The moment is fast approaching when Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime
Minister, may have to make the most difficult decision of his career —
whether to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and
risk triggering a conflagration that could spread across the Middle East.

Israeli experts believe the point of no return may be only six months away
when Iran's nuclear programme will have — if it has not already —
metastasised into a multitude of smaller, difficult-to-trace facilities in
deserts and mountains, while its main reactor at Bushehr will have come
online and bombing it would send a radioactive cloud over the Gulf nations.

Mr Netanyahu has consistently called Iran the most serious threat Israel
faces. President Ahmadinejad of Iran has called for Israel to be obliterated
and his Revolutionary Guards supply training, money and weapons to both
Hezbollah in Lebanon, on Israel's northern border, and to Hamas in the Gaza
Strip, whose missiles are believed to be capable of reaching Tel Aviv.

In the run-up to his election this year, Mr Netanyahu promised that "under
my Government, Iran will not be allowed to go nuclear". Yet Mr Ahmadinejad
has promised to produce 20 per cent enriched uranium: a big step towards
weapons-grade fuel.

With the Iranian threat at the front of his strategic thinking, Mr Netanyahu
has surrounded himself with old comrades from Israel's most prestigious
military unit, the Sayeret Matkal, or General Staff Reconnaissance. Mr
Netanyahu served in the elite unit in the 1970s under Ehud Barak, who went
on to become Israel's most decorated soldier and later Prime Minister in his
own right.

When Mr Netanyahu came to power, he made great efforts to recruit his former
commander as Defence Minister. Mr Barak serves with another former leader of
the unit, the Deputy Prime Minister, Moshe "Bogie" Yaalon. The Israeli Prime
Minister has hard-wired his core Cabinet with so much military experience
for a good reason. Striking Iran's nuclear facilities would be a huge
military and political gamble. Although Russia has delayed supplying Iran
with S300 anti-aircraft missiles, which could weaken any Israeli attack, the
air force would have to mount one of its largest long-range attacks to have
a chance of disabling Iran's nuclear installations.

Earlier this year a report by Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic
and International Studies in Washington, warned that "a military strike by
Israel against Iranian nuclear facilities is possible . . . (but) would be
complex and high-risk and would lack any assurances that the overall mission
will have a high success rate".

At roughly the same time, Leon Panetta, the head of the CIA, went on a
covert visit to Israel to seek assurances that the new Government would not
surprise the Obama Administration with a sudden unilateral attack.

In 2007, in what is often seen as a trial run for an attack on Iran, an
Israeli squadron flew undetected through Turkish airspace and over Syria's
unprotected border to destroy what was thought to be a nuclear facility
under construction with Iranian and North Korean support.

In June 2008, the air force staged exercises over the Mediterranean, with
dozens of fighters, bombers and refuelling tankers flying roughly the same
distance as between Israel and Iran. Earlier this year, Israeli jets again
carried out a long-range bombing mission, hitting trucks in Sudan that were
believed to be bringing Iranian weapons to Hamas via Egypt.

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