LAST WEEKEND, the Sunday Times of London reported that Israel is preparing a strike on the Iranian nuclear program at several bases scattered throughout the country. The paper claimed that the attack would be carried out with tactical nuclear "bunker busters" supplied by the United States.
Israel quickly denied the Times' report. But the story, which may be wrong in its details, has a certain truthiness. Israel is certainly thinking about how to stop Tehran from getting its hands on nukes.
And why wouldn't it? Given the evident failure of American diplomacy and U.N. sanctions, Israel has two basic choices. It can sit and wait, hoping the Iranians do not drop a bomb on Tel Aviv; or it can preemptively attack, hoping to destroy, or at least retard, the Iranians' nuclear capacity.
American foreign policy "realists" tend to favor the first option. At the core of their argument is the idea that Israel has nuclear weapons and can therefore rely on Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) just as the U.S. did during the Cold War. Does Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad say he wants to wipe Israel off the map? It's probably just rhetoric. After all, he knows that if he tried, Israel would retaliate, turning Tehran into a parking lot.
This may seem realistic in Washington or Cambridge, but not in Tel Aviv. Israel is a small, crowded country with a very poor civil defense infrastructure and a population traumatized by its own recent history. Perhaps the Iranian government doubts that the Holocaust happened, but there are 6 million Israeli Jews (that population figure is a macabre coincidence) who don't doubt it. For Israelis, "never again" is more than a phrase over a museum gate.
It is possible, even likely, that Israel could survive an Iranian nuclear attack physically -- but not psychologically. It is doubtful that Israel could carry on as a sane, not to mention democratic, society. This is the great insight of Ahmadinejad.
An Israel assaulted in this way would react, of course. But it might not react in the predictable, proportionate, tit-for-tat fashion that the realists have laid out. What, after all, is the practical value (not to mention the moral justification) for killing a million innocent civilians in Tehran?
There are other ways a brutalized Israel might respond. For example, it could decide to settle accounts with a broader group of enemies. That would mean immiserating Iran and the Arab world by destroying their oil fields. Or, if the Palestinians cheered the mass murder of Israelis in Tel Aviv, as they almost certainly would, the Israeli reaction might be to settle the territorial issue of western Palestine once and for all. And if Hezbollah or Syria attempted to intervene, well, the genie would already be out of the bottle.
In other words, if you want to think realistically about the Middle East in a first-strike environment, you had better be ready to contemplate something more dire than a few flattened neighborhoods in downtown Tehran.
The only reasonable alternative to this nightmare is a guarantee that there will be no nuclear attack by Iran. This can be accomplished by changing the regime in Tehran, or by destroying the present government's capacity to build and deliver nukes.
There are Israelis who believe that it is in Israel's interest for the United States to solve this problem. But they are mistaken. The truth is, the U.S. is not directly menaced by Iranian weapons. When President Bush says an Iranian bomb would threaten U.S. friends and interests in the region, he is speaking primarily about Israel. The Iranians frighten a lot of Sunni Arab countries, but they pose an existential threat only to the Jewish state.
Israel needs to fight its own battles. If it encourages, or allows, the U.S. to disarm Iran on its behalf, it can kiss its sovereignty goodbye. Israel will become an American protectorate, a Mediterranean Puerto Rico. The United States is a great friend, but history's lesson is that friends come and go.
Israel's raison d'etre is Jewish self-determination -- and that includes the ability to survive without relying on the kindness of others.
That kindness, in any case, can't be taken for granted. Just last week, retired Gen. Wesley Clark, the former supreme allied commander of NATO and a member in good standing of the Democratic establishment, confided to Arianna Huffington, on the record, that he fears that "New York money people" (by which he clearly meant American Jews) are already pressuring U.S. officials to go to war for Israel's sake.
This, of course, is a variation on the increasingly brazen charge that disloyal neocon Jews tricked the U.S. into Iraq on orders from Jerusalem -- a theory propounded not only by Arab propagandists and academic Zionist-lobby-spotters such as professor Stephen Walt of Harvard, professor John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and David Duke of the Ukrainian Interregional Academy of Personnel Management, but by many "progressive" Democrats and Buchananite Republicans.
If the Sunday Times is right and Israel is preparing a strike on the Iranian nuclear program, that may not be good news, but, realistically, it is a damn sight better than the alternative.