In an interview in an Israeli newspaper this week, Giora Eiland, Israel's national security adviser, made a startling statement: November will be the "point of no return" for taking out the Iranian nuclear program.
"Point of no return" is a phrase with a history. In 1981, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin demanded to know when Saddam Hussein's nuclear plant at Osirak, Iraq, would reach it. Military intelligence then, as always, was muddy. Some of Begin's advisers counseled patience. Others warned that delay could be fatal. The most influential advocate of the go-for-it approach was Begin's minister of defense - Ariel Sharon.
Iran is now on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons. This week, President Bush said categorically that he will not let that happen. But how will he stop it? Persuasion? The Iranians are spitting in the face of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Invasion? The U.S. military is already busy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Covert action? A botched operation would bring the wrath and scorn of the world down on the U.S.
Bush has a domestic problem, too. The weapons of mass destruction fiasco in Iraq has hurt his credibility on the subject of Iranian nukes. It would not be easy to justify a preemptive strike on the basis of CIA information.
Still, the ayatollahs are about to go atomic - and somebody has to stop them. That will be a dangerous and thankless job. Increasingly, it looks as if it will be outsourced to Israel.
The Bush administration already has supplied the tool kit, including the F-16I, the first Israeli war plane capable of striking Iran without in-flight refueling. The U.S. also has supplied ordnance capable of piercing massive fortifications.
"It is rather significant that the United States is now selling Israel over $300 million worth of bunker-busting bombs. They don't need those for the Palestinians," Richard Holbrooke told Bill O'Reilly on Sept. 23. O'Reilly was visibly surprised by the clear implication of this observation. Holbrooke is, after all, the leading Democratic spokesman on foreign affairs, John Kerry's presumptive secretary of state.
O'Reilly: "But wouldn't that be a disaster, to have the Israelis do it?"
Holbrooke: "I'm not advocating this."
Holbrooke: "[But] let's realize where we are. In 1981, the Israelis attacked the Iraqi nuclear plant at Osirak. President [Ronald] Reagan personally criticized Israel. Today, we all recognize that Israel was 100% right to do it."
This may be America's last remaining point of 100% bipartisan foreign policy agreement: Israel was right to smash the Iraqi reactor 23 years ago, and it should be equipped for a similar job in Iran.
In 1981, Begin was forced to act without American approval. Prime Minister Sharon cannot afford to do that. It is a one-superpower world now, and U.S. support is absolutely critical to Israel. But Sharon will not be just a blind enforcer. He is, after all, the only guy around with experience in Islamic bomb-busting.
He also has the most to lose. If he takes out the Iranian nukes, it will further enrage the Muslim world. If he tries and fails, Israel's deterrent will be badly damaged. Either way, Iran very likely will attack Israel (and Jews around the world) with everything in its terrorist and conventional arsenal. Under the circumstances, it is not unreasonable to suppose that Sharon will demand - and get - a role in determining the what and the how of a future operation. And the when.
That's why it was so startling and instructive to hear Sharon's national security adviser say, in public, that the point of no return is now barely two months away.