To bomb or not to bomb: Would Israel follow Begin’s Doctrine?


Menachem Begin did not pull his punches. In 1981, as work neared completion on an Iraqi nuclear reactor that Israel believed would produce plutonium for warheads, the Israeli prime minister dispatched eight F-16 bombers to destroy the plant. Begin later said that the raid was proof his country would “under no circumstances allow the enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against our people.”

The event defined a strategy that became known as the “Begin Doctrine” and is best summed up by the phrase “the best defense is forceful preemption.”

Israel’s message is now more guarded. In a civil defense drill of unprecedented scale last June, sirens summoned schoolchildren to shelters, radars searched the skies for computer-simulated missile salvoes, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet descended into the Jerusalem foothills to inaugurate a nuclear bunker with a mock war-session.

Why would a country that has long vowed to stop its foes attaining nuclear weapons need a nuclear bunker? The question highlights a new, reluctant restraint that has quietly infused Israeli decision-making in recent years as regional threats have grown more complex and sapped the applicability of classic force of arms. Nowhere is this felt more than in the Netanyahu government’s posture toward Iran.

The spin of the Islamic republic’s uranium centrifuges stirs mortal fear in the Jewish state. In defiance of Western pressure to curb the project’s bomb-making potential, Iran has pushed on with its nuclear program, saying it has no hostile designs. The International Atomic Energy Agency will say this week that Iran now has the ability to build a nuclear weapon, the Washington Post has reported. Israeli officials have long hinted they may launch a preemptive strike.

That threat has taken on fresh intensity in the two years since Netanyahu – a right-wing ideologue like Begin – assumed office. Media speculation that Israel might launch a unilateral strike has surged again in the past two weeks.

In October, the dean of Israeli pundits, Nahum Barnea, suggested on the front page of the best-selling Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that the government was hatching an imminent attack. Days later Netanyahu warned of the “direct and heavy threat” posed by Iran’s nuclear program and then, on Nov. 2, Israel test-fired a missile. The same day the military said it had completed air exercises in Sardinia, “practicing operations in (a) vast, foreign land.”

Such talk robs Israel of some of the element of surprise if it really is planning an assault on Iran. Could it instead be a loud reminder to the rest of the world of its problem with Iran in the hope that Washington or another power might intercede?

Interviews in recent months with government and military officials –most speaking on condition of anonymity – and independent experts suggest that Israel prefers caution over a unilateral strike against the Iranians.

The country has been digging in under sophisticated strategic defenses with at least as much energy as it has been preparing offensive options. Netanyahu’s own circumspection is instructive.

As opposition leader in 2005, he told Israel Radio that in dealing with Iran he would “pursue the legacy” of Begin’s “bold and courageous move” against Iraq. But as prime minister he has been less explicit – both in public and, to judge by leaked U.S. diplomatic cables dated as recently as 2010, in closed-door meetings he and aides held with visiting American delegates. Instead, Israel has pushed its demand that world powers stiffen sanctions on Tehran and that the United States provide the vanguard of any last-ditch military move.

“The military option is not an empty threat, but Israel should not leap to lead it. The whole thing should be led by the United States, and as a last resort,” Deputy Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel’s Army Radio.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment directly on whether Netanyahu felt bound by the Begin Doctrine regarding Iran.

No silver bullet

Israelis have known for years that an attack on Iran would be much more difficult than their Iraq strike. Iran is larger, more distant and, perhaps because it learned the lessons of Iraq, has built numerous and well-fortified facilities. Taking these out would require a sustained campaign by the Israeli air force, which is more geared for precision strikes through the use of advanced technology.

“With Iran it’s a different project. There is no one silver bullet (with which) you can hit,” a senior Israeli defense official told Reuters, in a rare admission of his country’s tactical and strategic limitations.

Iran has guerrilla allies across its borders in Lebanon and Gaza, against whom Israel fought costly wars in 2006 and 2009. With the Netanyahu government facing growing isolation – its impasse with the Palestinians is deepening; its alliances with Turkey and Egypt fraying – Israel acknowledges that it is reluctant to go it alone against the Iranians.

“We have to learn that the situation is changing, the region is changing. Not everything that was possible before is possible now and new possibilities open up,” said Dan Meridor, deputy prime minister in charge of Israel’s nuclear and intelligence affairs.

It was Meridor who recommended “defense” as a fourth pillar of Israeli national security in a secret memorandum he authored on behalf of the government in 2006. That report added to the three doctrinal “D’s” set out by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, soon after the country’s founding in a 1948 war with neighboring Arabs: detect enemies’ threats, deter them with the promise of painful retribution and, if hostilities nonetheless ensue, defeat them quickly on their own turf.

“This was something counter-intuitive for Israel, especially for the military. Israelis like to be on the attack, not on the defensive,” Meridor said.

While he declined to discuss the prospect of military action against Iran, Meridor distanced himself from the idea that the Begin Doctrine commits Israel to such a course.

“I am not sure what people mean when they use this term. In any event, there is no contradiction between any attack doctrine and a defense doctrine. They are complementary. If the attack doesn’t does not solve the problem, then you need to be able to defend yourself.”

Limits of shields

The most obvious example of Israel’s shifting stance is its pioneering missile shield, which incorporates a network of radar-guided interceptors designed to shoot down everything from the ballistic Shehab and Scud missiles of Iran and Syria to the lower-flying, Katyusha-style rockets of Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrillas.

In artist renditions at Israeli defense conferences, the shield covers Israel in overlapping bubbles, like some huge plexiglass Babushka doll. That sits in contrast to the publicity images of warplanes or tank columns taking the offensive, which used to define Israel’s military self-image.’

The shield is a work in progress. Its lowest tier, the short-range Iron Dome interceptor, was deployed this year. The top tier, Arrow, is designed to blow up threats above the atmosphere, high enough to safely vaporize a nuclear warhead. The Arrow III upgrade, due for live trials by early 2012, features a detachable satellite that will collide, kamikaze-like, with incoming missiles in space.

Many Israelis rankle at the idea that the shield, which was conceived following Iraq’s use of conventional Scud missiles during the 1991 Gulf war, should be relied on to stave off nuclear catastrophe.