I finally got to read the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg cover story on the probability of an Israeli attack on Iran. Much has been said on this issue, so I’ll add here just a few observations, from an Israeli perspective.
Goldberg mentions just few of the names of the people he has been talking to, but one can gather that most of them come from the Israeli defense establishment, and some from the government. Goldberg has spoken to Labor hawks such as Ephraim Sneh and Ehud Barak, he has met with PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and with several high ranking generals whose names he doesn’t disclose. From these conversations he concludes that the common belief in Israel is that Iran is a new Nazi Germany, and therefore must be attacked, whatever the price is and as slim as the chances of successfully delaying the nuclear program may be.
The views of Israeli generals and senior officials in the Defense Department on Iran are of great interest, but they should be put in the right context. There are many in Israel who don’t see Iran as an existential threat, or, more precisely, they don’t see it as a different threat than those Israel faced in the past. There are even more who think that the risk in attacking Iran is far greater then the possible benefits.
Israeli Generals have a tendency for creating mass hysteria. Defense Minister Dayan thought in 1973 that the end of Israel has come, and Israel armed its nuclear warheads. Army officials declared in 1991 that Israel should send its air force in respond to the Iraqi missiles fired on Israeli cities. They were wrong. Luckily, the army doesn’t always get what it wants, even in Israel.
President Shimon Peres, the only official not related to the Israeli military complex that was interviewed and quoted by Goldberg, seems very critical of the idea of an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities, and even rejects the attempts to cause the US to attack Iran. But Peres is the exception in Goldberg’s piece, and his words are brought at the end, once the case was established.
In my view, Goldberg might have rushed to adopt some of Netanyahu’s rhetoric, and especially the references to the Holocaust – and then wrongly presented it as the sole view in Israel.
It is this line of thinking, which suggests that rational deterrence theory, or the threat of mutual assured destruction, might not apply in the case of Iran, that has the Israeli government on a knife’s edge. And this is not a worry that is confined to Israel’s right. Even the left-wing Meretz Party, which is harsh in its condemnation of Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians, considers Iran’s nuclear program to be an existential threat.
Reading this, one can conclude that Meretz share Natanyahu’s views on Iran, and even his ideas regarding how Israel should deal with it. Yet Meretz officials have rarely mention Iran, and the party’s platform clearly states that Israel should support negotiations between the international community and Iran, and only if those fail, resort to “methods which will be determined by the Security Council”. I don’t remember any Meretz official expressing any sort of support in an attack on Iran, Israeli or American (If I had to guess, I would say that Goldberg attributed Yossi Beilin’s view on Iran to Meretz, but Beilin was never really a part of Meretz, and he in no way represents the party today. But this is only a hunch).
I’m pretty sure that there are also people in Labor and Kadima, and even in the Likud and the Orthodox parties, who oppose an attack on Iran. I wonder with how many of them Goldberg met.
As for the Israeli public, the little polling that was done on this issue had mixed results at best. Many people quote the poll which had 25 to 30 percent of the Israelis declaring that they would consider leaving the state if Iran gained a nuclear bomb as a proof to the public’s anxiety, but there are different numbers as well. For example, a poll conducted by the Institute for National Security Studies had 80 percent of Israelis declaring the Iranian bomb wouldn’t change their life. This is form Reuters report on the INSS poll, (my Italic):
“The Israeli leadership may be more informed,” INSS research director Yehuda Ben Meir told Reuters, explaining that the discrepancy between public and government views about Iran.
But he added: “I think the Israeli public does not see this as an existential threat, and here there may be an exaggeration by some members of the leadership.
“Most Israelis appear willing to place their bet on Israel’s deterrent capability and, I would add, on Iran’s rational behavior.”
I must say that I also don’t feel a great anxiety in the Israeli public regarding Iran, or at least not what you would expect if Israelis really believed that they are facing a second Holocaust. People don’t discuss this issue so much, and when they do, you don’t get this sense of mass hysteria I got from Goldberg’s article. In fact, the article had me worried: I’m sure Goldberg did a fine job in presenting the views of the Israeli military leadership, and now I feel an Israeli or American attack on Iran might be more probable than I imagined.
There is another issue in the article which bothered me. It seems that Goldberg also adopted Netnayahu’s views regarding the connection, or the lack of one, between the peace process and Iran. According to the Israeli PM, the two issues are not related, and if they are, it’s Iran that is preventing a meaningful dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians from taking place. This is why the Palestinians are hardly mentioned in Goldberg’s piece; as if one can talk about the geo-political game and leave them out (or Syria, for that matter).
But there are those, even in Israel, who view things differently. Many pundits, diplomats and even retired generals, have been arguing for sometime now that a real effort on the Palestinian front will make it much easier for Israel to deal with Iran. It will enable the creation of a coalition that would block Iran’s influence, and help moderate regimes fight the Iranian influence. In the past, top IDF generals made a similar case for peace with Syria, arguing that it would disconnect Iran from one of its major allies and make dealing with Hezbollah much easier.
Israel could have pursued these options. There is a moderate and relatively stable Palestinian leadership in the West Bank. Syria has made several attempts to resume negotiations. The Arab peace initiative is on the table for more then 8 years. Yet Israel made no attempt to create new alliances and reduce tension in ways that could help her face the challenge from Iran.
The question of Iran goes way beyond the chances of sending a few squads on a bombing mission. But even though Jeffrey Goldberg acknowledges that the importance on an Iranian nuclear bomb will be in its effect on the geo-political relations in this region, he doesn’t draw any conclusions regarding Israel’s foreign policy.
If I had spent this much time with PM Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, I would have liked to know the answers to the following question: if Iran is the biggest threat the Jewish people faced since Nazi Germany, why not compromise on other issues – important as those might be – and maybe help reduce this threat, isolate it, or just deal with it on more favorable terms? Why not try getting Syria out of the game, possibly also Lebanon as a result? Why not strike a deal with Abu-Mazen and help legitimize Israel in the Arab world?
For me, the fact that Netanyahu is ready to confront an American president – and with it, the entire international community – so he can build a few more housing units near Nablus or Hebron, shows that deep inside, even he might not be thinking that Israel is facing a new Hitler. If this was the case, everything else had to become unimportant.
Yet he got Jeffrey Goldberg convinced.