What kind of coercion is it when the guy with the gun says: “Do this or I’ll shoot myself in the head?” Not much at all, unless you believe that Israel is hell bent on inflicting great pain on itself, as Seymour Hersh implied back in 1991, in The Samson Option: Israel’s Nuclear Arsenal and American Foreign Policy. Despite the fact that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and a panoply of American backers of Israel have ratcheted up their much-hyped threat to bomb Iran, doing so would explode in Israel’s face. Which is why it won’t happen.
How so? For starters, by attacking Iran – even in the midst of a U.S. election campaign – Israel would run the risk of angering and alienating Washington, its main patron, in a manner likely to forever change the U.S.-Israeli relationship for the worse. Second, with nearly the entire Israeli national security establishment strongly opposed to striking Iran, Netanyahu and Barak would isolate themselves politically, collapse their own government, and perhaps propel a much more dovish coalition into power. Third, striking Iran would trigger devastating counterattacks from Tehran and its allies, including the well-armed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, leading to hundreds if not thousands of Israel civilian casualties. Fourth, already isolated internationally, Israel would turn itself into a global pariah, a kind of rogue state blamed for the subsequent spike in oil prices, economic carnage, and military conflict in and around the Persian Gulf that could roil the region for a decade or more.
Perhaps most important, nearly all military analysts, in Washington and in Israel itself, believe that even an all-out Israeli attack on Iran would not eliminate its ability to produce a nuclear weapon, Indeed, as Martin Dempsey, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated last week, “I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.” Worse, as Israel knows, an attack would solidify the power of hawks in Iran’s government.
Not to mention that Iran has no bomb, it isn’t likely to get one for a few years (even if that’s Iran’s intention), and it has no means of delivering a weapon – meaning that the dire threat that Israel says might require a unilateral strike doesn’t exist.
Still, that hasn’t dissuaded Netanyahu and Barak from scaremongering about Iran, nor did it prevent a former Mossad chief, Efraim Halevy, from declaring that Iran should “be very fearful of the next 12 weeks,” i.e., between now and the November Presidential election in the United States.
So, why have Israel’s leaders escalated their rhetoric in recent weeks to a fever pitch? Because they, and their allies – including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its spinoff, the Washington Institution for Near East Policy (WINEP), and other, likeminded groups and think tanks – believe that even an outlandish set of threats against Iran can accomplish important objectives for Netanyahu.
What objectives? Let’s consider them in turn.
First, by beating the war drums on Iran since 2009, Netanyahu has succeeded in shifting the world’s focus, including that of the Obama administration, from the Israel-Palestine question to Iran. On taking office, President Obama appointed an experienced, senior U.S. official, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, to lead a concerted effort to restart the peace process. That effort is now dead and buried, and when Mitt Romney recently visited Israel, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was barely even mentioned.
Second, by threatening to attack Iran, Israel hopes to compel the United States and the European Union to impose ever-stricter sanctions on Iran, even to the point where the least-common-denominator unity among the P5+1 world powers – the United States, China, Russia, Great Britain, France and Germany – breaks apart.
And third, Israel hopes that by injecting Iran into the presidential campaign in the United States it can blackmail the United States – Democrats and Republicans alike – to give Israel what it wants.
Much of this was stated, quite explicitly, in a New York Times op-ed by Dennis Ross, an official at WINEP who, until earlier this year, was Obama’s chief adviser on the Middle East. To forestall an Israeli attack –or, in Ross’s own words, “in order to give Israel’s leaders a reason to wait,” – the United States “should ask Israeli leaders if there are military capabilities we could provide them with — like additional bunker-busting bombs, tankers for refueling aircraft and targeting information — that would extend the clock for them” and make “firm commitments” to supply Israel with “weapons, munitions, spare parts, military and diplomatic backing.” In addition, Ross warns, the United States must “signal to both Israel and Iran that we mean what we say about all options being on the table.” All this, according to Ross, “in return for Israel’s agreement to postpone any attack until next year.”
Nowhere in his op-ed, or in an interview with Al-Monitor, does Ross suggest that Israel’s rhetoric on Iran is overblown or irresponsible.
But that isn’t true in Israel proper, where opposition leaders, top military and intelligence officials, and even President Shimon Peres are lining up against attacking Iran and, at the same time, slamming Netanyahu and Barak for brandishing the threat of war. Outside of those two hawks, the majority of Israel’s cabinet and virtually all of its top national security officials are on record opposing war with Iran, according to Yediot Aharanot, a conservative Israeli newspaper, which based its reporting, in part, on discussions between U.S. and Israel officials. “Officials in Washington recently named Israel’s top security echelon as opponents to a military operation that would exclude the United States. The unnamed U.S. sources said Israeli army chief, military intelligence chief, Air Force commander and Mossad chief objected to a solo Israeli military strike on Iran,” Yediot reported.
Shaul Mofaz, the leader of the opposition Kadima party, flatly accused Netanyahu of scaremongering: “Mr. Prime Minister, you’re creating panic,” he said. “You are trying to frighten us and terrify us. And in truth, we are scared: scared by your lack of judgment, scared that you both lead and don’t lead, scare[d] that you are executing a dangerous and irresponsible policy.”
In addition, President Peres – backed by former president, Yitzhak Navon – told an interviewer that Israel should trust President Obama and resist going it alone in attacking Iran. “It’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone,” said Peres.
Last week, another effort to raise the temperature by Defense Minister Barak backfired. Barak – responding to a report in Haaretz, an Israeli daily – said that a new U.S. intelligence report is “being passed around senior offices” in Washington alleging that Iran is much closer than previously thought to acquiring a nuclear weapon. The original Haaretz report said, “President Barack Obama recently received a new National Intelligence Estimate report on the Iranian nuclear program, which shares Israel’s view that Iran has made surprising, significant progress toward military nuclear capability, Western diplomats and Israeli officials have informed Haaretz.” Added Barak, “As far as we know it brings the American assessment much closer to ours. … It makes the Iranian issue even more urgent and (shows it is) less clear and certain that we will know everything in time about their steady progress toward military nuclear capability.”
In Israel, however, Barak was excoriated for speaking out of turn about U.S. intelligence reports that may or may not exist, and anyway U.S. officials shot down the Haaretz report, insisting, “We believe that there is time and space to continue to pursue a diplomatic path, backed by growing international pressure on the Iranian government. We continue to assess that Iran is not on the verge of achieving a nuclear weapon.”
Netanyahu and Barak were slammed in an unusually strong editorial in the New York Times on August 13. “Israeli leaders are again talking about possible military action against Iran. This is, at best, mischievous and, at worst, irresponsible, especially when diplomacy has time to run,” said the Times.
Gary Sick, a professor at Columbia University who served as President Jimmy Carter’s chief adviser on Iran, laid out several reasons why an attack by Israel against Iran would be both catastrophic and counterproductive, and he added: “It is worth remembering that Israel acquires significant leverage from this constant perception of imminent war. By keeping the Iranian nuclear case at the forefront of the world’s media, political leaders everywhere are more likely to pay a price in the form of lost revenues and political sparring with Iran, rather than facing the calamity of an outright war.”
Sadly, the fact is that Israel’s Iran scare might work. President Obama may make additional concessions to Israel, on top of recent tougher sanctions, and his opponent, Mitt Romney, is likely to make promises to Israel that will tie his hands if he is elected in November. In the meantime, neither candidate can be expected to say anything at all about negotiations to create a Palestinian state. And the United States might accelerate its military buildup in the Persian Gulf.
As Amos Yadlin, a hawkish former chief of Israel’s military intelligence service, outlined in an op-ed in the Washington Post, there are several steps that the United States can take right now to calm Israel’s nerves and delay an attack. Among them, he wrote, “Washington should signal its intentions via a heightened U.S. military presence in the Gulf, military exercises with Middle East allies and missile defense deployment in the region.” If not, well, Netanyahu and Barak may decide to unleash hell’s hounds.