Couv PE 1-2013 HD petit formatHere are the first few paragraphs of Mark A. Heller’s paper on “Israel’s Geopolitical Agenda: Old Issues, New Urgency”, published in Politique étrangère 1/2013.
This paper was initially published in French in Politique étrangère, Vol. 78, N° 1, 2013 (“Redéfinir l’agenda stratégique israélien”).
Click here to download the PDF of the text in English.

Israel’s Geopolitical Agenda:
Old Issues, New Urgency

In the last week of December 2012, one of Israel’s largest mass-circulation daily newspapers published a front-page interview with a “high-ranking political figure” under the screaming headline, “Netanyahu is Leading Us to Disaster”.[1] According to this unnamed personality, the policies pursued by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu are so alienating Israel’s traditional allies and friends throughout the world, and especially in Europe, that the country will eventually find itself completely isolated and unable to cope with a host of geopolitical threats to its security and perhaps its very existence.
Even allowing for the newspaper’s antipathy to Netanyahu, the Israeli propensity for inordinate introspection, the normally heated rhetoric of Israeli discourse, and the particularly feverish tone of debate in the run-up to a national election, this outburst reflects a growing sense, at least in some circles, that the country is on an unusually dangerous trajectory. It is difficult to determine the extent to which this pessimism – which is apparently not shared by the general public – is objectively warranted. What is undeniable is that Israel in 2013 will face a variety of challenges that will impel its government to take decisions in an environment of huge uncertainty.
Uncertainty, of course, is a permanent condition of national security policymaking for Israel (and every other country). What will make the coming year qualitatively different is the likely need for wrenching decisions in an environment of huge flux in almost every dimension of regional politics. All of these decisions are important but the most urgent almost surely concerns the Iranian nuclear weapons program.


For many months during 2012, the question of a possible military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities dominated the Israeli and international agenda. The issue was taken seriously because of the seriousness of the issue – the possible marriage of a nuclear weapon to Iran’s declared intention to wipe Israel off the map – and the apparent failure of diplomacy, economic sanctions and covert action to persuade Iran to abandon its dedication to what all but the most incorrigible optimists acknowledge is a quest for nuclear military capability. However, towards the end of the year – in fact, immediately after Netanyahu’s melodramatic appearance at the United Nations General Assembly – the issue suddenly dropped from the headlines. There is no unanimity of view on the reason for this turn of events. It may have been due to the insistence of the American administration that an attack at that point would be premature – not just because President Obama wanted to avoid the possible messy consequences before the US election, but also because of the estimation that there was still time to see whether the latest and most stringent round of economic sanctions might yet produce the desired result. And it may have been due to the belief that setbacks to the Iranian program attributed to technical lapses and cybernetic sabotage had caused delays that postponed a critical decision point. It is even possible that Iran had itself signaled a willingness to slow its progress toward acquisition of significant quantities of weapons-grade uranium by converting some of its stock of 20% enriched uranium into oxide powder for use in a medical research reactor, rendering the material unsuitable for military purposes.[2]
However, Iranian centrifuges continue to spin, the unity of purpose needed to apply sanctions of sufficient severity to convince the Iranian regime to reverse course continues to elude the international community, and the Iranians could be forgiven for concluding that “the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.” Another round of negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 is scheduled for March. Of course, the possibility of a successful outcome – meaning a verifiable agreement that precludes the possibility of Iran continuing to move towards a usable weapon or even a “breakout” capacity – cannot be logically excluded. Iran’s own political calendar could even work in this direction, because the regime may well be eager to ease the impact of existing sanctions in order to reduce discontent so that activism associated with the presidential elections in June does not transmogrify into a popular anti-regime movement. Still, if the March negotiations do not prove more effective in coercing or seducing Iran into abandoning its nuclear ambitions than have previous negotiations over the years, it is entirely possible that a point will be reached sometime in 2013 when the “disastrous alternative” described by former French President Nicolas Sarkozy – “an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran”[3] – will need to be faced after having been predicted but averted for so many years.
For obvious reasons, Israel’s antennae are most sensitively attuned to the approach of that decision-point, and though it would clearly prefer that the alternative either be precluded or addressed by the United States, Israel may well conclude that autonomous action can no longer be prudently deferred until American and Israeli estimates are fully congruent. If/when that point arrives, the decision to act will be excruciatingly difficult. Even though Israeli leaders have information about the structure of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and especially about Israel’s own capabilities unavailable to most of the commentators pronouncing on this issue, they will still inevitably be operating in an environment of uncertainty about critical variables: the technical success of any operation, the extent and severity of any Iranian response, the willingness and/or ability of Iran’s allies to join in any retaliation against Israel, and even the impact on Israeli-American relations. Nevertheless, the consequences of inaction are also impossible to predict with perfect confidence, and when risks of further delay are assessed to be unacceptably dangerous, incomplete knowledge about the consequences of acting is unlikely to paralyze the decisionmaking process.

Read the full text here (PDF)

Mark A. Heller

Mark A. Heller is a fellow researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and is the editor in chief of Strategic Assessment.

[1] Yediot Ahronot, 24 December 2012.  The “political figure,” never identified, was suspected to be outgoing Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
[2] David E. Sanger and James Rissen, “Iran’s Slowing of Enrichment Efforts May Show It Wants a Deal, Analysts Say,” The New York Times, 27 December 2012.
[3] Available at: <>.

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