Israel’s leading columnist, Nahum Barnea, published a column this week about an academic war game exercise conducted at Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center Strategic Studies. In a paper published last September (Hebrew pdf here), Prof. Moshe Vered considered under what conditions the two nations might enter a war, how long it might last and how it might end. The results were alarming even to the Israeli intelligence community. Here is how Barnea summarizes the research (thanks to Didi Remez for translating the article):
“The war could be long,” Vered warns, “its length could be measured in years.” The cost that the war will exact from Israel raises a question mark as to the decision to go to war.
The relatively light scenario speaks about an Israeli bombing, after which Iran will fire several volleys of surface-to-surface missiles at Israel. Due to the limited number of missiles and their high cost, the war will end within a short time. The missiles may run out, the study states, but the war will only be getting started.
“The means that may be most effective for the Iranians is war by proxies—Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas,” Vered writes. “(There will be) ongoing and massive rocket fire (and in the Syrian case, also various types of Scud missiles), which will cover most of the area of the country, disrupt the course of everyday life and cause casualties and property damage. The effect of such fire will greatly increase if the enemy fires chemical, biological or radiological ordnance… massive Iranian support, by money and weapons, will help the organizations continue the fire over a period of indeterminate length… due to the long-range of the rockets held by Hizbullah, Israel will have to occupy most of the territory of Lebanon, and hold the territory for a long time. But then the IDF will enter a guerrilla war, a war the end of which is hard to predict, unless we evacuate the territory, and then the rocket fire will return…”
This is not all. “Another possibility,” Vered writes, “is the activation of Iranian expeditionary forces that will be located in Syria as part of a defense pact between the two countries, or sending large amounts of infantry forces to participate in the war alongside Hizbullah or Syria. Iran’s ability to do so will increase after the United States evacuates its troops from Iraq. If the current tension between Turkey and Israel rises, Turkey may also permit, or turn a blind eye to, arms shipments and Iranian volunteers that will pass to Syria through its territory and airspace. Israel will find it very difficult, politically and militarily, to intercept the passage of forces through Iraq or Turkey. The participation of Iranian forces will make it very difficult for the IDF to occupy areas from which rockets are being fired.
“Along with these steps, Iran may launch a massive terror campaign against Israeli targets within Israel and abroad (diplomatic missions, El Al planes and more) and against Jewish targets.”
Iran will not attack immediately, Vered’s scenario states. First it will launch intensive diplomatic activity, which could lead to an American embargo on spare parts to Israel. Along with this, the Iranians will secretly move troops to Syria. Israel will not attack the troops, for fear of international pressure. The IDF will have to mobilize a large reserve force to defend the Golan Heights. After the Iranians complete the buildup of their force, Hizbullah and Hamas will launch massive rocket fire against all population centers. The IDF will try to occupy Lebanon and will engage in a guerrilla war with multiple casualties. Hamas will renew the suicide bombings and Iran will target Israel’s sea and air routes by terrorism. The Iranians will fire missiles at population centers in Israel, and will rebuild the nuclear facilities that were bombed, in such a way that will make it very difficult to bomb them again.
Vered bases his assessment mainly on the regime’s ideology and on the lessons of the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted from 1980 to 1988. He writes: “Half a million dead, a million wounded, two million refugees and displaced persons, economic damage estimated by the Iranian government at about $1-trillion—more than twice the value of all Iranian oil production in 70 years of pumping oil—none of this was sufficient to persuade Iran to stop the war. Only the fear of the regime’s fall led the leadership to accept the cease-fire.
“The ramifications are clear and harsh—like the war against Iraq, the war against Israel will also be perceived by the Iranians as a war intended to right a wrong and bring justice to the world by destroying the State of Israel. Only a threat to the regime will be able to make the Iranian leadership stop. It is difficult to see how Israel could create such a threat.”
The United States would be able to shorten the war if it were to join it alongside Israel. Vered does not observe American willingness to do so. He predicts the possibility of pressure in the opposite direction, by the US on Israel….
The military card
…The game is now approaching the critical stage, the “money time.” Netanyahu and Barak are waving the military card. “All the options are on the table,” they say, accompanying the sentence with a meaningful look. There are Israelis, in uniform and civilian clothes, who take them seriously…
The following is perhaps the most important portion of this column since Barnea posits a startling theory to explain Bibi’s posturing and bellicosity concerning Iran. If he is right then I would feel a whole lot more confident that war is not in the offing. But if he is wrong…
I find it difficult to believe that Netanyahu will undertake such a weighty and dangerous decision. It is more reasonable to assume that he and Barak are playing “hold me back.” On the day they will be called upon to explain why Iran attained nuclear weapons, they will say, each on his own, what do you want from me, I prepared a daring, deadly, amazing operation, but they—the US administration, the top IDF brass, the forum of three, the forum of seven, the forum of ten—tripped me up. They are to blame.
Netanyahu and Barak know: there is no military operation more successful, more perfect, than an operation that did not take place.
Netanyahu has upgraded Ahmadinejad to the dimensions of a Hitler. Against Hitler, one fights to the last bunker. This is what Churchill did, and Netanyahu wants so badly to be like Churchill. His credibility—a sensitive issue—is on the table. If he retreats, the voters will turn their back on him. Where will he go? In his distress, he may run forward.
Below, Barnea continues with his entirely reasonable, pragmatic and even cynical theories that the Israeli public neither believes, nor wants Bibi to go to war. While he may be right, I’m afraid that many polls of Israeli opinion show a population resigned to confrontation and possible war. So who do you believe?
The fascinating side of this story is that very few Israelis would appear to believe their prime minister. If they believed him, they would not run in a frenzy to buy apartments in the towers sprouting like mushrooms around the Kirya. In the event that Iran should be bombed, the residents of the towers would be the first to get it. If they believed [Netanyahu], the real estate prices in Tel Aviv would drop to a quarter of their current value, and long lines of people applying for passports would extend outside the foreign embassies. What do the Israelis know about Netanyahu that Ahmadinejad does not know, what is it that they know.
Of course, this eminently reasonable interpretation omits the fact that many other pragmatic Israeli leaders, equally cynical in their way, have been sucked into disastrous wars for far less reason. Most recently Ehud Olmert in Lebanon and Gaza. Menachem Begin in Lebanon. Do we really believe that even if he doesn’t mean to go to war that something could not suck him into it against his better judgment? History is full of examples of precisely such things, World War I being perhaps the foremost example.
Returning to Vered’s war game, there will be Iran haters in Israel who read this who pooh-pooh this scenario claiming it overstates the negatives and overlooks Israel’s prowess and past success in similar ventures like Osirak and the alleged Syrian nuclear reactor. But I say if even 1/10 of the complications Vered outlines happen, that disaster may be in the offing for Israel. Israelis tend to have a “can do” attitude towards wars with their Arab neighbors. As such, they often overestimate themselves and underestimate their adversary. Iran, once provoked, will make a much more formidable adversary than most Israelis imagine. Israelis should remember, but won’t, that the IDF is no longer the vaunted invincible force it was after the 1967 War. It cannot work miracles. Think Lebanon, 2006. Think Gaza, 2008. To delude yourself that bombing Iranian nuclear plants will be a surgical operation with short-term consequences alone is beyond foolish. That is why Vered’s exercise, no matter how accurate it turns out to be, is salient.
H/t to Didi Remez.
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Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.