Magical Thinking in Israel, About Iran

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Jeffrey Goldberg is away for the week, so I won't pose this as a third-round question, following our previous two rounds, on Israel's thinking about the "existential" threat from Iran. Though I'll welcome his views when he's back!

Instead I'll pass on one message that represents many reader responses I've received. It's about an obvious internal tension in the Israeli government outlook, as Jeff Goldberg describes it. This one comes from an academic in Texas, with emphasis added:

I really appreciate the back and forth you are having with Jeffrey Goldberg....  One item that frustrates me about the beliefs of Israeli leaders he describes is an apparent logical contradiction.
 
He concludes his latest response to you by saying, "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."
 
Just above that, however, in discussing a potential Iranian response to an Israeli attack, he states that Israeli hardliners believe that, " 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."
 
These beliefs do not seem to be compatible.  If the regime is concerned with its survival and is semi-rational, it must understand that using a nuclear weapons against Israel would almost certainly result in a nuclear counter-strike or, at the very least, a devastating conventional response.  Why would it be so rational as to not respond forcefully to an Israeli attack so as to not antagonize the Americans, but irrational enough to attempt to destroy Israel with a nuclear attack?  Is it that those who believe the first statement do not believe the second?

Another note, to similar effect:

Interesting that, according to Goldberg, the Israelis think the Iranians are rational enough to cover up Israeli strikes, and to be restrained in response.  So, should the Iranians acquire the nuclear weapons, where does all of that rationality go?  They just up and decide to commit suicide by nuking Israel?  Clearly the Israeli leadership is not thinking rationally. (I'm not endorsing the idea of a nuclear Iran; I'm just looking at the lack of consistency in the thinking.)

Jeff Goldberg too is aware of this contradiction. The hawkish factions in the Israeli government, as he describes them, are "rationally" thinking -- more likely, rationalizing -- their way toward confidence that a strike on Iran would "work" in all senses of the word. They are convincing themselves that:
 -in tactical terms it would be feasible;
 -in strategic terms it would set Iran's plans back by a meaningful period; and
 -in the most sweeping grand-strategy calculus it would improve Israel's long-term position and not undermine its one crucial alliance by dragging the United States into a war it does not want.

Then after detailing these "rational" factors, he says:

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.

In his most recent Bloomberg installment, under the headline below...
Nukes.png


... Jeff Goldberg goes on to say that PM Netanyahu feels a deeply personal mission too. His duty is not just to save his people from (what he see as) renewed risk of extinction but also to honor his 102-year-old father's scholarship on the Spanish Inquisition and his older brother Yonatan's death in the famous raid at Entebbe. As Goldberg sums it up:
Yonatan died in the act of rescuing Jews. His brother understands that whatever hardship he experiences by taking action against Iran, the price he pays will not be the price his brother paid in pursuit of what he sees as the same goal: protecting Jews.
All this anyone can understand and respect. No one can tell anyone else what is the limit of family duty, or what is a "rational" degree of paranoia and concern. The least effective line of argument ever: "You're being unreasonable..."

But from an American perspective, we have:
 - an allied government that relies on "DNA" and assumes its adversary to be crazy and undeterrable when it is assessing threats;
 - that same government, which assumes that same adversary to be cautiously calculating and self-interested when it comes to assessing the risk of counter-attacks or adverse consequences;
 - that government being led by a man who may feel a family duty to err on the side of military action (yes, we have seen this before in America) and believes that a war would be "worth the risks"; and, to sum it up,
 - a government that, on the basis of DNA, a cherry-picked combination of worst- and best-case thinking, the burdens of family honor, and other concerns beyond the strictly rational has the power in the next few months to touch off a war that would almost certainly involve the United States.

The United States cannot tell other countries what to do. No one can tell Israel what is an appropriate degree of concern or pre-emptive self-defense. But I hope that the U.S. government is making clear to the Israeli government that, whatever their gut tells them, we consider this to be a recklessly bad idea.
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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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