Welcome to the point of no returnJeffrey Goldberg has a lengthy article in the Atlantic's upcoming print edition about the possibility that Israel will attack Iran. I'll have some highlights of it but first Jeffrey Goldberg asks Christopher Hitchens to put himself in the shoes of the Israeli prime minister.
Let's go to the videotape.
Goldberg's article is here. Here are some highlights and comments (Hat Tip: Memeorandum).
What is more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran—possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq’s airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft. (It’s so crowded, in fact, that the United States Central Command, whose area of responsibility is the greater Middle East, has already asked the Pentagon what to do should Israeli aircraft invade its airspace. According to multiple sources, the answer came back: do not shoot them down.)Note that the call won't even go to Obama - I think Jeffrey may be overstepping on that one. But he's right that if Israel does this, we won't ask permission from the US, because we know we would never get it. And having asked and been turned down would put us in an entirely different position.
In these conversations, which will be fraught, the Israelis will tell their American counterparts that they are taking this drastic step because a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people. The Israelis will also state that they believe they have a reasonable chance of delaying the Iranian nuclear program for at least three to five years. They will tell their American colleagues that Israel was left with no choice. They will not be asking for permission, because it will be too late to ask for permission.
Netanyahu does not place great faith in sanctions—not the relatively weak sanctions against Iran recently passed by the United Nations Security Council, nor the more rigorous ones being put in place by the U.S. and its European allies. Those close to him say that Netanyahu understands, however, that President Obama, with whom he has had a difficult and intermittently frigid—though lately thawing—relationship, believes that stringent sanctions, combined with various enticements to engage with the West, might still provide Iran with what one American administration official described to me as “a dignified off-ramp for Tehran to take.”Although I did a post a couple of weeks ago where I blogged an article that argued that Obama would stop Iran if it was obvious they would destroy his goal of ending nuclear proliferation, I find that hard to believe. I don't believe Obama is constitutionally capable of waging the kind of all-out war that would be required against Iran. I don't believe he is capable of inflicting the civilian casualties that would be inflicted in such a war. And I don't believe he's capable of doing that where he doesn't see that war as a war for his or his country's existence. And that's where Israel is different because we understand that a war with Iran is an existential necessity for us, no matter how many times Netanyahu tries - in vain - to convince the world that it's not just our problem.
But, based on my conversations with Israeli decision-makers, this period of forbearance, in which Netanyahu waits to see if the West’s nonmilitary methods can stop Iran, will come to an end this December. Robert Gates, the American defense secretary, said in June at a meeting of NATO defense ministers that most intelligence estimates predict that Iran is one to three years away from building a nuclear weapon. “In Israel, we heard this as nine months from June—in other words, March of 2011,” one Israeli policy maker told me. “If we assume that nothing changes in these estimates, this means that we will have to begin thinking about our next step beginning at the turn of the year.”
The Netanyahu government is already intensifying its analytic efforts not just on Iran, but on a subject many Israelis have difficulty understanding: President Obama. The Israelis are struggling to answer what is for them the most pressing question: are there any circumstances under which President Obama would deploy force to stop Iran from going nuclear? Everything depends on the answer.
[W]ould Netanyahu, a prime minister with an acute understanding of the essential role America plays in securing the existence of Israel (Netanyahu is a graduate of both Cheltenham High School, outside Philadelphia, and MIT, and is the most Americanized prime minister in Israel’s history, more so even than the Milwaukee-raised Golda Meir), actually take a chance on permanently alienating American affection in order to make a high-risk attempt at stopping Iran? If Iran retaliates against American troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, the consequences for Israel’s relationship with America’s military leadership could be catastrophic. (Of course, Netanyahu would be risking more than his relationship with the United States: a strike on Iran, Israeli intelligence officials believe, could provoke all-out retaliation by Iran’s Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah, which now possesses, by most intelligence estimates, as many as 45,000 rockets—at least three times as many as it had in the summer of 2006, during the last round of fighting between the group and Israel.)Yet another reason for all Israelis to pray for Ben Zion's health and well being....
“The only reason Bibi [Netanyahu] would place Israel’s relationship with America in total jeopardy is if he thinks that Iran represents a threat like the Shoah,” an Israeli official who spends considerable time with the prime minister told me. “In World War II, the Jews had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us. Six million were slaughtered. Today, 6 million Jews live in Israel, and someone is threatening them with annihilation. But now we have the power to stop them. Bibi knows that this is the choice.”
Numerous Israeli commentators and analysts have pointed out to me that Netanyahu is not unique in his understanding of this challenge; several of the prime ministers who preceded him cast Iran’s threat in similarly existential terms. Still, Netanyahu is different. “He has a deep sense of his role in Jewish history,” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, told me.
To understand why Netanyahu possesses this deep sense—and why his understanding of Jewish history might lead him to attack Iran, even over Obama’s objections—it is necessary to understand Ben-Zion Netanyahu, his 100-year-old father.
BEN-ZION NetanyAHU—his first name means “son of Zion”—is the world’s foremost historian of the Spanish Inquisition and a onetime secretary to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the intractable, “revisionist” branch of Zionism. He is father to a tragic Israeli hero, Yonatan Netanyahu, who died while freeing the Jewish hostages at Entebbe in 1976; and also father to Benjamin, who strives for greatness in his father’s eyes but has, on occasion, disappointed him, notably when he acquiesced, in his first term as prime minister in the late 1990s, to American pressure and withdrew Israeli forces from much of the West Bank city of Hebron, Judaism’s second-holiest city. Benjamin Netanyahu is not known in most quarters for his pliability on matters concerning Palestinians, though he has been trying lately to meet at least some of Barack Obama’s demands that he move the peace process forward.
“Always in the back of Bibi’s mind is Ben-Zion,” one of the prime minister’s friends told me. “He worries that his father will think he is weak.”
Ben-Zion Netanyahu’s most important work, The Origins of the Inquisition in 15th-Century Spain, upended the scholarly consensus on the roots of that bleak chapter in Jewish history. He argued that Spanish hatred of Jews was spurred by the principle of limpieza de sangre, or the purity of blood; it was proto-Nazi thought, in other words, not mere theology, that motivated the Inquisition. Ben-Zion also argued that the Inquisition corresponds to the axiom that anti-Semitic persecution is preceded, in all cases, by carefully scripted and lengthy dehumanization campaigns meant to ensure the efficient eventual elimination of Jews. To him, the lessons of Jewish history are plain and insistent.Do I need to go on?
The challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack, Netanyahu told me. “Several bad results would emanate from this single development. First, Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one. Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph.A year ago, Haaretz published a survey that said that 23% of all Israelis would move elsewhere if we are faced with a nuclear Iran.
“You’d create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area,” he went on. An Iran with nuclear weapons would also attempt to persuade Arab countries to avoid making peace with Israel, and it would spark a regional nuclear-arms race. “The Middle East is incendiary enough, but with a nuclear-arms race, it will become a tinderbox,” he said.
Other Israeli leaders believe that the mere threat of a nuclear attack by Iran—combined with the chronic menacing of Israel’s cities by the rocket forces of Hamas and Hezbollah—will progressively undermine the country’s ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens. Ehud Barak, the defense minister, told me that this is his great fear for Israel’s future.
“The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality,” he said. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people want to come here.” This vision is threatened by Iran and its proxies, Barak said. “Our young people can consciously decide to go other places,” if they dislike living under the threat of nuclear attack. “Our best youngsters could stay out of here by choice.”
Patriotism in Israel runs very high, according to numerous polls, and it seemed unlikely to me that mere fear of Iran could drive Israel’s Jews to seek shelter elsewhere. But one leading proponent of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Ephraim Sneh, a former general and former deputy defense minister, is convinced that if Iran crossed the nuclear threshold, the very idea of Israel would be endangered. “These people are good citizens, and brave citizens, but the dynamics of life are such that if someone has a scholarship for two years at an American university and the university offers him a third year, the parents will say, ‘Go ahead, remain there,’” Sneh told me when I met with him in his office outside of Tel Aviv not long ago. “If someone finishes a Ph.D. and they are offered a job in America, they might stay there. It will not be that people are running to the airport, but slowly, slowly, the decision-making on the family level will be in favor of staying abroad. The bottom line is that we would have an accelerated brain drain. And an Israel that is not based on entrepreneurship, that is not based on excellence, will not be the Israel of today.”
One question no administration official seems eager to answer is this: what will the United States do if sanctions fail? Several Arab officials complained to me that the Obama administration has not communicated its intentions to them, even generally. No Arab officials I spoke with appeared to believe that the administration understands the regional ambitions of their Persian adversary. One Arab foreign minister told me that he believes Iran is taking advantage of Obama’s “reasonableness.”The perception here is exactly the same on that score: Obama seems clueless as to how and why and when deterrence works. A small lesson in how it works is the aftermath of the Mavi Marmara. Sure, the world is outraged that nine Turks were killed in the process, but how many flotillas have actually tried to make it to Gaza since? They're all afraid of the maniacal IDF. That's deterrence. And here's something else Obama and a lot of Americans don't get:
“Obama’s voters like it when the administration shows that it doesn’t want to fight Iran, but this is not a domestic political issue,” the foreign minister said. “Iran will continue on this reckless path, unless the administration starts to speak unreasonably. The best way to avoid striking Iran is to make Iran think that the U.S. is about to strike Iran. We have to know the president’s intentions on this matter. We are his allies.” (According to two administration sources, this issue caused tension between President Obama and his recently dismissed director of national intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair. According to these sources, Blair, who was said to put great emphasis on the Iranian threat, told the president that America’s Arab allies needed more reassurance. Obama reportedly did not appreciate the advice.)
Emanuel had one more message to deliver: for the most practical of reasons, Israel should consider carefully whether a military strike would be worth the trouble it would unleash. “I’m not sure that given the time line, whatever the time line is, that whatever they did, they wouldn’t stop” the nuclear program, he said. “They would be postponing.”Once you derail that type of project, you NEVER know what might happen to keep it derailed. Ask doctors who treat serious illnesses. Often, the goal is to keep a person alive for some period of time in the hope that in the interim a cure will be developed (I actually have a neighbor who is alive today because a doctor took that kind of approach to treating his leukemia 12 years ago).
It was then that I realized that, on some subjects, the Israelis and Americans are still talking past each other. The Americans consider a temporary postponement of Iran’s nuclear program to be of dubious value. The Israelis don’t. “When Menachem Begin bombed Osirak [in Iraq], he had been told that his actions would set back the Iraqis one year,” one cabinet minister told me. “He did it anyway.”
So what might be in store?
Successive Israeli prime ministers have ordered their military tacticians to draw up plans for a strike on Iran, and the Israeli air force has, of course, complied. It is impossible to know for sure how the Israelis might carry out such an operation, but knowledgeable officials in both Washington and Tel Aviv shared certain assumptions with me.Read it all.
The first is that Israel would get only one try. Israeli planes would fly low over Saudi Arabia, bomb their targets in Iran, and return to Israel by flying again over Saudi territory, possibly even landing in the Saudi desert for refueling—perhaps, if speculation rife in intelligence circles is to be believed, with secret Saudi cooperation. These planes would have to return home quickly, in part because Israeli intelligence believes that Iran would immediately order Hezbollah to fire rockets at Israeli cities, and Israeli air-force resources would be needed to hunt Hezbollah rocket teams.