Although Israel can expect a barrage of missiles from various fronts if it attacks Iran, the response might be less catastrophic than some predict, with Middle East turmoil distracting old foes.
There is also a gathering view in Israel, expressed with growing insistence by senior officials, that the resulting conflict would be a price worth paying for stymieing Iran’s nuclear program.
An increasingly tough-talking Israel is threatening to take military action, with or without U.S. support, if the Iranians continue to defy pressure to curb their contested projects.
The question of what follows such a strike is becoming ever more central to both public and private discussions, suggesting that Israel’s security elite is now looking well beyond the initial operation to evaluate a strategy for the fallout.
“The issue today is less the (military) option itself. The real debate is what happens the day after,” said Michael Herzog, a one-time head of strategic planning for the Israeli army.
“The number one discussion is what happens once the military option is applied. We are assuming the Iranians will respond violently, but what kind of escalation will we have?”
Iran has warned it will strike back if it comes under fire and military planners in Israel think its allies, most notably Hezbollah in Lebanon, would probably leap into the fray.
Tehran has an unknown number of ballistic missiles that could reach Israel, while Hezbollah holds up to 50,000 rockets, some of which could undoubtedly hit densely populated Tel Aviv.
But some local experts, perhaps looking to calm a jittery domestic audience, are questioning how much damage Iran and its proxies could inflict, suggesting that Israel’s growing anti-missile defense shield should provide strong cover.
“The apocalyptic predictions of what will happen if Israel attacks Iran should be moderated,” Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser, told Israel Radio this week.
Ironically, the Arab Spring might also limit the damage.
Israeli leaders have viewed with alarm the tumult that has swept the Middle East, fearing the upheavals will leave it ever more isolated and bring ever greater instability to the region.
But the civil strife in Syria might remove any chance of Damascus rallying to Iran’s side, with President Bashar al-Assad too distracted by his own difficulties to help anyone else.
“The possibility of Syria falling under the bus for Iran was never likely and it is even more probable now that Syria will stay out,” said Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief and head of the Institute for National Security Studies.
The chaos in Syria could also disrupt Hezbollah's supply lines, with much of its arms probably transiting Syrian land.
Some analysts have even questioned whether Hezbollah would opt to sit on the sidelines and preserve its strength.
The two sides clashed in 2006, when Hezbollah shelling drove a sixth of Israel’s population into shelters and Israeli planes pummeled the group's strongholds, killing hundreds.
Hezbollah subsequently decided not to open a second front against Israel in late 2008 when Israeli forces attacked its ally Hamas in Gaza. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah acknowledged last month for the first time that his group received financial and material support from Iran, but said Tehran would not ask for help if attacked.
Without being entirely sure, Israel is working on the assumption that Hezbollah would get involved, regardless.
“The Iranians gave them all these rockets so they would be prepared for exactly this sort of scenario. To assume they would do nothing is giving ourselves too much of a break,” said Herzog, who is an international fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Hamas is another story. A long-standing ally of both Syria and Iran, it has taken a step back from the two states during the Arab Spring and aligned itself more closely with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, making its participation in a war unlikely.
Other militant groups in Gaza, such as the Islamic Jihad, probably would fire off rockets, and the risk of escalation is always possible, but this is not Israel's top concern.
“With all respect to Hamas, when you talk about Syria, Hezbollah and Iran, it is like one drop of rain in the middle of a storm,” said Yadlin.
Yadlin was one of the Israeli pilots who bombed an Iraqi atomic reactor in a secret 1981 mission. Then, as in 2007, when Israel struck an apparent Syrian nuclear reactor under construction, there was no military response.
No one expects similar silence from Iran, and amidst quiet optimism in certain security circles over Israel’s ability to contain any response, others are far less sanguine, foreseeing years of overt and covert hostilities.
“We face a war for generations to come, which would be justified only if we are really convinced that the future of Israel was in danger,” said Yehuda Lancry, a former Israeli ambassador to France and the United Nations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly equated Iran’s nuclear program with the Nazi Holocaust, making clear he sees it as an existential struggle ̶ and one Israel can win.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak has gone so far as to predict that “maybe not even 500” civilians would die in the wake of a strike on Iran. Fewer than 50 Israeli civilians died in the 2006 Lebanon war and 2008-09 Gaza Strip conflict. Around 1,400 Palestinians died in the Gaza hostilities.
A lot could depend on the impact of the initial, risk-filled assault. A comprehensive strike could cow Israel’s opponents. A botched effort would encourage them.
“It depends on how successful the Israeli operation would be. If it is very successful, it will not encourage (Hezbollah and) others to act,” said former security chief Eiland.