Jeffrey Goldberg Replies on Israel, Iran, and 'Bluffing', Round 2

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This follows our first round of Q-and-A exchange, and my second-round question earlier today. Jeffrey Goldberg replies, in a message sent on early Friday afternoon but that I saw (while on the road) only now. This is it for a while, but there is a lot to digest here.
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Dear Jim,
That's quite a lot of writing from a Tasmanian truck stop. Imagine what you achieve if you were parked at an American truck stop. Or an Iranian truck stop, for that matter.

There's a lot to unpack here, so I won't, though I agree with most of what you've written. Let me try briefly to answer the crucial question about Israel's two principal leaders, Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak: "What version of reality are they seeing that lets them think this way?"

By "this way," you mean, of course, the thought that a preemptive strike on Natanz and other Iranian nuclear facilities will a) work in some meaningful way; b) protect Israel in the long-term, or medium-term, at least; c) not cause a regional war; d) not cause blowback against Israel's foremost ally, the U.S.; e) not cause catastrophic death-by-counterstrike in Israel.

Let me start with a), which slides into b). When the Israelis attacked the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, they said they hoped to delay Iraq's nuclear program by a year. In fact, it stopped forever (though it's not clear if the Israeli strike was the principal reason why -- though it certainly didn't hurt). I mention this only to note that Israeli leaders privately say they'd be happy to buy a year. But: They think they'll buy more than a year. They have drilled on this for years (and according to American military sources, they've drilled successfully on this) and they believe they can set back the Iranian program for several years. Moreover, they are somewhat convinced -- and I am most definitely not -- that an attack could set in motion an uprising against the regime. (I tend to think that this is the weakest best-case scenario of all, because I assume that the regime would use an Israeli strike as an excuse to come down hard on every semi-dissident not already in jail, and I assume many Iranians won't be happy with an Israeli strike, even those who are unhappy with the regime.) The Israeli leaders believe that every year they buy against the Iranian program is another year that would allow the regime to collapse. I, too, believe it will collapse. It's the "when" that's the problem.

As to c), the Israeli leaders believe that -- and this is obvious -- the Arabs will quietly applaud the Israeli strike, and certainly, in the event of a technically successful strike, not line up with Iran (quite the opposite -- Persian Gulf officials have told me compromise with Israel on other matters is at least slightly more likely if Iran is neutralized as a threat). They also believe, and this makes a certain amount of sense, that the Iranians may choose to cover-up a strike, or partially cover-up a strike, which is to say the following. Many facilities are not located in the center of cities (though one very important one is in Tehran). The attack will happen on a moonless night. The Iranians will have some ability to control what their own people hear about the strikes, and of course they will control access to these sites. They may choose, this line of thinking goes, to hush-up the strike, in the manner of the Syrians after the Israeli strike in 2007, or at most announce that the Zionists unsuccessfully attempted to strike at their facilities, and then fire a few missiles at Tel Aviv. Again, this seems to me to be a plausible scenario, but not likely.  But you asked me how the political echelon was thinking, and this is what they're thinking (the army, I'm led to believe, is planning for a worst-case scenario).

On d), the Israelis actually believe that the Iranian regime is semi-rational, if not reasonable (the argument I heard from hardliners is that Hitler pursued an unreasonable goal, the murder of all Jews, in a rational way). The Iranian leadership is interested in its own survival. If Israel strikes Iran, the regime will believe that America had a direct hand in the attack. But Iranian leaders will also think hard about lashing out directly against America, because they know that America can actually bring about an end of the regime if it chose to, through a punishing bombardment that destroys Iran's military infrastructure. So I think the Israeli leadership is counting on a rational, regime-protecting response from the ayatollahs. And one more thing: Not to overstate it, but some Israelis in leadership positions believe that they would actually be helping the U.S. by neutralizing an Iranian threat. Again, maybe, but certainly not something a prudent person would bank on. 

As to e), the threat of a deadly counterstrike, Ehud Barak is on record saying that he thinks Israeli casualties in a combined Iranian/Hezbollah missile strike might top 500, or hit the low 1000s, but not be devastating. I find this aspect of the conversation Strangelovian. But the truth is, Israel has fairly good missile defenses, and its Air Force could handle Hezbollah in Lebanon. And Iran's missile force is not overwhelming.

But (and here's the key point): It doesn't matter. Not much of the preceding conversation matters. What people don't understand is that Netanyahu and many other Israelis view the Iranian regime, which is committed ideologically to Israel's destruction and seems to be seeking a weapon of mass destruction, as an extinction-level threat. The entire ethos of Israel is: "In every generation, someone rises up who wants to murder the Jewish people, but this time, we're not going down without a fight." That's in the DNA of the military and the political leadership. I asked President Obama if he thought Israeli leaders had overlearned the lessons of the Holocaust. He reminded them, through the interview, that they were running a modern state which has a need for a reality-based foreign policy, but he also acknowledged the awesome power of history to shape a worldview, and he treated that history very respectfully. This is a roundabout way of saying that if Israeli leaders see on the horizon an eliminationist anti-Semite who may be moving to acquire a nuclear weapon, they will try to stop him. This is why I think they are not bluffing. The problem with much of the analysis of Israel's actions in this area is in the mirror-imaging: Many people outside Israel wonder why the country would take the military, political and diplomatic risks associated with attacking Iran's nuclear program. But what they don't remember is that the worst thing, from Israel's perspective, has already happened: The murder, 70 years ago, of one out of every three Jews on the planet.

By the way, just so we're clear, I think this is a precipitous way to think, and I think very definitively that 2012 isn't 1938, and not only because of the existence of a nuclear-armed Jewish state. But I certainly understand the mentality.

I hope this is helpful.

Best,
Jeff

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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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