The debate over what kind of capability to give to Israel — and how quickly — is an old one in Washington. In 2008, President George W. Bush deflected requests from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for specialized bunker-busting bombs and the B-2 bomber, and to rent about 10 flying tankers, which Mr. Olmert said would be needed in any Israeli attack on Iran’s main nuclear complex at Natanz. Part of the operation would have involved borrowing U.S. refueling capabilities.
Vice President Dick Cheney argued at the time that the United States should give Israel exactly what it sought, but he lost the argument, Bush administration officials later said. Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney allude to the episode in their memoirs, but they do not mention that they told the Israelis that they were authorizing covert action intended to sabotage Iran’s effort with a new generation of cyberweapons.
That program, code-named Olympic Games, ultimately became the joint Israeli-American effort that produced the Stuxnet worm and ultimately destroyed more than a thousand Iranian centrifuges.
Israel later developed other capabilities and trained for them. On several occasions during the Obama administration, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel was on the brink of ordering a strike, according to Israeli officials and a Times interview with Mr. Netanyahu in 2019. But the prime minister backed off at the last minute, in large part because of fear of an irreparable breach with Washington.
But in 2017, when the Israeli air force determined that it needed to replacing its refueling planes, Mr. Netanyahu’s government did not immediately place an order. Iran’s nuclear program seemed under control — largely because it had shipped 97 percent of its nuclear fuel out of the country under the 2015 agreement that Mr. Netanyahu had vociferously opposed. Training for strikes against Iran slowed.
They have been revived. Israeli planners, according to several current and former officials, believe that if they do conduct an attack, it will take many repeated bombings of some of the facilities — especially Fordow, a fuel enrichment center buried deep in a mountain on an Iranian military base. But time will be short, they contend, and so they would have to refuel quickly.
U.S. officials say that they do not believe an attack is imminent and that they think Mr. Bennett, in so publicly preparing for military action, may be seeking far tougher terms in an ultimate deal between Iran and the West.
David E. Sanger and Helene Cooper reported from Washington, and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.