In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, former United Nations Ambassador John Bolton said that “he’s very worried for Israel,” observing that sanctions and diplomacy have failed to halt the Iranian nuclear program, leaving military intervention as the only viable option for preventing Tehran from acquiring atomic weapons.
Bolton also blasted current diplomatic efforts aimed at “engaging” Iran and using sanctions to punish non-compliance:
“The current approach of the Europeans and the Americans is not just doomed to failure, but dangerous,” he said. “Dealing with [the Iranians] just gives them what they want, which is more time…
“We have fiddled away four years, in which Europe tried to persuade Iran to give up voluntarily,” he complained. “Iran in those four years mastered uranium conversion from solid to gas and now enrichment to weapons grade… We lost four years to feckless European diplomacy and our options are very limited.”
Bolton said flatly that “diplomacy and sanctions have failed… [So] we have to look at: 1, overthrowing the regime and getting in a new one that won’t pursue nuclear weapons; 2, a last-resort use of force.”
However, he added a caution as to the viability of the first of those remaining options: While “the regime is more susceptible to overthrow from within than people think,” he said, such a process “may take more time than we have.”
As a consequence, Bolton said he was “very worried” about the well-being of Israel. If he were in Israel’s predicament, he said, “I’d be pushing the US very hard. I am pushing the US [administration] very hard, from the outside, in Washington.”
Bolton’s warning was merely the latest suggestion that Israel faces imminent danger from its enemies, including Iran. Joshua Muravchik expressed similar thoughts in a WSJ op-ed earlier this week, saying that a wider war, involving Israel, Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hizballah, the Palestinian Authority, and (possibly) the U.S. is looming, as the Islamofacists grow bolder, and the west retreats. And Mr. Muravchik’s suggestion of regional war is not idle speculation; more than six months ago, a senior Israeli intelligence officer predicted that his nation could face a two-front war in the summer of 2007.
The accuracy of his prediction may depend on how you define “front.” If you consider southern Lebanon and the Golan as a single front, and lump the West Bank and Gaza into the same boat–and exclude Iran–you have a two-front war. More correctly, Israel might be facing a three or four-front war, including a long-distance conflict with Iran.
If that grim forecast proves accurate, it raises a critical question. Namely, are the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) ready for such a challenge, and how would Israeli political and military leaders defend their nation. Certainly, Israel is familiar with multi-front wars, having successfully prosecuted such conflicts in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. In terms of military capabilities, the IDF is more than a match for its Arab and Persian foes. Hamas and Hizballah have no “offensive” capabilities, other than rockets and terrorist strikes; Iran can only reach Israel with a handful of long-range missiles, and despite recent arms purchases, Syria’s conventional forces remain weak.
Despite clear advantages in technology and tactics, the Israelis would face a supreme test in juggling multiple conflicts simultaneously. While the IDF has certainly planned for this contingency, prosecuting concurrent operations–ranging from counter-terrorism to long-range strike, would test Israeli commanders and their forces, placing a severe strain on logistics, communications and command-and-control systems. In our estimate, the Israelis could pull it off, but it would probably require some sort of fight/hold/swing strategy, akin to what the U.S. envisioned for simultaneous, major regional conflicts (MRCs) in the Middle East and the Far East.
In the opening stages of the Israeli scenario, we believe the IDF would move quickly to seal off the West Bank and Gaza, without a major incursion into either region. With the limited strike options available to Hamas and the PA, Israel could wait to deal with those threats, while addressing more pressing concerns on its northern border, the Golan and in Iran.
As ground forces close off Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli Air Force could launch its long-predicted strike against Iran, aimed at disabling that country’s nuclear and long-range missile programs. Surprise is of the essence, and an early attack against Tehran would reduce that potential threat–before enemy air defenses go on heightened alert, and before the IDF become pre-occupied with operations over Lebanon and Syria.
Given the distance and routing considerations associated with the raid, the strike on Iran would (most likely) be a one-time shot. The Israelis understand that Tehran’s retaliatory options are limited to attacks by proxies, and long-range strikes, using its relatively small arsenal of Shahab-3 missiles (the longer-range BM-25 is not believed operational at this time). Israel would employ the Arrow II ballistic missile defense system to counter MRBM attacks, and its own Jericho II missiles–capable of carrying nuclear warheads–for retaliatory strikes, as required.
With the Iranian threat reduced, the Israelis would quickly shift their focus to the Golan Heights and Lebanon. Syria’s air force and air defenses could be neutralized rather quickly, giving the Israelis complete control of the skies, and support for a ground assault past the Golan. The IDF has no intention of occupying Damascus, just creating more strategic depth and eliminating forward bases for Syria’s FROG-7 rocket force.
Additionally, IAF jets would also pound Syrian airfields that can accommodate cargo aircraft, to prevent aerial resupply from Iran, and trans-shipment to Hizballah. Syrian forces would provide determined resistance on the ground, but they are no match for the IDF. Damascus would also attempt to saturate Israel with missile and rocket attacks, but an IDF advance into Syrian territory would negate that threat, as would air dominance by the IAF. Syrian FROGS and SS-21 missiles are capable of carrying chemical warheads, but Damascus understands that a WMD strike on Israel would invite their own nuclear annihilation. Israel also has another advantage in the expected “missile war” with Syria–the availability of Patriot missile batteries, capable of handling the FROGs and SS-21s, leaving the Arrow II to battle Iran’s MRBMs.
As the situation in Syria stabilizes, the IDF would shift its attention to Hizballah and Lebanon. As with Hamas in the south, Hizballah’s attack options are limited. However, the success of their rocket attacks against Israel last summer makes it imperative for the IDF to deal with this threat, through a combination of airpower and a ground incursion. As with the Golan operation, the Israelis have no plan for a deep push into Lebanon; instead, they would focus on pushing Hizballah gunners out of range, and disrupting their supply lines into Syria.
After securing the northern front, the Israelis could then deal with the situations in Gaza and the West Bank. To avoid fighting on multiple fronts in the south and east, they might cut a deal with Fatah, allowing them to re-establish control in Gaza after Hamas is crushed. It’s an agreement that Mahmoud Abbas would probably support, allowing the IDF to eliminate his enemies (at virtually no cost to Fatah) and pave his return to Gaza City.
The fight for Gaza would also be difficult, involving a minimum of two Israeli divisions, in some of the toughest urban terrain on earth. But, with other threats largely mitigated, the IDF could proceed more carefully, in an effort to minimize its own casualties–and those of Palestinian civilians. As Hamas is eliminated, the Israelis would probably push for quick deployment of a European-led peacekeeping force, with a mandate (and the equipment) to actually keep the peace. Israeli leaders would also agree to a similar force for southern Lebanon, with an extended IDF presence between their northern border and the Latani River. Learning from the experiences of last summer, the Israelis would take all necessary steps to keep Hizballah from re-establishing its base in that region.
It’s a complex operational scenario, fraught with challenges and dangers. Can the IDF mobilize quickly enough–and quietly enough–to gain strategic and operational surprise? What if Iran or Syria actually employ chemical or biological weapons and inflict significant Israeli casualties? Is Tel Aviv prepared to respond in kind (or escalate into nuclear conflict)? What are the limits of U.S. support? Is the IDF prepared for potentially “nasty” surprises, say the undetected deployment of advanced surface-to-air missiles in Syria, akin to the SA-6s that took a heavy toll of IAF jets in 1973. Finally–and perhaps most importantly–does Israel have the political and military will to deal with multiple threats in a decisive manner, and are the Israeli people willing to pay the price, in terms of blood and national treasure.
We may learn the answers to those questions in the coming weeks.