For over a decade, I have been saying that there will be no attack on Iran, either by Israel or the United States. Although I maintain that conclusion to this day, I do admit to being 85% certain of it, whereas once I was 95%. Nothing in politics is ever 100% sure, so where once I was as certain as I could be, there is some doubt now.
Into that doubt this week crept a message from a colleague I trust and respect implicitly. They have well-placed sources at very high levels of Israel’s political and military braintrusts. So, while I remain unconvinced, I cannot simply dismiss it.
The issue came up around Israel’s recent decision to seriously ratchet up public pressure on the Obama Administration to attack Iran. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has revived his fearmongering invocations of a “second Holocaust,” while Defense Minister Ehud Barak played an elaborate game with both Israeli and American media to cast the illusion that the US had come around to his and Bibi’s belief that Iran was much closer to acquiring a nuclear weapon than was previously believed. It’s all caused quite a stir in Israel as well.
In essence, these sources said that Bibi and Barak are unhinged on Iran, which is not exactly news. The concern is that the B & B Boys are prepared to go much farther than election year manipulation of the US President. They are open to attacking Iran on their own, and are trying to figure out how to get the military leadership to acquiesce, or short of that, how they might find commanding officers who will support a unilateral strike.
That gave me pause, because it amounts to a coup. And it seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to when, without the US’ military capability, an Israeli attack would, at best, deal a relatively minor setback to Iran’s nuclear capabilities, while accelerating their desire to actually acquire the bomb. To this, sources replied that the Iranian nuclear project was only one target; the other was Israel’s democracy, or what is left of it.
This was a new angle. Under conditions of war, the Prime Minister and Defense Minister will be able to garner much greater power, perhaps crush the dissent that has been brewing in Israel, have a hand in the Occupied Territories that is free of at least domestic pressure from peace and human rights groups, and could isolate and fortify itself against a rapidly changing Arab world.
The idea is horrifying. This would be an Israeli police state. If this is what Bibi and Barak are considering, I don’t think they’d be able to pull it off. But the fact that it would fail doesn’t necessarily mean the B&B Boys wouldn’t still try. Barak, in particular, has no political future, and nothing left to lose. And, while this seems much bolder than anything I’ve come to expect from Bibi, it could be seen as a natural outgrowth of the growing fascist tendencies he has displayed in his second go-round as Prime Minister.
The US certainly seems to be taking seriously the Israeli threat to strike Iran unilaterally. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey bluntly stated that Israel is incapable of destroying Iran’s nuclear program. While that is not a new US assessment, the timing and blunt nature of the statement were clearly meant to send Israel a message: you’re out of your league. The US will decide when and if the time comes to strike, not you. That message is also a warning not to take unilateral action.
So, keeping in mind that people don’t always make the best decisions, or even rational ones, I started to wonder what it would look like if this source was correct. After all, any country, in time of war, is going to rally around the leadership, look to it for protection and, in many cases, grant it powers it would never give in peace time. Perhaps if the B&B Boys’ domestic ambitions were driving this more than I previously thought, they might actually be deluded enough to try this.
The immediate result would obviously be counterattacks either by Iran or Hezbollah, or some combination of the two. And, despite the enmity many Arab leaders feel toward Iran, all of them would cut off relations with Israel, and the diplomatic engagement, already very low, would be reduced to zero. Indeed, pressure will mount in Egypt and Jordan to cut off relations with Israel, especially if the fighting continues for a time and spreads into Lebanon. And should that happen, the already tense situation there, connected to the struggle in Syria, could lead to unpredictable consequences.
Europe is likely to condemn such an action, but the real question is how would the United States respond? An Israeli action of this sort would put President Barack Obama in a very difficult position, and is also likely to do major harm to Israel’s relationship with the US and, yes, even the American Jewish community. Let’s look at each of those questions.
Already, by stirring the pot, the B&B Boys have put considerable pressure on Obama. Barak’s tactic of fabricating a new intelligence report and leaking contents of US intel to the press has angered many in Washington, the President surely among them. He has damaged relations with US diplomats, and that suggests he is gambling for higher stakes. But the pressure on Obama is real, and is certainly intended to goad him toward an attack, or to make him look like he is being unduly cavalier about Iran if he doesn’t. Either action — being painted as “indifferent” to Israeli security needs or spearheading another US military action which would be unpopular in the US, as all polls show — will hurt Obama in November.
If Israel attacks Iran without coordinating with the US, Obama will have a tough decision to make. He would certainly have an excuse not to help Israel in the engagement, and very well might not. If he decides not to, his opponent, Republican Mitt Romney, who is much closer to Netanyahu than the President is, will certainly accuse Obama of hanging Israel out to dry. It seems inconceivable that Obama would not help Israel in its defense against a counterattack. However, that won’t satisfy the right, and may very well allow them to sell the US public on the idea that any help Obama gives Israel is not enough.
But if Obama wins in November, a second-term president who has been royally screwed by Israel’s political fleadership is going to be something very new for Israel and its lobby here in the US. No doubt, the right will continue to blast Obama, but the likely result will be an increase in the polarization around Israel that is just beginning to form in the US. Most Jews will not see that as a positive result, but the real question will be the narrative: will it be understood that Netanyahu caused it, or will the zeitgeist still blame Obama, as it so often has when the subject of the tense relationship between him and Bibi has come up in the past?
An Israeli unilateral attack would be perceived as premature and dangerous by most Americans, but only if the dominant narrative is one that highlights US and Israeli intelligence assessments which universally agree that Iran has not yet made the decision to pursue a nuclear weapon. If Obama sells that idea, Israel will not look good to most Americans, and all the Sheldon Adelson money in the world won’t change that. But if that money, and the hucksters at AIPAC, can convince people that Israel “had no choice” but to attack, it will be a major foreign policy loss for Obama, even if it occurs after the election.
The potential danger for US Jews in this is grave. Too many will realize that Israel pulled the US into the fighting, if that’s what occurs, and they will be faced with a dilemma: hold on to their support for an increasingly anti-democratic Israel and increase the currently very marginal perception that US Jews care more about Israel than their home country or widen the gap between Israel and Diaspora Jewry which has been growing for years.
It’s not the irrationality that makes me doubt this scenario. Nor is it the fact that I believe the Israeli public will not be so easily bulldozed as this theory suggests Bibi and Barak think. No, I doubt this for two reasons. One is practical, the other theoretical.
The practical reason is that I doubt the Israeli military will sit still for actions that pull so much power away from them and into the hands of the Prime Minister. In Israel, the military is much more influential than in most Western countries, and I doubt Bibi can overcome them. The theoretical reason is that I doubt Bibi has the spine for such a disastrous maneuver. Despite his distaste for democracy, Bibi has always been a political creature, one who does not go in for bold moves.
But I will say this: if this scenario is correct, it is the only one I’ve heard yet that makes an Israeli unilateral attack on Iran plausible, because it is the only scenario where the goal is not the destruction of Iran’s nuclear capability, which is beyond Israel’s power. Are Bibi and Barak so reckless and hungry for power that they will put Israel’s relationship with the US and Diaspora Jews at risk, greatly increase the enmity of the entire Arab and Muslim world against them and destroy Israeli democracy just to set back Iran’s nuclear program for a few years?
I don’t think so. But credible and concerned Israelis do. If Israel does go to Iran alone, I’ll know they were right.
Additional note: Enough questions were raised about this piece that I wrote a follow-up explaining my thinking in exploring this issue. You can find that article here.