On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-15s and F-16s took off for the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, after the pilots were emotionally briefed that "The alternative is our destruction." In fact, Prime Minister Menachem Begin had no idea if the raid would stop the Iraqi nuclear program or merely slow it. But slowing it was reason enough.
Since the George W. Bush administration, the American military has assessed that an attack against Iran's nuclear facilities would only delay the development of its program. "The reality is," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said recently, "there is no military option that does anything more than buy time. The estimates are one to three years or so."
But for several months, high-ranking Israeli officials have been telling American visitors that buying time may be worth it. The Osirak raid, after all, turned out to be an unexpectedly decisive blow. And who knows what political changes might take place in Iran during a few years of nuclear breathing space? Not many Israelis would need to be convinced by this argument -- a recommendation would go from the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to the security cabinet and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Perhaps a dozen people could shake the world.
Clues of Israeli desperation are now so obvious that many have missed them. Netanyahu's recent speech at the United Nations was generally reported as part of a rhetorical tit for tat with Israel's bombastic enemies. But perhaps Netanyahu's impassioned warning against the world's first Holocaust-denying nuclear state should be taken at face value. Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov S. Zakheim thinks Netanyahu might have been "setting the stage to say to the world after a strike, 'I told you so.'"
An Israeli strike on Iran is an outcome that no American administration would desire. Though an attack might be privately cheered by some Arab rulers, the public consequences would be broad and unpredictable. If Israeli planes were to fly over Iraq, the reaction against America in that country could get ugly. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would likely be forced to step away from talks with Israel. Iran could escalate the crisis, with missile launches on Israel and attacks from terrorist proxies such as Hezbollah. In a global anti-Israeli backlash, it is possible that the diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran would be eased instead of increased, making the reconstitution of its nuclear program more likely.