It is clear that the attack would be exclusively an aerial strike. Jerusalem recently received approval from Washington for a purchase of F-22 stealth bombers. The centrifuges used to enrich uranium at the Natanz nuclear facility are apparently the main target. According to Israeli information, the centrifuges are kept above ground and are thus easier to destroy. The reactor in Bushehr is seen as another possible target.
And the Iranian air defenses? "We know that Iran's air defenses are not among the world's best," says former Mossad chief Yatom. "They can be overcome." Nevertheless, many Israelis still hope that the Americans will do the job for them. "It could still be the case," says Yatom, "that George W. Bush wants to guarantee himself a place in the history books with this last act."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan