The White House and 'The Point of No Return'

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>This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.


The debate raging here at The Atlantic, sparked by Jeffrey Goldberg's full-bore reporting and analysis of the chances Israel will bomb Iran's nuclear sites, demonstrates a fact that has long comforted Middle East experts: They'll never be unemployed. Consensus won't be reached. Almost every assertion will be shot down by doubters. And, in any event, the status quo won't stay static for even a day or two. There's always something insoluble to talk about.

Amid the discussions at TheAtlantic.com, and the echoes elsewhere (and even on NBC's Meet the Press, where Goldberg is appearing this Sunday), our attention is distracted by two unexpected volleys from the White House: one leak, and one Israeli-Palestinian peace-fest. 

The first was a New York Times report on Thursday night that the Obama administration had persuaded Israel that creation of an Iranian nuclear bomb is not imminent -- implying that no red alert or military strike is needed for at least a year. That fit neatly with Goldberg's information, as he noted in his blog. But the White House leak was also, perhaps, a response to the excitement -- and, to some, a sense of urgency -- triggered by Goldberg's story and the debate that ensued.

The President doesn't want Israel to attack Iran, at least not now or soon, and the Times is a traditional leaking route for administrations both Republican and Democratic. The Times piece did not quote any Israelis to prove that they had, indeed, been persuaded that there is no need to live on the hair trigger of a fateful preemptive strike.

Friday morning brought a substantive piece of news from the administration: agreement by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to restart direct peace talks, for the first time in two years. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas are to start by having dinner at the White House, one week from Wednesday, and the next day they are to start negotiating under the aegis of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former senator George Mitchell.

Mitchell has toiled for over 18 months as go-between, achieving very little that was visible, but holding together the threads of negotiations that otherwise might have shredded to nothingness. If the talks on September 2 go decently well, more meetings are all but certain -- but, more conveniently, in the Middle East. Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Abbas in Ramallah are barely 15 minutes' drive from each other, so their negotiators should not have much trouble finding a secure site for serious talks.

So, what is the connection between relaunching Palestinian talks and Israel's sense that it may have to take drastic steps to stop Iran from going nuclear? At the end of the State Department announcement on Friday, Mitchell was asked whether Israel is more prepared to enter serious peace talks when it feels confident that America is standing foresquare with Israel against Iran.

Mitchell said the Iran issue -- and events throughout the region -- "all add compelling, cumulative evidence to the need to act with respect to this conflict." Helping to birth an independent Palestinian state, living in peace alongside the state of Israel, "is very much in the national security interest of the United States."

"It helps in so many ways," Mitchell concluded.

Senior Israeli officials have argued for years, however, that Americans and Europeans are putting the peace cart in front of the Iranian horse. The Israelis say top priority should be given to weakening Iran, countering its expansionism, and fostering a change in regime to a cooperative, pro-Western government in Teheran. Then, they argue, Iran's proxies -- notably the Syrian government, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza -- would be cowed. Extremists would lose their influence, and good-hearted, pro-peace Palestinians would step forward and constructively agree to peace accords.

In other words, in the recipe cooked up by officials close to Prime Minister Netanyahu, confront Iran and bring down its power first. Then move toward a more peaceful Middle East. These same officials generally suggest that Israelis, while waiting for the perfect conditions for an accord, should be permitted to keep expanding Jewish settlements in territories captured in 1967.

If the talks with the West Bank's Mahmoud Abbas go well -- despite all the obvious obstacles, such as the fact that Palestinians of Hamas in Gaza reject negotiations -- then the long-held American horse-and-cart strategy may win out: Israel, when feeling the warmth of firm U.S. backing on the Iran front, may feel secure enough to make concessions. Perhaps, against all political odds in Jerusalem, Netanyahu will even extend the settlement construction freeze when it expires in late September.

Truth be told, senior government officials in Israel expect war with someone will again get in the way. When? They say they cannot tell. 

Will it be a war on the border with Lebanon, as in the summer of 2006 when Hezbollah rained missiles onto Israel and Israeli soldiers and planes struck back with unimpressive results? Will it be a renewed conflict with Hamas, as in December 2008, when Israel lost patience with rockets being fired from Gaza and rolled in with tanks and airstrikes, killing over a thousand Palestinians, while just over a dozen Israelis lost their lives? Will it be something else, such as a large terrorist attack in an Israeli city?

Israelis don't know which of these or similar scenarios might play out, and in their view it's mostly up to Iran. They even expect Iran to start a war, so that the world will lose its focus on the Iranian nuclear program. 

Whether completely accurate or not, the key point is that Israel's leaders see it that way at present. They believe that Iran is cleverly evil, that Iran is throwing around its oil money to control Muslim communities worldwide, and that Iran wants to be a nuclear power so that it can rival America's influence in the Middle East.

The debate continues here.

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Dan Raviv is a CBS News correspondent in Washington, formerly based in Tel Aviv and London, and co-author of Every Spy a Prince: The Complete History of Israel's Intelligence Community and Friends In Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance.

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