Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States and a member of Israel’s government, is a consultant for the law firm of Kirkland & Ellis. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinions on CNN.
(CNN)Israeli forces are on high alert after members of the Iran-backed Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah launched anti-tank rockets at a military post and vehicle along the border. Israel responded by firing 100 mortar rounds into Lebanon. At the same time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is purportedly urging President Donald Trump not to negotiate with Iran.
Michael Oren Americans may not be fully aware of the severity of the crisis — but for Israel it is acute. While trying to avoid war and discourage diplomacy, it must urgently prepare for both. The countdown to crisis began over a year ago when President Trump withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — or Iran nuclear deal — and reimposed punishing sanctions on Iran. The decision effectively undermined Iran’s grand strategy of exploiting the international contracts and legitimacy granted it by the Iran deal to conquer much of the Middle East. The JCPOA enabled Iran to maintain key parts of its nuclear infrastructure, to preserve its blueprints for producing atomic bombs, and to develop the intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of carrying them. With many of the deal’s provisions expiring in less than a decade, Iran could have eventually carried out plans to make hundreds of nuclear weapons and mount them on ICBMs. Overnight, Iran would become a global power. Only one obstacle remained. Read More The Israelis, of course, would not have sat passively by while Iran nuclearized and threatened their existence. But Iran clearly had another plan: to surround Israel with tens of thousands of terrorist rockets and proxies. Any Israeli attempt to stop an Iranian nuclear breakout would inevitably be met with devastating fire from Lebanon, Syria, Gaza, and Iraq, as well as from Iran itself. Paralyzed, Israel would be helpless to prevent the Islamic Republic’s emergence as a nuclear power. Then came Trump’s decision to end the nuclear deal, followed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s demands on Iran — including an end of all support for terror, withdrawal from Syria, and the cessation of the ICBM program. With its economy buckling under the sanctions, Iran had to choose between negotiating under Pompeo’s severe terms or proving that it could plunge the entire Middle East into chaos.Weirdly, Trump seeks peace with Iran while Netanyahu battles it Whether Iran assumed that Trump would be reluctant to take on the Iranian militarily ahead of the 2020 election or believed that he would fail to win a second term, the regime apparently concluded that provocations would suffice to lift the sanctions. The results: Iran’s harassment of US forces, seizure of a British oil tanker in the Persian Gulf, accelerated enrichment of uranium, and heightened hostilities against Israel. Such actions were ostensibly designed to show the United States that Iran could exact a price for sanctions in terms of regional stability and global oil prices. But this strategy is also primed to fail. With a Trump reelection looking feasible, the Iranians face the specter of at least five more years of sanctions. Hopes that Europe might help Iran circumvent the sanctions have proved futile. The Israelis, meanwhile, repeatedly bombed Iranian bases in Syria and destroyed some of Hezbollah’s missile-production machinery. Israeli forces also retaliated against Hamas and other Iranian-back terrorist groups in Gaza that fired rockets into Israel. Tensions escalated in August and nearly erupted when Israeli jets preempted an Iranian drone attack from Syria that could easily have triggered a war. The possibility of a war is still considerable. And should war erupt, it could be Israel’s most desperate clash since the 1973 Yom Kippur War — and far bloodier. In Lebanon, alone, Hezbollah has placed some 130,000 rockets in as many as 200 villages — some inside homes, schools and mosques. Israel Defense Forces have predicted that 1,000 rockets could hit Israeli cities every day — enough to knock out Israel’s airports and other vital facilities, and overwhelm defense systems. Israelis would have no choice but to employ devastating means to defend themselves.For a week, Israel and Lebanon seemed on the brink of war. But neither has the appetite for it Rising civilian casualties on the Lebanese side would inevitably result in accusations of war crimes against Israel — precisely what the Iranians want — and boycotts that can strangle the Jewish state economically. Those dire prospects no doubt contributed to French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative to restart US-Iranian negotiations. President Trump seemed open to the idea. “If the circumstances were correct or right I would certainly agree,” he said about a potential meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at last week’s G7 summit. Trump even suggested easing some of the economic pressure on Iran.Israelis were nonplussed. While gearing up for a potentially catastrophic war, they had to grapple with the prospect of talks between Washington and Tehran. While these conversations might result in harsher restrictions on Iran and its nuclear program, the conciliatory nature of negotiations means that at least some of Secretary Pompeo’s conditions are unlikely to be met. Having enthusiastically supported those demands, and applauded the renewal of sanctions, Israelis could be left with an American president engaging with his Iranian counterpart much as he did with Kim Jong Un — and an Islamic Republic still uncontained. That is why Israel must act now, unambiguously and on the record. If the continuing sanctions do press Iran into war, Israel should seek pledges of unconditional military support from the United States, including the resupply of vital ammunition. America should also provide Israel with what could be called a diplomatic and legal Iron Dome, committing in advance to veto Security Council resolutions condemning Israel and to block decisions to boycott Israel by the International Criminal Court. Should fighting break out on other fronts such as Gaza, the US, together with its allies in the Gulf, should undertake to rebuild any area successfully freed from terrorist rule.Get our weekly newsletter
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And if, instead of embarking on war, the Iranians return to the negotiating table, Israel must state its expectations unequivocally. These should include the verifiable dismantling of Iran’s nuclear facilities, the rescinding of any recognized Iranian “right” to enrich uranium, and the complete exposure of Iran’s previous bomb-building projects. No more ICBMs or guided missiles for Hezbollah; no more base construction in Syria or rocket shipments through Iraq. And no more Iranian support for terror and efforts to kill Jews both in Israel and abroad. The sanctions, Israelis must insist, will remain in effect for as long as it takes to achieve these objectives. Any lessening of pressure on Tehran will, at this critical time, only reward its aggression.Israel should do everything in its power to avert the outbreak of war but should employ all means necessary to defend its citizens. It can only welcome a negotiated removal of the Iranian threat if it a deal proves ironclad, substantive, and permanent. But whether girding for war or bracing for diplomacy, Israel must be prepared.