Are Cooler Israeli Heads Reining Bibi In?

Over at IPS News, Gareth Porter argues that Israel's national security establishment may be reining in Bibi Netanyahu, reducing the chances of war with Iran.

In this analysis the key figure is Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz of the Kadima party, who entered the government when Netanyahu formed a new coalition in May. Porter, drawing on the thinking of Israeli academic and former government official Yossi Alpher, argues that including Mofaz in the government was a concession to the various Israeli national security elites who view Netanyahu's position on Iran as alarmist and unduly belligerent.

Netanyahu and Barak wanted to show the national security chiefs that they were being listened to by bringing someone who reflects their views into the leadership circle, Alpher said.

The result of that decision may be a much deeper shift in policy toward Iran than Netanyahu and Barak wish to acknowledge.

If Porter is right in his parsing of Mofaz's recent talk at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the pressure to strike Iran placed on President Obama by Israel could wane. In particular: Netanyahu will give up on his attempt to move Obama's "red line" from Iran's actually trying to build a nuclear bomb to Iran's merely possessing a nuclear weapons "capability"--i.e., the materials and know-how to produce a bomb within months should it decide to.

I'd add only one point to Porter's analysis.

Mofaz, and the Israeli defense elites he is said to represent, cite two reasons for skepticism about bombing: efficacy and blowback. They ask whether bombing would really set Iran's nuclear program back very far, and they worry about what Iran might do in retaliation.

I'd go further and raise questions about another of Netanyahu's premises: that the threat of a military attack--even assuming it is viewed by Iran as credible--would intimidate Iran into compliance with our wishes. When people in the Iranian leadership imagine a military assault, they surely realize that America isn't up for a ground invasion. So they presumably envision Israel and/or America "mowing the lawn" every couple of years--that is, periodically conducting surgical strikes that don't do much damage to Iran writ large but keep the nuclear program discombobulated. My question is: Why would Iran's leaders find that prospect so unattractive? This regime's recipe for maintaining what popular support it has rests heavily on the perception of an American-Zionist threat. What better way to intensify that perception, and so sustain and even expand popular support, than to get briefly bombed by America and/or Israel every couple of years?

So as American negotiators refuse to offer Iran sanctions relief in exchange for the concessions they seek, and count instead on the threat of military strikes to do the necessary incentivizing, the Iranian leadership--or at least important elements within it--may well be sitting there thinking: Go ahead, make my day.

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Robert Wright is the author of The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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