Does Israel have options?

The country's leaders don't believe deterrence or diplomacy will work with Iran. But war could be catastrophic

Topics: Israel,

Does Israel have options? Benjamin Netanyahu (Credit: Reuters/Michael Kooren)

The successful attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor in September 2007 inspired an even bolder concept among Israel’s generals — war on Iran to destroy its evolving nuclear complex.

The development of a potential nuclear threat from revolutionary Iran emerged in 2002 and 2003, but its foundation lay in the era of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, when Iran had first shown an interest in becoming a nuclear power.

Wedged between the Arab world and the nuclear giants Russia, China and India (and, soon, Pakistan), Iran would inevitably seek atomic weapons to deter its enemies and extend its hegemony over the Persian Gulf.

For Israel’s military establishment, the loss in 1979 of the shah as a powerful ally in the Muslim world had been a painful blow.

Yitzhak Rabin was the first Israeli leader to warn that the rise of the Islamic Republic of Iran would become Israel’s greatest challenge. And within a decade of that warning, Israeli and Western intelligence agencies had detected a uranium enrichment program that was going to put Iran in position, sooner or later, to produce the fissile material needed to fabricate an atomic bomb.

One of the leading analysts on Iran is the former Mossad chief Shabtai Shavit, who cut his teeth in espionage as a young Farsi-speaking operative in Iran running agents into Iraq from Abadan, the giant refinery town in southwestern Iran. Shavit worked undercover in what was then a British run city. Shavit’s wife also spoke Farsi and accompanied him on his assignment.

Many Israeli intelligence insiders credit Shavit for shifting the focus of the intelligence community to Iran, and his assessment rejects the deep pessimism about the Tehran regime within the military and intelligence establishments. I spoke to him at his home north of Tel Aviv.

“It may be Machiavellian,” Shavit told me, “but the most stable global era was the cold war. Global deterrence was achieved only when the two superpowers reached mutual assured destruction capability. They realized that if you shoot first you are going to be annihilated anyhow. This conviction meant stability and deterrence of the cold war.”

However, Shavit added, “we cannot and should not make comparisons between the global cold war concept of deterrence and the present-day Iran concept” due to the “religious parameters in the equation,” meaning that Iran, as a theocracy, puts decision making in the hands of an “infallible” spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.



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“The decision is taken by one person whom everyone believes has got a direct line with God Almighty,” he pointed out.

The Shiites, Shavit continued, want to return to an imperial Islamic past, a world ruled by a Muslim caliphate, which will come to pass when the Twelfth Imam, the Hidden Imam, reappears. “Muslims need to do what is needed to make him reappear,” Shavit said, and “only after a global [war] on the scale of Armageddon” can this happen.

Here was the logic underlying one of the core assessments inside the Israeli intelligence establishment. As a Mossad chief who advised prime ministers on what to do about Iran, Shavit explained how the worst-case scenario comes to dominate national thinking.

The Ayatollah Khamenei, he said, is a messianic ideologue. “A guy like this who believes in the fate of history — with his finger on the nuclear trigger — once he acquires the capability, is he going to use it? I have no answer and no one I have spoken with could give me an answer.”

I pointed out to Shavit that Khamenei’s mentor, the Ayatollah Khomeini, acted rationally in the long Iran-Iraq War (…1980-88).

Shavit countered that Khomeini ended the war only after sending hundreds of thousands of teenage volunteers — the baseej –to their certain death in battles they could not win. To Shavit, Iran’s ayatollahs did not value life. They would do what is necessary, he said, to bring on the global conflagration in which the Hidden Imam will emerge to rebuild the Islamic empire.

“As a practitioner,” Shavit said, “I have to come to my political leadership and recommend what to do. Can I afford to give a recommendation based on a working assumption that is less than worst case?”

His words made me think of Dayan and the intelligence chiefs under Ben-Gurion. They, too, had reached for the worst-case assessment of Nasser’s intentions in the …1950s, which undermined the efforts of Moshe Sharett to open secret negotiations in Paris to reach an accommodation with Egypt.

“Israel cannot afford except to prepare itself according to the worst case scenario,” Shavit said, leveling his gaze to emphasize the point. “If they [Iran] acquire it [the bomb], they will use it. Okay, maybe they will use coercion first, or other steps in between, but they would not hesitate to use it. Iran is eighty million now, and for them to absorb a nuclear strike is not too high a price for achieving their religious goals.

“This is the nature of the threat, and the world is doing next to nothing,” Shavit complained. “My concern,” he added, “especially after the strike in Syria, is that people will say, `What the heck? Let Israel take care of it.’ ”

And here is where Shavit, like most other Israeli intelligence chiefs, came to his most uncomfortable analytical point — Israel was poorly positioned to attack Iran for a host of reasons, not least that such an attack would trigger a regional war that would be devastating to Israel and the West.

“I believe that if Israel were to undertake it, we would face insurmountable obstacles,” he said. Only America could lead the international community to do the right thing, in his view.

He had convinced himself that deterrence would not work; diplomacy would not work. The only thing that mattered was the worst-case view that Iran’s ayatollahs were in the grip of a messianic, apocalyptic vision, and if they managed to fabricate an atomic bomb, they would launch it against Israel knowing that a retaliatory strike from Israel would annihilate millions of Iranians.

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In December 2006, prime minister Ehud Olmert had said publicly that he could not rule out the possibility of an attack on Iran’s nuclear complex. Key members of Kadima, Mofaz included as the Iranian-born former chief of staff, also warned publicly that if Iran did not forswear nuclear weapons, it would be subject to attack. Ehud Barak flew to Washington to negotiate the upgrading of Israel’s air force so that if the day came, the Israeli military would be equipped with deep-penetration bombs and other hardware necessary to carry out a long-range bombing mission against Iran. The Israeli air force subsequently carried out a massive air force exercise over the Mediterranean to simulate an attack on Iran.

Barak over time became the strongest advocate for keeping a military option on the table for an Israeli strike on Iran. When I went to interview Barak in 2008, he invited me to his luxury apartment nearly forty stories above Tel Aviv, where he looked out on the panorama of Israel’s heavily populated coastline toward Haifa. He wanted to talk about Iran and the strength of the Persian culture. He didn’t believe that Khomeini’s Islamic revolution would prevail over time.

“This was a nation that was there from the dawn of history with a great tradition and heritage, and my instinct tells me that during the third generation” — in other words, the grandchildren of the generation that fomented the Iranian Revolution — “they will throw [the ayatollahs] out, like Russians did to the Communists.

“This revolution will be toppled by its own people,” he said.

It was not well known, but Barak had served in Iran in 1972 as a young captain in the army, most likely part of the contingent of Israeli special forces who entered northern Iraq to train the Kurds as part of the shah’s covert operation to put pressure on Saddam Hussein.

As a military man, Barak looked out at the world and saw the convergence of three large threats: terrorism fomented by Islamic extremism, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and reckless behavior by rogue states such as North Korea. Barak was not one to dawdle talking about diplomacy or about “soft” power or past efforts to formulate rapprochement with states such as Iran.

“I can hardly see any stable world order if Iran turns nuclear,” Barak said. “Not because they will immediately drop a bomb on a neighbor. Too many neighbors are nuclear and they fully understand what might follow. But because it will be the end of any antiproliferation regime. If Iran will turn nuclear, we can end up with a nuclear Saudi Arabia” or a nuclear Egypt or a nuclear Turkey.

His big nuclear worry was the clandestine delivery of a crude nuclear explosive in a shipping container that could detonate at a major Israeli port, or in Rotterdam, the major oil port on Europe’s coast, or in the United States.

My interview with Barak took place shortly after Barack Obama and John McCain had been nominated to represent their parties in the presidential election of 2008. By then, Barak had met with both of them.

“I told McCain and Obama, and earlier Bush and even his father and Cheney at that time — for years I am arguing — that we are in a way in a major historical struggle against a triad of challenges [terror, proliferation, and rogue states].” And when it came to Iran, Barak said he was pressing for more robust sanctions backed up by the threat of a military strike.

There was little room for diplomacy in Barak’s world. As Gadi Baltiansky had said, Barak was not interested in the Arab or Muslim worlds, except to prevail over them strategically. He had the mind of a chekist.

“I told [Obama and McCain] very honestly that we do not remove any option from the table, and when we say it, we mean it,” he said. “I didn’t try to pretend that there is a decision [to bomb Iran] or a date, or a way by which it will be executed, but when we say we don’t remove any option from the table, we just mean it.”

The military and intelligence chiefs knew that Israel’s only chance to head off Iran’s nuclear project in the long run was to galvanize the international community against it, but Israel remained largely isolated. More than ever it needed a visionary leader to make the case that a line had to be drawn in Iran. And Olmert, who would soon be under indictment, was never going to be that leader.

On a trip to Germany on December 11th, Olmert had stumbled badly by admitting that Israel, like Russia, China, and the United States, possessed nuclear weapons. The Jewish state had never made such an admission publicly and Olmert was embarrassed because in flubbing his lines, he reminded Israelis how Eshkol had not seemed fit to serve as commander in chief on the eve of the Six-Day War. Olmert was snakebit as a leader. He could not articulate Israel’s national strategy. He seemed ever the amateur, a front man with a chamber of commerce grin.

In September 2007, Israel’s attorney general announced he was opening yet another criminal investigation over the favorable financing under which Olmert had purchased his home in Jerusalem. This was followed by allegations that Olmert had taken envelopes stuffed with cash totaling $150,000 from an American Jewish supporter, Morris Talansky, and Talansky later testified about what he had done.

- – - – - – - – - -

Olmert responded by working even more intensely for a breakthrough with the Palestinians. He had help from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and President Bush, both of whom seemed as desperate as Olmert to shore up their own legacies on the peacemaking side of the ledger.

At Annapolis, Maryland, in late November, the Americans helped to orchestrate the drafting and signing of a short text setting out terms to open negotiations on Palestinian statehood. With fanfare, Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, ratified the text and, in the weeks and months that followed, Olmert tried repeatedly to close the gaps that had frustrated Clinton in the final days of his presidency when he had proposed a set of “parameters” for a deal on Palestinian statehood to Arafat and Barak, who was then prime minister.

Olmert hoped — naively, given his precarious legal circumstance — that he could strike a bargain that would astound the world and somehow overcome the state prosecutors who were pursuing him.

But Olmert’s diplomacy produced no result. It seemed as if all of the momentum in Israel belonged to the military and intelligence establishments, which were waging a new kind of war in the Middle East.

- – - – - – - – - -

If there was one militant in the world whom both Israel and the United States wanted dead, it was forty-five-year-old Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah underground commander who for almost twenty-five years had the blood of hundreds of Americans, Israelis, and Arabs on his hands. A Shiite from Beirut’s suburbs, Mughniyeh had come of age during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon; he had trained with Arafat’s Force 17th brigade.

After the PLO left Beirut, he had migrated into the Iranian-backed Shiite militias, where he had soon established himself as an effective agent of terror against the West.

Mughniyeh was believed to be the mastermind of the truck-bombing spree of …1983 that killed dozens of American diplomats, 59 French peacekeepers, and 240 American marines; his guerrillas in Beirut had kidnapped Westerners and chained them to radiators or tortured them to death. Only Osama bin Laden had killed more Americans.

Mughniyeh recruited suicide bombers — young Shiite men willing to die behind the wheel of a car or truck loaded with explosives — and he would launch them like human torpedoes at Western and Israeli targets, including the devastating strike on the Israeli army headquarters in Tyre in November …1983, where twenty-nine Israelis died.

Over the years, Mughniyeh had changed his profile, perhaps with cosmetic surgery. One photograph revealed him in military fatigues, bespectacled and with a thoughtful countenance. He was heavier than he had appeared in grainy photos circulated during the 1980s. A beard covered his ample jowls under a military cap. He would be difficult to pick out of a crowd on the streets of South Beirut.

In early 2008, Mughniyeh came under surveillance in Damascus by intelligence agents possibly recruited by the Israelis. Damascus was lethal territory for Mossad. Ever since the capture and execution of Mossad spy Eli Cohen in the 1960s, the agency had been reluctant to operate its own officers inside Syria. It seems more likely that Mossad had established a network of Syrian Druze, Kurd, or Arab agents who could track Mughniyeh.

Yet the provenance of the operation remained murky for the obvious reason that sources and methods were being protected. Some reports suggested that Mughniyeh was attending a reception at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to Syria; others said he was meeting with Syrian intelligence chiefs at a headquarters in the same fashionable suburb of Damascus. What ever Mughniyeh was doing there, when he left the meeting between 10:30 and 11 p.m., he got into his Mitsubishi Pajero without suspecting that he was in danger. Just then, the driver’s-side headrest exploded.

The force of the blast hurled Mughniyeh’s body out of the car. He was dead when he hit the pavement.

“The resistance has lost one of its pillars,” said Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, the leading Shiite cleric of Beirut, who was once considered to be Hezbollah’s spiritual leader.

Many Israelis believed that Mossad was behind the operation and that Israel was waging a new-style war, the kind that endeavored not to leave Israeli fingerprints. This was the kind of war about which Avi Dichter, the former Shabak chief, and Aharon Ze’evi Farkash, the former military intelligence chief, had spoken — anonymous assassination and silent, untraceable acts of war.

Only months later, in August, a Syrian general was assassinated by a sniper ring from the deck of a yacht off the Syrian coastal city of Tartus. Brigadier General Mohammed Suleiman was said to have been in charge of supplying Hezbollah with modern weapons. Again, Israeli intelligence was suspected, but Olmert’s government remained  officially silent.

Meir Dagan, the Mossad director who had gained his reputation as a clever and brutal operator under Sharon during the 1970s in the Gaza Strip, suddenly was in the national spotlight. The Israeli press hinted that Dagan had been tasked not only to wage war against Hezbollah and Hamas but also to open a new front against Iran in an effort to disrupt Tehran’s bid to become a nuclear power.

- – - – - – - – - -

Olmert was going down like the Titanic, bow first but in a drama of gradual inundation that carried long into the political night.  There was frantic chamber music on deck and much scurrying about in search of lifeboats — and a paucity of valor.

The prime minister had announced in July 2008 that he would give up the chairmanship of Kadima and step aside so a new party leader could form a government, a step that short- circuited any requirement for new elections. If it worked, it would keep Netanyahu at bay.

On September, Kadima’s delegates were set to make their choice. The day before the vote, Olmert summoned Mahmoud Abbas secretly to the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem. Olmert spread out a map of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. He said he was putting an offer of Palestinian statehood on the table that was new and historic.

Under the terms he proposed, Israel would withdraw from all but 6.3 percent of the West Bank. The Palestinian state would receive an equivalent amount of land from Israel as compensation for the 6.3 percent Israel retained. To join the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel would build a twenty-five-mile tunnel through the Negev Desert.

The capital of Palestine would be the Arab portion of Jerusalem, but the Old City, including the sacred mosques of the Noble Sanctuary and Temple Mount, would be governed under an international consortium. Five thousand displaced Palestinians would be allowed to return to Israel proper. The rest would move to the Palestinian state or take compensation and relocate elsewhere.

Abbas stared across the table at Olmert, who was trying to conceal the desperation he must have felt. His premiership was in its final hours. Even a peace agreement with Abbas might not save him; indeed, it might lead to a government collapse and a rejection of the terms Olmert had offered. The thin reed that Olmert was grasping was his belief that an Olmert-Abbas accord would render the world awestruck, that the Bush administration would immediately embrace it, and that the seismic magnitude of peace would overpower the poisonous politics of the right wing and create a centrist, pro-peace majority where none had existed since Rabin’s time.

Olmert could even call a special election to ratify peace.

Abbas sat there silently, evaluating where he and Olmert stood.

When he spoke, he told the Israeli leader that he could not decide immediately. The gaps were still large and questions hung in the air about a myriad of details. Abbas needed time.

“I told him he was making a historic mistake,” Olmert later wrote. Abbas repeated that he needed time to consult.

“No,” Olmert said, perhaps surprising his guest with his bluntness. “Take the pen and sign now. You will never get a more fair or just offer.”

Still nothing.

“Even in another fifty years there will not be a government in Israel that will offer you what I offered,” Olmert insisted.

The irony was that Olmert’s government was not making the offer, only a prime minister so weakened by failure and persistent allegations of corruption that his political obituary was nearly set in type. The offer was conveyed in private because Olmert’s terms for peace were toxic to his coalition. Uprooting Jewish settlers and dividing Jerusalem was anathema to the Shas Party, whose leader, Eli Yishai, had put Olmert on notice that he would bring down any government that tried to divide Jerusalem.

- – - – - – - – - -

The next day, all eyes turned to Tzipi Livni, who narrowly prevailed in the vote by Kadima’s seventy thousand party members. She defeated Shaul Mofaz, the former chief of staff, and she trounced Avi Dichter, Sharon’s favorite Shabak chief, who had elevated assassination to an art form.

But it was not Livni’s destiny to lead the Jewish state, not yet, in any case. Her very interest in peace with the Palestinians contributed to her failure to form a viable coalition that could muster 61 votes in the 120 member Knesset. The Shas Party wanted her word never to divide Jerusalem. Livni refused to tie her own hands in advance.

After weeks of negotiations, only deadlock was apparent. New national elections would have to be called for early 2009…. Kadima’s sabras could put it off no longer. They would have to face Netanyahu in a national contest.

Livni’s failure provided another reprieve for Olmert.

He was now a caretaker prime minister until a new government could be formed after elections in February, 2009, five months hence. Seldom had a foundering hulk tarried so long above the waves. Olmert had wanted to go out as a peacemaker, but his final months were another buildup for war.

The Hamas takeover of Gaza had put the militant heirs of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin under great pressure. Many Gazans chafed at Hamas’s harsh treatment of Fatah loyalists. Hamas fundamentalism was not popular. Hamas’s rocket war on the Israelis seemed counterproductive. The projectiles had virtually no military utility. In thousands of firings over seven years, Hamas had killed a dozen Israelis. Still, the rocketeers got on the news almost every night. They caused scenes of panic at Israeli elementary schools, day-care centers, hospitals, and markets in the towns just beyond Gaza’s frontier.

In June 2008, Hamas’s leaders had agreed to a cease-fire. The pact was informal, brokered through the Egyptians, but it held for months, giving respite to the Israelis living near the perimeter of Gaza. Then Barak approved an incursion into Gaza on November 4, which undermined the calm. Israeli military bulldozers burst across the Gaza frontier to shut down a tunnel complex that provided an infiltration route for militants seeking to kill or abduct Israeli soldiers. The incursion touched off a freight in which a Hamas fighter was killed. A spokesman for the group called the raid a “massive breach of the truce,” and Hamas launched dozens of rockets and mortars into the Israeli Negev in retaliation.

Israel responded with air strikes, one of which killed five more Hamas fighters.

“They cannot leave us drowning in blood while they sleep soundly in their beds,” the Hamas spokesman told journalists.

The confrontation with Hamas took place on a political stage where Olmert, Barak, Livni, and Mofaz took increasingly militant positions, and as Netanyahu, speaking from the opposition bench of the Knesset, ridiculed them for failure.

It was a political climate predisposed to war, and Hamas relished the prospect of a clash.

One final spark came from Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus. He abruptly called off further negotiation to restore the truce. A new wave of Hamas rocket fire arched out of Gaza.

On December 25th, 2008, Olmert issued a final warning. Appearing on al-Arabiya, the Arabic-language satellite channel, he said, “I am telling them now, it may be the last minute, I’m telling them, `Stop it. We are stronger.’”

It was the kind of statement Rabin might once have made when he believed that the only thing that mattered was military power, and since the Palestinians had none, their resistance could be crushed.

The war on Gaza commenced two days later.

It began with an air campaign of one hundred warplanes and attack helicopters striking a single target each in the span of 220 seconds just before noon on December 27.

Gaza thundered with deafening percussion. Buildings dissolved in explosions whose shock waves leveled everything in a blast radius that numbed the senses of civilians running for cover. A great convection of smoke, ash, and human anguish rose darkly from the southern horizon as millions of Israelis went about their business a half hour away from the war zone. Thirty minutes after the opening wave, another sixty aircraft hit sixty additional targets, and the waves just kept coming. In the opening day of the war, 230 Palestinians were killed and more than 700 injured, one of the deadliest death tolls for a single day since 1948.

Forty Hamas police cadets were killed when their graduation ceremony was targeted with a massive bomb strike. Over the next three weeks, as President-elect Obama and the rest of the world looked on, the Israeli military destroyed four thousand buildings and killed hundreds of Hamas militants in a campaign that enjoyed wide support at home.

Israeli ground forces rolled into the strip on January 3, and fought running battles into the neighborhoods of Gaza City until January 17, when Olmert declared a unilateral cease-fire, saying that Israel’s military objectives had been met. With Gaza flattened, Israel had made its point of intolerance for rocket attacks.

The truth was, no one in the Israeli leadership wanted the war to carry on into the inauguration ceremonies in the United States. Hamas and Gaza’s civilian population had absorbed a devastating blow. Much of the international community was appalled by Israel’s use of disproportionate force.

Cries of massacre and excessive force went up in the Arab world and among human rights organizations. Israelis countered tenaciously that they had had no choice but to defend their civilian population from the continual stream of rockets and mortars being fired from Gaza. No country could tolerate an adjoining frontier being used to send rockets into schools and playgrounds. Hamas replied that it had no choice but to attack Israel in response to economic embargo, the closure of its territory, and frequent Israeli attacks that caused widespread Palestinian suffering.No people could tolerate asphyxiation by a neighboring oppressive power that had carried out a forty-year occupation. Israel countered that Hamas was a terrorist state, dedicated to Israel’s destruction….It just went on and on.

Israel’s war on Gaza was another war of choice, but what did it change? Many Israelis convinced themselves that Hamas had been taught a lesson, but Hamas staged only a tactical retreat, as Hezbollah had, taking its time to rearm and to rebuild its networks, preparing to fight another day. The Gaza War was Olmert’s last act.

Another militant sabra had hit the wall after a binge of violence, only to discover, too late, that accommodation with the Arabs was possible for a strong prime minister willing to rebuild the coalition for peace. Olmert never really had a chance. He failed the test of leadership in the conduct of the Second Lebanon War, and he seemed to be failing the test of personal integrity amid the skein of corruption indictments that enveloped him. (On July 12, 2012, Olmert was acquitted of corruption charges in two major cases. He was convicted of a lesser charge of “breach of trust” in a third and was still facing charges that he accepted bribes, while serving as mayor of Jerusalem, in connection with a major residential project.)

His premiership would not be remembered for any milestone of diplomacy, even though he had envisioned himself greeting the king of Saudi Arabia and other Arab heads of state in a new dawn of negotiation that would also bring to life a Palestinian state. He simply could not move the Israelis where he wanted them to go.

- – - – - – - – - -

The Zionist movement had survived the onslaught of world wars, the Holocaust, and clashes of ideology, but in the modern era of statehood, Israel seemed incapable of fielding a generation of leaders who could adapt to the times, who were dedicated to ending the occupation and, thus, their isolation, or to changing the paradigm of military preeminence.

The great training ground of the twentieth century on which Chaim Weizmann, Ben-Gurion, Sharett, Eshkol, and Meir had shaped their ideology of Jewish nationhood, of democratic governance and integration with other Semitic peoples, seemed lost to the second and third generations. Engagement had been one of the touchstones of the Zionist mainstream, but it had been all but abandoned. The rise of Israeli militarism overtook every competing sentiment, contributing to a radicalization of the Arabs. The cold war and Islamic resurgence did the rest.

Israel stood alone as a regional superpower, a fortress of martial capability, but the Israelis were powerless to influence the region to which they had made a great migration during the twentieth century and where, in a new century, a broad new political awakening was afoot.

Excerpted from “Fortress Israel: The Inside Story of the Military Elite Who Run the Country — and Why They Can’t Make Peace” by Patrick Tyler, published in September 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright ©2012 by Patrick Tyler. All rights reserved.

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