Asking whether or not military victory is worth achieving strikes most people as totally counter-intuitive. How can being better off possibly be worse than not being better off? The devil is in the dynamics, and the causal dynamics underlying relations between an isolated victorious military power and a host of less powerful but larger, insecure, and angry neighbors challenge the ability of any decision-maker.
One critical and unavoidable danger resulting from a quick military strike is that it concentrates the minds of everyone at the same time. The aggressor state is thus suddenly faced with a flood of reactions from every counterpart: other states, non-state adversaries, domestic adversaries. Immediately following even a successful military strike on Iran, Tel Aviv will be faced with a predictable information overload and lack of time for thoughtful response to the reactions of all its opponents and friends. Under such conditions, mistakes are predictable, and those mistakes can easily lose far more than the military victory achieved. The international political chess game will suddenly have been transformed into a hockey match in which the victorious aggressor goalie stands alone, all his teammates in the penalty box, facing a torrent of shots on goal from the opposing team.
Launching a war is easy: the aggressor has the benefit of controlling the timing. Post-attack, this advantage shifts unpredictably but almost certainly to one or more of the other actors, immediately weakening the aggressor’s strategic position at precisely the moment when the aggressor is under the most severe time pressure to respond to the reactions from every other actor that its attack has provoked. The aggressor’s situation becomes all the more difficult since the other actors will surely not make coordinated or mutually consistent responses.
Suppose that Netanyahu surprised the world by having planned an historically conciliatory response the day after launching an attack on Iran, consisting of:
- an apology to the people of Iran and offer of medical assistance for civilian casualties;
- the immediate recognition in principle of a Palestinian state;
- an announcement that Israel accepts the U.N.-recognized 1967 borders and orders to all settlers outside those borders to begin a one-year process of moving back into Israel;
- formal admission that it is a nuclear state, acceptance of the principle of nuclear transparency, and an offer to adhere to whatever nuclear rules Iran adheres to;
- apology to Lebanon for its past aerial violations of the Lebanese border and a promise to cease such violations;
- announcement that it will immediately return the Golan Heights to Syria.
Leaving aside the issue of whether Netanyahu could conceivably aspire to such statesmanship or bring his hardline faction along with him, imagine the opportunities others would have for spoiling the plan. Any group, marginalized al Qua’ida militants being one obvious set of candidates, looking for opportunities to provoke regional conflict would have a field day launching random attacks on Israeli targets to inflame popular opinion. Tel Aviv would not only have to deal calmly with such attacks, persuading the Israeli people that they did not come from Iran, but maintain that stance for weeks or months while an almost inevitable shaking out occurred within the highly fractured Iranian ruling elite, which even in peacetime exists in a vicious environment where political losers are regularly jailed and sometimes killed for losing political battles. Worse, some of the anti-Israeli provocations surely would come from one element or another of the fractured Iranian regime, which is infamous for its semi-independent power centers.
Netanyahu repeatedly claims that Iran’s nuclear program stands in the way of peace with Palestine, even though logically if Israel is threatened by its far enemy, it should make quick peace with its near enemy. If, nonetheless, we assume that there is at least some chance that Netanyahu is sincere in making this linkage, the likelihood that he can win the day domestically and somehow get the half million illegal settlers back inside Israel’s legal borders when Israel is aflame with hubris as the result of their victory over Iran, nevertheless seems miniscule. If such a miracle were to occur, the challenge of persuading Iran to forgo revenge and also to forgo the acquisition of a self-defense capacity sufficient to prevent a second Israeli attack seems almost beyond credence. Just for one example, consider that the minimum price Tehran would probably demand for a conciliatory response would include the delivery of Netanyahu, Barak, and Lieberman to the International Court of Justice for trial as war criminals. And all of this line of reasoning is based on the assumption that Tehran can in fact get its own act together in the aftermath of defeat, that the regime will even be able to function, and that it will exercise a degree of restraint almost unknown in human history.
If the conclusion that a sincere, sustained, and effective Israeli conciliatory stance after victory is highly unlikely, we are left with the likelihood of an arrogant and self-satisfied Israel, flush with victory. Under such conditions, regardless of what anyone else on earth does, the illegal settlers, already engaging in an intensifying terrorist campaign against Palestinians, can be expected to launch their own war to settle their “Indian problem” once and for all. Internationally, Israel can be expected to intensify its reliance on its long-standing policy of security through strength. After all, in the aftermath of an unprovoked attack on Iran, what other leg will it have to stand on?
At that point, the ball will be in Tehran’s court, with its two basic options being a military response and a legal response. The last scenario, a function of the degree of collateral damage, is that of a destroyed and chaotic Iran characterized by insurgency, civil war, global petroleum shortages, massive refugee flows, and years of regional instability. While that scenario may virtually defy serious analysis in advance, the two basic options facing a coherent regime–military or legal–are more straightforward and demand the most careful thought by Israeli strategic thinkers contemplating the implications of a war of choice.