Will Israel strike Iran in 2012? It's a simple question, but with extremely complicated answers. Everyone you ask has a different opinion. But most people don't have sources like my guest this past weekend on GPS, Ronen Bergman. Bergman is the senior political and military analyst for Israel's most widely read daily newspaper. He joined me from Tel Aviv. Here's an excerpt of our conversation:
Fareed Zakaria: Let's start with the bottom line. You believe that it is likely that there will be an Israeli strike on Iran?
Ronen Bergman: Yes. After speaking with many of the Israeli leaders and chiefs of the intelligence and the military, I have come to the conclusion that there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran during 2012, because Iran is getting too close to what was coined by Minister of Defense Ehud Barak as the "zone of immunity."
This is this specific point on the timeline, after which Iran nuclear sites are going to become immune to an Israeli strike. According to Israeli latest intelligence assessment, Iran is something like nine months away from entering this so-called zone of immunity.
Therefore, there are many in Israel who believe that Israel should take the initiative and strike before, because sanctions do not yield the results that Israel hoped they would result in.
And the covert action that did cause some delays to the Iranian nuclear project have exceeded or exhausted their ability, and Iran is accelerating toward its ability to produce the first nuclear weapon device.
Fareed Zakaria: At least looking at it from America, another window that perhaps is closing. And I'm wondering whether that has been part of the Israeli discussion, again, with your sources at the highest levels, and that is this:
You have a window until November. Until the elections are over in the United States. It would be very difficult for an American president to criticize Israel or to do anything but support it unconditionally.
Do you think that that is a factor, that people know that, until November, you have the guaranteed support of the American president?
Ronen Bergman: Yes, Fareed, I think this is the U.S.-Israeli relation, the complex, the strategic alliance between these countries, and especially when it comes to the Iranian issue, are a central factor in the Israeli decision-making process.
And as you said, the coming U.S. election is also a factor. You can look at from one side, a guaranteed U.S. support. And you can look at from the other, because the current U.S. president, maybe the next U.S. president, President Obama, has asked Israel not to strike in Iran.
And therefore, an Israeli strike before the election, a strike that can complicate things for President Obama, might be interpreted by President Obama as sort of a defiance to his request.
Therefore, you can look at it from both sides. However, at the end of the day, the Minister of Defense Barak, told me - and he is writing the Israeli doctrine when it comes to a possible Israeli strike on Iran - he said, 'all options are on the table, indeed,' he says. 'But from our point of view, there is one option that is not on the table. This is the C option, containment.'
'Israel,' he says, 'will never contain a nuclear Iran. There is no possibility that we are going to accept such a country holding such a weapon.'
Fareed Zakaria: So take us now into the Israeli decision-making process, because one of the things we hear is that the Israeli military and intelligence apparatus is not as keen on this idea as Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak, that they believe that the gains, which would be probably an 18-month delay in Iran's program, are not worth the costs, which are, of course, the regional instability, the possibility of Iran retaliating. Is that true?
Ronen Bergman: There's a difference of opinion. And as you correctly said, Fareed, people in the military and the defense and the intelligence establishment, who object to strike because, they say, it would not yield the sufficient required delay of only 18 months up to three years.
And the inevitable day-after consequences, including a rain of rockets coming from Iran, from Hamas in the Gaza Strip, from Hezbollah in the north of Israel, are going to be intolerable to the Israeli public.
When I asked the Minister of Defense Barak about this, he said, 'I am supportive of difference of opinion. I support the debate.'
'But,' he says, 'when the chiefs of the military looks up, they see the prime minister and the minister of defense. When we, the prime minister, Netanyahu, and myself, look up, we see nothing but the sky. We have the responsibility,' he says, 'for the continuation of the fate of the Jewish state, for the fate of the Jewish people. Therefore, we have to make a strike.'
There are, Fareed, numerous reasons why not to take such an action, why this could inflame a new war in the Middle East. But the mindset that I get from these people, especially from the political leaders, for the political level, is that, for the first time, I hear that they feel a sense of urgency and they feel that, unless something, I would say, unpredicted - which seems impossible - like the Iranians give up their complete nuclear project – unless something like this is happening, Israel would need to make a call and would probably go for a strike.
Fareed Zakaria: What do you think Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to tell President Obama at the Oval Office on Monday?
Ronen Bergman: I would assume that the Israeli prime minister would ask President Obama to give Israel assurances on what exactly does it mean when he says that the U.S. is determined to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear state.
Is the U.S. willing to guarantee Israel that if Israel doesn't strike, the U.S., when time comes and the Iranian Supreme Leader orders his scientists to start producing the first bomb, then the U.S. would strike?
I would assume that, on that specific issue, the president of the United States would be very cautious from making promises and obliging himself to restricted military actions. And on the other hand, I assume that Prime Minister Netanyahu is going to use the same vague language as he used before, when the president will ask him to refrain from attacking.
He would say something like, 'Israel reserves itself the right to defend itself and will not promise the president not to strike or to give the U.S. a heads-up, a prior warning, before a strike takes place.'