Israel at 60: Will It Hit Iran Before Bush Leaves?

Generally speaking, six decades after the founding of your nation, you shouldn't still be fighting for your right to exist. You should have achieved at least that much. And after the wars of 1948, '67 and '73, and other conflicts—including two intifadas—many Israelis would like to think they've honorably battled their way to the right to existence. But they haven't made it yet. Today, on its 60th birthday, Israel remains as much in existential peril as it was in those early months after the U.N. General Assembly approved the partition of Palestine and Arab armies attacked the infant state.

Arguably, it is at even greater risk now than it was then. Very soon now Israel could be engaged in the biggest battle for existence it has ever faced in its not-so-short-any-longer history. And the next U.S. president—whether it is Barack Obama or John McCain—may have a bigger crisis on his hands than anything since 9/11. While Israeli officials insist they are sticking to diplomacy, a number of circumstances are aligning to make an Israeli strike on Iran more likely before the end of 2008:

And last but certainly not least, the imminent end of the Bush administration, which is arguably the friendliest—certainly the most compliant—U.S. government the Israelis have ever seen. When Israel attacked Hizbullah in Lebanon in the summer of '06, the Bush administration gave a green light to the Jewish state and deliberately delayed diplomatic discussions to end the war. Just a few weeks ago Bush approvingly described the Israeli raid on a Syrian reactor last September as a "warning" to Iran and North Korea. An Obama administration is far less likely to cheerlead for Israel, while McCain's approach remains uncertain.

Many Iran experts argue that, despite Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regular calls for Israel's destruction, it is far from certain that Tehran intends to fully develop a nuclear weapon or, if it did, would actually entertain using it against Israel or any other state. Ahmadinejad is up for re-election in 2009 and remains unpopular among Iranian governmental elites. Certainly one option for Israel—which possesses a substantial nuclear arsenal of its own—is to apply the time-honored logic of deterrence against Iran, especially if Ahmadinejad is ousted and cooler heads prevail in Tehran. And even Israeli hardliners know that the repercussions of an attack on Iran would be vicious and long-lasting, heightening the likelihood that Ahmadinejad and other hardliners would remain in power and perhaps embroiling Israel in a regional war.

Some U.S. technical and defense experts also argue that even now Israel does not have the ability to be more than a nuisance to Iran's program. Iran's enrichment program is far more dispersed, secret and well protected than the Osirak reactor in Iraq, which Israeli planes destroyed in 1981. "They could destroy all of the facilities at [Iran's] Natanz and it wouldn't seriously set them back," says David Albright, one of Washington's most respected trackers of Iran's nuclear program.

What is beyond dispute, however, is that the longer the Israelis wait, the more resistant the Iranians become to a military solution, particularly if they install those Russian antiaircraft systems. Iran's new generation of IR-2 centrifuges are harder to detect as well. "Nobody has yet pointed out that these centrifuges are much easier to put into dispersed, small facilities," Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said at a briefing in Washington on Wednesday.

And for many Israeli hardliners, there is little choice. Their view is that they have been left, once again, isolated on the world stage. The likelihood of a U.S. strike on Iran has virtually vanished. (On Tehran's nuclear program, that is. A U.S. military action against Iranian targets just across the border from Iraq remains a possibility.) Bush, still bogged down in Iraq, is looking more each day like a lame duck. While Bush made serious efforts during his last Mideast trip in January—he's off on another next week—to disown last fall's National Intelligence Estimate, which concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program, Washington has not officially revised that estimate. According to Bruce Riedel, a former official with the National Security Council, even Hillary Clinton's recent threat to "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel was seen by some Israelis as a tacit embrace of the new U.S. fallback position: we can't stop an Iranian bomb, so we'll assert our deterrent against the use of one.

The bottom line is that the longer Israel waits to strike, the more difficult it will become to take out Iran's nuclear program militarily and to endure the fallout diplomatically. At the same time the promised benefits of waiting—the hoped-for diplomatic solution based on economic pressure—seem to be receding. Much depends now on the political survival of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is engulfed in yet another scandal, this time involving a bribery investigation. But if you're looking for the launch pad of the next global crisis, keep your eyes on Jerusalem.