Thursday, November 30, 2006

JERUSALEM — Iran’s reported drive to make an atomic bomb has become an existential threat to Israel that some Israelis are likening to the Holocaust — especially with the United States appearing to back away from confrontation with Tehran.

The alarmists include Aharon Appelfeld, a leading Israeli author who as a child survived the Nazi killing of 6 million Jews.

“For the first time since I’m in the country, I feel that we face a real existential danger,” Mr. Appelfeld said.

The memory of the Holocaust is a central element in Israel’s collective consciousness, a memory made more acute by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial that the Holocaust happened.

“It’s 1938,” said former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “and Iran is Germany, racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.”

Addressing a Jewish audience in Los Angeles this month, Mr. Netanyahu added his voice to a growing sense of alarm in Israel about Iran’s seemingly inexorable march toward nuclear capability.

In his address, Mr. Netanyahu referred to Mr. Ahmadinejad’s repeated calls for wiping Israel off the map.

“Believe him and stop him,” Mr. Netanyahu said in the speech. “This is what we must do. Everything pales before it.”

Israel has half assumed, half hoped that if international pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear development fails, the United States would in the end use military force.

In recent weeks, however, a war-weary Washington seems to be backing away from a confrontation.

In a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac, President Bush said that he would “understand” if Israel chose to attack Iran’s nuclear installations.

To Israelis, that sounded like he would prefer it over an American attack. There was likewise little comfort from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s remark that the U.S. lacked sufficient intelligence on Iran’s nuclear facilities to carry out a strike at this time.

Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote recently that “military action by the United States is extremely improbable in the final two years of a presidency facing a hostile Congress.”

He, too, raised the possibility of a unilateral Israeli air strike.

Israel has apparently long been preparing such a strike. It acquired a large fleet of F-16 and F-15 warplanes and held intensive training exercises in anticipation of a confrontation with Iran.

The appointment last year of former air force commander Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz as chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was widely seen as preparing for that confrontation in which the air force would play a central role.

It has become increasingly clear in recent years, however, that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be infinitely more difficult than the successful attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor by Israeli planes in 1981.

Tehran learned the lessons of that attack and scattered its facilities at scores of sites, burying many of them deep underground and defending them with modern Russian anti-aircraft missiles.

Analysts have suggested that only a superpower like the United States could mount the massive and sustained attack that would be necessary to do substantial damage by boring ever deeper into the underground sites with bunker-buster bombs on repeated runs.

Even then, some analysts say, an attack might succeed only in delaying the program by a few years.

If Israel undertook the task alone, it would face not only uncertainty about the results of the air campaign but also the certainty of fierce Iranian retaliation, beginning with their long-range missiles and perhaps including attacks on Israeli targets around the world.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert continues to hope for an international initiative.

“The big countries have to lead and we have to push them,” he said. However, there is a realization in Jerusalem that there may be no one to push.

Deputy Israeli Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh said: “I am aware of all of the possible repercussions of a pre-emptive Israeli military action against Iran and consider it a last resort. But the last resort is sometimes the only resort.”

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