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An Exchange With Jeffrey Goldberg on 'Bluffing,' Israel, and Iran

My colleague Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting about Iran's nuclear ambitions, and what Israel and the United States might do in response, has drawn tremendous attention over the past two years, most recently after his interview with President Obama on this topic. It has also generated controversy, especially after his latest reporting trip to Israel with its updated assessments of the Netanyahu government's possible intention to attack.

Jeff Goldberg's office is right next to to mine at The Atlantic, and in normal circumstances we would talk in person about what he has reported, how his views have changed, and how his reports have been received. But we're both out of Washington at the moment -- he is on the road in the US; I have, improbably, arrived just now in Tasmania -- and he has agreed to (in fact, suggested) a public Q-and-A email exchange with me about what he has written and how he has come to the conclusions he has drawn.

I sent him a very long opening "question" a few hours ago, and he has now sent back his first-round reply. With his approval, I'm putting this round up now. Tomorrow I will follow up with more questions, and I'll post those and his reply when they're ready. For now, here is the initial round.
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Dear Jeff:

Thanks for being willing to discuss the background and circumstances of your reporting on the Iran-Israel-United States showdowns of the past two years.

BombIran.jpgYou are in a very important position to talk about this story, because your reporting, mainly for The Atlantic, has had significant international effects. Two years ago, you did a famous cover story saying that Israel was deadly earnest about striking Iran's nuclear facilities -- unless it was sure the United States would do the job on its own. Last month, President Obama called you to the White House for an interview in which, among other things, he signaled a tough line against Iranian nuclear ambitions as well.

Then this month, during a trip to Israel, you reported for Bloomberg that maybe Netanyahu had been bluffing all along! Maybe "he has never had any intention of launching air and missile strikes against Iran's nuclear program, and is working behind the scenes with Obama to stop Iran through sanctions." And finally, just two days ago, you reported also for Bloomberg that -- on the contrary -- some Israeli officials had started to believe their own "best-case" scenarios and were back to planning an attack.

My first question is, very simply: can you put these stories together for us? We reporters operate in real time, making the best of what is always imperfect information. As you have said recently on our site, when the facts change, we do our best to adjust our reporting to the new realities. But as you look back over these two-plus years, can you give us some narrative of how you think facts have changed? Or your assessment of them? Has the degree of "existential" concern -- and therefore determination to attack -- changed in Israel? Has its assessment of US intentions changed? Has the group of people you've talked with in the US or Israeli governments -- or who have made themselves available or unavailable -- changed? We've seen each of your reports, but they have more or less stood alone. Can you give us an idea of whether you think these changed assessments reflect real changes in Israeli (or US) policies, or different emphases you heard, or changes in your own gut instinct about who is telling the truth?

chazz.jpgSecond, I'll ask what I call my "Usual Suspects" question. I'm thinking of the last few minutes of that famous Kevin Spacey / all-star-cast movie, in which the Chazz Palminteri character finally understands what has really been going on. He then replays all the preceding events of the movie in an entirely different light, seeing with the benefit of hindsight connections he had not recognized before.

You've raised, in your recent reports, the possibility that the Netanyahu government has actually been carrying out an elaborate high-stakes bluff. Eg, "How has Obama convinced the world that these sanctions [on Iran] are necessary? By pointing to Netanyahu and saying, 'If you don't cooperate with me on sanctions, this guy is going to blow up the Middle East.' Obama's good-cop routine is then aided immeasurably by the world's willingness to believe that Netanyahu is the bad cop."

If it was a bluff, it's one you've had a unique opportunity to see and assess. If they really were bluffing, presenting you with the evidence and data for your 2010 cover story would have been a very important step. As you think back, Chazz Palminteri style, on what you heard and saw in 2010, knowing what you now know -- about two years with no attack, and about the "bluff" hypothesis you've now raised -- is there anything that seems different to you in retrospect? Anything that now increases your suspicions that they were bluffing at the time? We report what we know in real time -- but every so often there is a chance to look back and see how it worked out. I would be fascinated to know how your notes and instincts from 2010 look to you, as you review them in light of developments since then.

Thanks, Jim
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Here is his reply:

Dear Jim,

Thank you for doing this. I'm glad you're interested in understanding the development of my reporting over the past couple of years. First, a correction: You write: "During a trip to Israel, you reported for Bloomberg that maybe Netanyahu had been bluffing all along." First, in that column, I wrote that I still suspected Netanyahu wasn't, in fact, bluffing, but then I explained why it was a plausible scenario. I promise never to think out loud in that way again -- it seems to offend Andrew Sullivan when I do. Also, I wrote that column before I went to Israel, not when I was in Israel. I went to Israel to update my reporting in part because I wanted to test out this notion. After a week in Israel, I came to the conclusion that there is nothing much to the idea that Netanyahu is bluffing, and this is what I wrote in my column this week.

In any case, I've always believed that the Israeli leadership is sincere about contemplating a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. This is why I wrote that cover story in 2010. As you know, I wrote in that story that if current conditions at the time of writing pertained, there was a better than 50 percent chance that Israel would strike by the fall of 2011.

After the story appeared, I spoke, as I often do, with figures in the American national security establishment, who told me -- not to a person, certainly -- that they thought Israel was serious about its intentions, but they were unsure of the timeline I suggested. Then, about six to nine months after the story appeared, I began hearing from American officials that they believed Israel was ramping-up its plans, and accelerating its timeline. Of course, by late 2011, and certainly early 2012, the Obama Administration was seized by the fear that Israel would strike Iran sometime this spring. Leon Panetta, of course, said that he believed an Israeli attack would come by June of this year. One thing people misunderstand about my reporting is that they think I'm making my judgments based only on what Israeli officials tell me. On the contrary, I test everything I hear in Israel with American officials, and non-governmental experts, and I ask them to judge the sincerity of Israeli intentions. Panetta's answer -- first reported by David Ignatius -- is one of the main reasons I also judge the Israelis to be sincere.

You ask if my interpretation of the facts have changed over the past two years. Actually, no, not that much. I think the crisis has intensified, but I think we're on a kind-of straight line here. Sometimes I try to second-guess myself, as I did with the column last week, but obviously there's a danger in doing that because ideologically driven readers expect consistency. I'll probably still do it, however.

One thing that has changed for me is that I more firmly believe now that an Israeli strike, especially this year, would be a mistake. I've written that repeatedly, of course. I understand Israeli motivations, and I take the fear of an Iran with nuclear weapons seriously. But let me put it this way: I didn't disagree with very much at all of what President Obama told me when I interviewed him on February 29th. The White House position on this seems like a sound one.

You've packed a lot of questions into one question, so I'm sure I've missed something, so maybe we can revisit in later questions, but to answer your Chazz Palminteri question, I don't think I've been bluffed, and I don't the U.S. government has been bluffed. Certainly, no one in the Administration or the Pentagon is acting as if Israel is bluffing.
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More to come.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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