Israel Missed Its Moment

Benjamin Netanyahu on March 10, 2023, in Rome. (Photo by Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis/Getty Images)

The Great Arab Revolt—a better name for the “Arab Spring”—that began in Tunisia in 2010 accelerated a process that had started with the first Gulf War: the elimination of the radical Arab threat to Israel and the withering of the Palestinian cause. Granted, not much threat remained. The revolt scrambled the Middle East as the yearning for greater personal freedom, democracy, and prosperity gave way to sectarianism, civil strife, supercharged religious militancy, war, mass migration to Europe, and profound depression. Hating Israel and Western imperialism is now way down the list of regional grievances. The Arab intelligentsia, which sustained and drove anti-Zionism since the 1920s, effectively no longer exists. Anti-Zionism is probably a much more passionate subject on Western campuses than it is in Arab universities—outside of Gaza, the West Bank, and Jordan. 

Anti-Zionism might rise again among Arabs. Lost causes, which is now what the quest for a Palestinian state most likely is, can have astonishing resonance. Israeli rule over the West Bank is probably permanent. Geography is destiny: Jerusalem simply can’t afford to allow militant Palestinians the capacity to launch drones and short-range missiles into Israel. Palestinian leadership has either egged on, co-opted, or been incapable of stopping radicals. A democratic West Bank, where neither Fatah nor Hamas enthrones itself and feeds on the commonweal, might eventually reconcile itself to the great disappointments that would come with a workable statehood; it might do the opposite. Israelis, who are skeptical of Muslims voting, clearly believe the latter is more likely. And Gaza, whether under Hamas or free from Islamist dictatorship, will remain a hot mess. The Western left will undoubtedly become more splenetic about Israelis, especially if they’re revanchist, religious right-wingers forcibly injecting themselves into Palestinian lives, and the Western media fuels global debates. The Abraham Accords could unravel if the ruling Arab elites determine they just don’t gain all that much from recognizing Israel (it may not be an economic bonanza) or if popular unrest reenergizes anti-Zionism (if the despised elites are for Israeli recognition, the people may go the other way).

An Arab state, however, is unlikely to become a serious threat for generations—with one possible exception. Egypt’s proximity to Israel and massive dysfunction could lead to revolution—a far more convulsive one than it saw in 2011—that empowers anti-Zionist forces. A bankrupt state could collapse, leading to a tsunami of emigration in all directions. (As Moses discovered, crossing the Sinai wouldn’t be easy.) But even in such scenarios, it’s hard to see the Egyptian military functioning again at a level that seriously threatens Israel. 

And the United States might finally tire of Egyptian extortion. U.S. military aid to Egypt was originally premised on a promise that Cairo would exert great efforts to bring a permanent peace between the Palestinians and Israelis (the military junta often quietly undermined the peace process since doing so increased Egyptian utility). This aid has now become annual, condition-free compensation to Egyptian generals for aligning themselves, however erratically and tepidly, with the American camp in the Middle East. An Egyptian army reverting back to Russian or moving on to Chinese weaponry is possible, but it would require an enormous amount of money, something that its Saudi backers simply can no longer afford. And neither Moscow nor Beijing would pay for such a martial overhaul—they want to make money, not lose it, in the global arms bazaar. The Suez Canal, no longer the strategic asset it once was in the age of European empires, stays open regardless of foreign military subventions to Cairo. 

That leaves Israel with only one serious threat in the Middle East: the Islamic Republic of Iran. Here Jerusalem has, so far, gained a split decision. The Israeli Air Force has sufficiently pummeled the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its allied militias in Syria to force the clerical regime to forsake its ambitions of building big bases stocked with medium-range missiles. Iran has done better in Lebanon, where corrupt, clannish elites have reduced a sectarian political system and merchant economy to barter. Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group armed by Iran and drug money, effectively holds sway over the country. It can unleash a lot of short-range missiles on Israel if it’s willing to take the punishment. Its enthusiasm for taking that pain, however, may be waning. The Israelis have frequently hit allied militias in Syria, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, and yet the Lebanese group, which is integrated on some levels into Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, hasn’t responded with serious missile barrages into the Jewish state. The always fiery Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s chief, seems less keen to take on Israel in a major duel.   

Jerusalem has, however, utterly failed on what it has seen as the preeminent issue: stopping the clerical regime’s nuclear ambitions. Israel’s failure on this front, which includes a persistent hope that the United States will somehow relieve Jerusalem of this menace, has likely already ended the slim chance the Jewish state would gain official recognition from Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince and de facto ruler. In all likelihood, Israel has missed the moment militarily to try to resolve the Iranian nuclear challenge. And America’s future actions—in trying to broker Saudi recognition of Israel or enticing the clerical regime to not go nuclear—will be, at best, a window dressing for lost causes. The Biden administration’s attempt to bribe Iran to restrain its nuclear growth (which is essentially what the recent $6 billion hostage payment was), and the decision to not enforce sanctions against Iran’s increasing oil trade in the Far East will further complicate and depress Israeli strategies for confronting the theocracy. American choices and Israeli limitations alone likely oblige Jerusalem to default to mutually assured destruction as the only possibly effective anti-Iran doctrine. 

The Islamic Republic is now a nuclear-threshold state. It has a large stockpile of enriched uranium, advanced centrifuges operating in underground facilities that could quickly enhance uranium to bomb-grade, and physicists and engineers who are sufficiently competent to construct an atomic trigger. The Israelis know from the stolen nuclear archives that Iranian designs for a trigger are good enough. Given the routine, extensive military exchanges between Russia and Iran, it’s reasonable to assume that if Iranian engineers are somehow lacking in expertise, the Russians have helped to solve persisting problems. The Islamic Republic going nuclear doesn’t diminish Moscow; it does diminish the United States. The United States is indirectly at war with Vladimir Putin, and he wants ways to get even. 

The Arabs who fear a nuclear Islamic Republic will ineluctably draw closer to China and Russia, who both have become significant patrons of the clerical regime. And Iran’s atomic success, which probably cannot be reversed by Israeli airstrikes, assuming Jerusalem even has the volition to undertake such a mission, has probably already chipped away at the Jewish state’s regional gains. In 2011, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, wanted to strike, but they couldn’t get the cabinet to back them. Israeli military limitations aside, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton effectively undermined Netanyahu and Barak inside the Israeli government. The Israeli political system today is much more fractured and no less prone to bend to American pressure. And Israeli planes—assuming they can find a sufficiently secure route (flying over Saudi Arabia is likely not an option)—just can’t deliver the explosive power necessary to derail the program unless Yahweh intercedes with a miracle. Despite the omnipresent conspiracies about Israel and Jewish power circulating in the Middle East, it’s a good guess that few among the Arab elites now think Israel will strike Iran’s nuclear sites. That assessment has surely already been priced into current Arab behavior, especially in the Persian Gulf. The Saudi crown prince’s acceptance of Chinese diplomatic intercession and his restoration of diplomatic ties with the Islamic Republic is part of this new assessment. Middle Eastern rulers are ruthless in sensing power shifts. It’s probably also been priced into Washington’s behavior: the Biden administration shows none of the nervousness toward Israel that the Obama crowd did before the nuclear deal’s diplomacy started. 

Outside of Syria, Jerusalem has watched the Islamic Republic succeed repeatedly. With minimal commitment to the Houthis, the clerical regime defeated the combined forces of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. And this was when the Obama administration was trying considerably to help the Saudis not lose the war (and not heedlessly slaughter tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians). Chinese intercession in the Yemeni quagmire—which has so far convinced the Iranians to convince the Houthis not to lob Iranian-provided missiles into the kingdom—only confirmed what everyone already knew: The Saudi military, especially the air force, wasn’t a serious fighting force and the crown prince was pretty desperate to cut his losses. His massive “Saudi Vision 2030” projects need mountains of cash, in part because Western and Asian bankers remain unconvinced that much of MBS’s vision makes economic sense.  

And these plans, on which the prince believes his future rests, have also tempered his anti-Iranian instincts and actions. In 2019, with a small barrage of cruise missiles and drones, Iran took off-market half of Saudi oil production. The crown prince responded to that strike abjectly, plaintively seeking American protection, which Donald Trump didn’t give despite his assurance that he was “locked and loaded.” Today, Iranian missiles and drones could easily make MBS’s big dreams untenable. 

The prince’s ambitions ironically have now tethered him to the Islamic Republic in ways that he surely didn’t foresee when he was an ardent anti-Iran hawk. When MBS started his meteoric rise in the royal family, he probably saw Israel as an effective collaborator against the Islamic Republic—more effective than Obama’s America. His outreach to Jewish Americans was also, in part, undoubtedly based on an assumption that they could be helpful in the struggle against the Shiite enemy. MBS’s curiosity about Jews seems more than just the-enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend. But if Israel proves less useful to Saudi Arabia, his philo-Semitism may prove perishable. 

In his current negotiations with the Biden administration about developing a “civilian” nuclear program, some sort of fortified defensive accord between Washington and Riyadh, and the official recognition of Israel, the crown prince has been quintessentially Saudi—everything is transactional. This mindset and approach mean, conversely, that the Islamic Republic has the advantage. Even if Israel or the United States were to assist MBS with better missile defense, the clerical regime’s vast and improving stock of missiles and drones could likely damage Saudi oil facilities and MBS’s Vision projects sufficiently to tank the Saudi economy and perhaps the monarchy. Are affluent Europeans visiting MBS’s enormous, multibillion-dollar resort complex on the Red Sea after Iran shoots at it? The prince’s high-tech city—“a revolution in urban living”— that he wants to build in the northwest is, beyond its grandiosity, a fragile vision.  No one voluntarily will want to live in a giant metal tube in the desert, which is supposed to house 9 million people in a high-tech, upper middle-class paradise and may cost hundreds of billions of dollars, if it can easily be shredded by Iranian cruise missiles and drones. 

The crown prince desperately needs the clerical regime to behave—it’s worth far more to him than the Star of David flying in Riyadh, which he may well see as needlessly provocative to conservative Saudis, let alone Iranian clerics and Revolutionary Guardsmen. The Saudis have often lived in fear of possible American reprisals against Iranian actions—it’s a Saudi trope for royals to go into high dudgeon about malevolent Iranian behavior, demanding U.S. action, only to have them later counsel with equal urgency against such injudicious action since they will become the primary target of Iranian revenge. 

After the clerical regime bombed the Khobar Towers in 1996, killing 19 U.S. airmen, the Saudis initially hid information from Washington that clearly showed Iranian complicity. They did so, according to a senior Saudi intelligence official, because they didn’t trust Bill Clinton to defend the kingdom after an American raid on Iran. (The surprise election of the moderate cleric, Mohammad Khatami, to the Iranian presidency a year later deflated any lingering American intent to hold Tehran accountable.) 

When MBS became the defense minister in 2015, he appeared as if he might be the Saudi exception—braver than he was cautious. The prince’s bravado against the Iranians was impressive. His decision in 2023 to restore diplomatic relations with Tehran caught a lot of folks in Washington by surprise. It shouldn’t have. On Iran, MBS has reverted to standard Saudi practice toward the Islamic Republic: ardently oppose, more ardently propitiate, especially when Americans aren’t looking. 

The Israelis just can’t offer Riyadh that much—nothing that MBS can’t replicate sufficiently well elsewhere. The crown prince needs closer relations with Russia and China since they offer some chance of restraining Iranian behavior. (China is now the largest importer of Saudi oil; Beijing would take a dim view of Tehran blowing up Beijing’s oil supplies.) Although it’s doubtful that either China or Russia would build a nuclear-power industry with significant uranium enrichment in Saudi Arabia (it would complicate their relationships with the Islamic Republic), the odds of them doing it are better than the United States doing so. And when Washington definitively refuses to do so—and it’s hard to imagine the Israelis disagreeing with this decision no matter how much they may want Saudi recognition—MBS may get cranky. Neither Israel nor American Jewry showed the necessary volition and clout to get him what he wanted. It’s also a foregone conclusion that another of the crown prince’s asks won’t happen: The United States will not offer a defense accord to the kingdom, nothing that would obligate Washington to defend the Saudi realm. Such a treaty is politically impossible—Democrats and a lot of Republicans would oppose it. The White House’s decision to deploy a few thousand Marines on U.S.-flagged vessels in the Persian Gulf, which senior administration officials sincerely believe shows that President Biden is willing to fight, is a far cry from the Carter Doctrine, which made the United States responsible for protecting everyone’s shipping. This limited tripwire deployment will probably neither intimidate the Iranians, nor soothe the Saudis, nor reassure the Israelis that muscular Americans are back. 

Iran’s internal affairs are also not offering Israel much hope, at least not in the short term, which is how one should measure the time before the theocracy goes nuclear. In the last year, the Iranian regime overcame the “woman, life, freedom” movement, originally provoked by the murder of Mahsa Amini. Israeli observers didn’t ever appear wildly enthusiastic about the prospects of these nationwide demonstrations. Nonetheless, they offered the possibility of continuing internal turmoil, which might discombobulate the theocracy and perhaps even slow the regime’s nuclear plans. That hope has evaporated. The regime’s steadfastness—its willingness to use unconventional means, including poisoning young girls in schools to terrify their parents—worked. The movement may rise again (political instability is the new constant for the Islamic Republic), but the initial panic among the ruling elite has nearly vanished. Regime change—realistically the only nuclear cure, before or after the theocracy gets the bomb—doesn’t now seem likely, at least on a calendar that would be helpful. 

And it’s interesting how little—it may well be absolutely nothing—Mossad has done inside Iran to accentuate the regime’s internal troubles. Since 2017 the theocracy has faced intensifying, often violent, nationwide discontent. This was particularly true of the protests in 2019, which led the regime to use automatic-weapons fire against protesters. Stories of torture, including rape, were common. There were likely a lot of young men throughout Iran, especially in the minority regions, who would have loved to have weapons to use against their oppressors. And yet it doesn’t appear that Jerusalem tried to do anything to aid them. There are a lot of very good reasons why the United States shouldn’t have anything to do with fueling ethnic anger in Iran, or even an armed rebellion among Persians. Those reasons don’t necessarily apply to Israel, which is much more inclined to see short-term success as long-term victory.

If Iran were to implode into ethnic or sectarian mayhem, Israelis might see promise in the bloodshed. It could end the regime’s nuclear progress. After all, Syria’s collapse hasn’t harmed the Jewish state’s security. Had it not been for Russia’s intervention in 2015, the civil war might have destroyed both the Assad regime and the integrity of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, which was losing the war against Sunni rebels. Feuding Sunni militants don’t send armored columns and advanced Russian aircraft against Israel. Al-Qaida and the Islamic State haven’t so far penetrated Israel’s defenses. And it’s not hard to find Israeli officials who wistfully reflect on Iran descending into chaos. Yet, nothing, no operational commitment to aid the enemy of my enemy appears to have started—at least not on a scale that would be effective (and impossible to hide). 

It may be that the Israeli political elite doesn’t think such an effort is worth the cost. Israel certainly hasn’t been shy about killing senior Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders in Syria and nuclear scientists inside the Islamic Republic. And the clerical regime has been able to do little in response. So it’s not clear that Israeli officials would view the clandestine supply of arms to Iran as qualitatively different in risk. It may be this is just beyond Mossad’s capacity: It’s easier to kill scientists and steal an archive than it is to smuggle arms over great distances through hostile territory. It also just may be that Israel has become more like the United States. The country’s political evolution, the vast internal disagreements on so many things, even if there is near unanimity on Iran, has made big covert operations difficult to launch and sustain. Israelis, like Americans, may be more squeamish than they used to be. You can’t control lethal covert actions when someone else is the primary player. You need to be cold-hearted and calculating—to truly feel the imminence of a great threat—to unleash programs that will unavoidably incur considerable “collateral damage”. 

Israel had a moment under the Trump administration to strike the clerical regime’s nuclear program. Given the Israeli air force’s limited capacity and range, it would have been a crapshoot. But Iran’s centrifuge program was less advanced then, and less underground. The regional repercussions of attacking then would have been far better than today. MBS was rising, bold, and reckless, and the Islamic Republic didn’t have great-power patrons. And America might have been more forgiving, perhaps even supportive. With Trump one never knows. The Western Europeans would have screamed foul, but such anger would be unavoidable after any attack. Sometime early on in the Trump presidency, when he was growing angry at his own officials for slow-walking the withdrawal from Obama’s nuclear deal, was a decent moment—certainly the best that Jerusalem was likely to ever have—to try the military option. 

It will be quite the irony if Netanyahu, who has spoken more than any other Israeli politician about the Iranian nuclear threat, who went into the trenches against the Obama administration and its nuclear accord, and who has not infrequently suggested that Israeli air raids are just over the horizon, ends up doing nothing. 

If this happens, then a little less Netanyahu drama along the way might have been in order. 

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