In the early evening of June 7, 1981, eight Israeli F-16s swooped down over Saddam Hussein’s French-built Osirak nuclear facility.

The squadron commander, Zeev Raz, actually overflew the target; he had failed to spot the last reconnaissance marker, a tiny island in a lake which had become submerged by rainfall in the months since the final photographs of the route had been taken the previous winter.

But Amos Yadlin (who would rise 25 years later to become the IDF’s chief of military intelligence), flying the formation’s second plane, found the target unerringly; Raz looped back and dropped his bombs, and the other six F-16s followed suit. The squadron’s youngest pilot, astronaut-to-be Ilan Ramon, made the final run.

When they were done, Osirak was smashed to smithereens, never to be rebuilt.

Ilan Ramon, photographed in front of an F-16. (photo credit: Flash90)

Ilan Ramon, photographed in front of an F-16. (photo credit: Flash90)

Flash forward 26 years. Late on the night of September 6, 2007, the Israeli Air Force again struck deep inside enemy territory – in Syria, at what foreign reports would subsequently describe as a North Korean-built nuclear facility. The journey was far shorter, of course, but some of the challenges no less acute. The result was identical.

Israel, it appeared, was following a doctrine, ensuring that no hostile regional power attain the capacity to use a nuclear bomb to wipe out the revived Jewish national homeland.

Reading some of the deeply researched, lengthy articles that have appeared in recent months, principally in American and Israeli journals, there is no escaping the impression that Israel is preparing to stick to the pattern, preparing to smash hostile regional nuclear ambitions for the third time – with Iran as the target.

The true picture is more complex.

Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in the Atlantic as far back as August 2010, and basing himself on “months of interviews,” asserted that “it is a near-certainty that Israel will act against Iran soon if nothing or no one else stops the (Iranian) nuclear program.”

Numerous rigorous and less rigorous pieces have followed since, culminating, just three weeks ago, with a New York Times article by Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman — author of a 2008 book on Iran that cited insider information from the intelligence community. Bergman’s piece concludes firmly that the strike will come this year: “After speaking with many senior Israeli leaders and chiefs of the military and the intelligence,” he writes, “I have come to believe that Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012. Perhaps in the small and ever-diminishing window that is left, the United States will choose to intervene after all, but here, from the Israeli perspective, there is not much hope for that.”

The thesis that Israel is now poised to strike is ostensibly borne out by a shift in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent rhetoric. Having been giving public support for the US-led sanctions effort to achieve either regime change or an abandonment of the nuclear drive in Iran, Netanyahu last Thursday observed tersely and dramatically during a visit to Cyprus that “sanctions have not stopped the nuclear program,” and added, “I hope they work but so far they have not.”

If the sanctions aren’t working, and the Iranians are moving steadily towards the bomb — runs the widely asserted line of thinking — then the time must be drawing near for Israeli military intervention. After Iraq and Syria, strike three: Iran.

Heightening that sense still further is the impression that an increasingly edgy Israel is falling out of step with a rather more patient United States. Visiting Israel on Tuesday, Barack Obama’s defeated presidential opponent John McCain observed bleakly that the US and Israel are drifting apart over the Iran issue. He spoke of “daylight” and “significant tension” between the two allies.

A series of visits from serving US heavy hitters, including Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, and National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, have all presumably been focused heavily on Iran, with the reported common theme of an American administration seeking desperately to keep an itchy Israeli finger from the trigger. Dempsey said this week on CNN that the US thought it “not prudent at this point to decide to attack Iran.” The Washington Post asserted earlier this month that “Panetta believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June.”

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, right, at a welcoming ceremony for his visiting US counterpart Martin Dempsey, at a military base in Tel Aviv on January 20. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90

IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, right, at a welcoming ceremony for his visiting US counterpart Martin Dempsey, at a military base in Tel Aviv on January 20. (photo credit: Gideon Markowicz/Flash90

In this narrative, Netanyahu’s newly scheduled White House meeting with Obama early next month will bring matters to a head. Netanyahu, one is led to believe, will likely tell the president that while America may feel there is still time yet for sanctions to have their impact, for Israel the red line is rather nearer, time is running out, the window of opportunity for military intervention is closing. Pick your cliché or manufacture a new one. Defense Minister Ehud Barak did just that in a recent CNN interview: Iran will soon be entering “what I call a zone of immunity,” he said, at which point, he intimated, it would be too late for military action.

This narrative is dramatic and compelling, and appears to be supported by the Osirak and Syria precedents. And yet, there is an alternative reading that is compelling too — a narrative that suggests the US and Israel are rather closer together than some articles, sound bites and senatorial statements have suggested, and that the notion of a supposed Osirak-Syria precedent should not be overstated.

An alternate narrative

First and foremost, the unarguable military fact is that Osirak and Syria constitute no precedent whatsoever where Iran is concerned.

Osirak was a surprise attack against a single, inadequately protected facility – the Iraqi missile defense team was actually having dinner, machines switched off, when Israel struck — and Saddam was incapable of rebuilding or of retaliating with particular viciousness. Where Syria was concerned, surprise was the order of the day too, and here Israel took pains not to publicly claim responsibility in order – successfully – to avoid embarrassing the Syrians into a perceived need to retaliate.

Netanyahu, Barak and others have talked and talked. And then talked some more. And so have all manner of ministers, generals and intelligence chiefs… All in all, it’s the very opposite of the secrecy that prevailed before Osirak and Syria. This is not the behavior of a nation that has decided on military action; it is the behavior of a nation seeking to sound the alarm.

With the Iranian program, the picture is entirely different. Iran has constructed its nuclear facilities with Osirak serving as the case study in what not to do – built them, therefore, with minimal vulnerability to attack. Israeli officials have intimated with deliberate vagueness that Israel can do what is necessary to protect itself, but any military option would be immeasurably more complex than the challenge that was posed by Osirak. It is hard to see how there could be any surprise in a strike that has been trumpeted in the headlines for months. And Iran can both rebuild and — via Hamas, Hezbollah, terrorism and missile attack — it can hit back.

In contrast to the Syrian strike, furthermore, there would be no question of Israel being able to silently dodge responsibility in the aftermath of an attack, and thus every likelihood of no-holds-barred Iranian attempts at retaliation. The potentially dramatic consequences have provoked former Mossad chief Meir Dagan into an ongoing, utterly uncharacteristic public campaign against the “foolish” notion of military intervention except as a very last resort.

There is another crucial aspect common to the Osirak and Syria attacks that is conspicuously different this time: Prior to the last two operations, Israeli leaders did not spend weeks, months and years talking endlessly about the nature of the danger and an imminent possible resort to military force. There was silence. And then there was devastating intervention.

If the entire international community is anticipating an Osirak-style direct attack on Iranian facilities, every instinct in Barak’s maverick psyche will be screaming “no” and looking for the avenue to thwart Iran that nobody else has thought of pursuing.

This time, on Iran, Netanyahu, Barak and others have talked and talked. And then talked some more. And so have all manner of ministers, generals and intelligence chiefs. Rather than maintain the strictest secrecy about possible preparations, Israel has allowed news of various exercises and training maneuvers, purportedly carried out in order to prepare for a possible strike, to find its way into the international media. All in all, it’s the very opposite of the secrecy that prevailed before Osirak and Syria.

This is not the behavior of a nation that has decided on military action; it is the behavior of a nation seeking to sound the alarm. Israel evidently wants Iran to know that it is potentially poised for action. Israel evidently wants the international community to think that this may be so – in order to ratchet up the sanctions.

All those well-sourced articles, with their tantalizing aroma of insider information, are adding to that impression. Which, presumably, is precisely what those anonymous security sources who spoke to those authors want to achieve: Bolster the sense that Israel feels it may soon have to resort to military action… precisely in order that Israel does not have to resort to military action.

Barak the maverick

The identity of Israel’s defense minister is also worth bearing in mind when trying to assess the accuracy of the “Israel set to strike” headlines and assessments.

Ehud Barak is a methodical man, who prefers not to be rushed into action. It can safely be assumed that he will be examining, carefully and patiently, every piece of information concerning Iran’s progress — checking and rechecking just how far the program has come and the obstacles it still faces, making his own evaluations about timescales and moments of truth.

Barak is also a maverick thinker. The most decorated soldier in Israeli military history, he elevated Sayeret Matkal – the General Staff’s elite commando unit – to mythological status by doing the unexpected, not the repeatedly headlined. If the entire international community is anticipating an Osirak-style direct attack on Iranian facilities, every instinct in Barak’s maverick psyche will be screaming “no” and looking for the avenue to thwart Iran that nobody else has thought of pursuing.

Was it Israel, or a joint Israeli-American operation, that injected Stuxnet and other viruses into the Iranian computer systems, sending centrifuges smashing and setting back the program a few months? Nobody official is saying. But Stuxnet represented a military strike without the repercussions. Quiet. Clinical. Effective. Barak-ian, one might be tempted to say.

Benjamin Netanyahu has forged a notably close relationship with his defense minister. He has quashed any fledgling effort to unseat Barak, even though the post is hugely coveted by several rival senior ministers and even as the Labor party splintered and split beneath its leader. As the head of Atzmaut, a small faction unlikely to survive the next general election, Barak’s political clout has evaporated. He brings few Knesset votes to the coalition. He differs, often publicly, with the prime minister over interaction with the Palestinians.

Yet there he sits, side by side with Netanyahu, firmly allied, thoroughly unmovable.

Is he there to steward, as any defense minister would have to, an imminent, widely predicted major Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities? Or is he there to oversee every other kind of action, as perhaps only Ehud Barak can, designed to minimize the likelihood that a resort to major military intervention will be necessary?