In my last post, I noted what I thought was the irrationalism - or extraordinary short-termism - of the Israeli government both saying it desperately needs the US and the Sunni Arab states to restrain Iran and yet refusing to offer any serious concessions on the West Bank settlements, which would go a huge way to placate Obama and the wider anti-Iran coalition. Former president Bill Clinton makes the sane case for the obvious two-state solution again today - a solution that Israel still refuses to accept or embrace.
You can put this self-defeating posture down to a hardening of Israeli attitudes after the withdrawals from Gaza and Lebanon (which led to further attacks, not peace); or to the increasing power and clout of the Israeli religious right (which sees occupation of Judea and Samaria as theologically necessary); or to the reflexive support of Israel's government (of whichever coalition) by the American Jewish Establishment, which fails to grasp how central a two-state solution is to America's broader foreign policy goals, and how dangerous the status quo is to Israel's survival as a Jewish state.
Or you can go one better and cite all of these factors in various degrees and mixtures, along with intangibles like Netanyahu's personality, the effectiveness of sanctions against Iran, etc.
Or you can go one further and question the premise behind Israel's current public posture: that Iran really does pose an existential threat to Israel unknown since Hitler, and that this has to be dealt with before any deal with the Palestinians, and start your analysis all over.
Jeffrey Goldberg's essay sure does offer a lot of evidence for the power of the idea of an Iranian "Auschwitz" to scramble the rationality of the Israeli public and elites. And yet, oddly enough, his reported essay convinced me Israelis may - understandably - feel such a threat at a deep level but that most of the sane ones do not actually believe that an Iranian breakout capacity for a nuclear bomb would be the end of Zionism. And once you grasp this, the irrationalism of their intransigence on the West Bank becomes even starker.
Even Netanyahu rules out the idea of Tehran suddenly nuking Tel Aviv:
“Several bad results would emanate from this single development [Iran's nuclear bomb breakout]. First, Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one. Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph."
We can, I think, roll our eyes a little at the latter fear. Jihadists, as we well know, can interpret anything as a providential sign of their eventual triumph. And the occupation of the West Bank is easily a more effective recruitment tool for largely Sunni terrorists to fight the West than a Shiite nuclear bomb. The former fear is, in contrast, perfectly legitimate, but not existential. Yes, a nuclear Iran would become even more emboldened - especially after the US spent a trillion dollars destroying the most viable counter-weight, Iraq. Yes, this could lead to some wealthy Arab states' appeasing the new regional power, or seeking their own nuclear balance; yes, it could galvanize Hezbollah and Hamas; and it could undermine confidence in Israel's long-term survival.
But none of that amounts to an existential threat - and that matters:
“The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality,” [Ehud Barak] said. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people want to come here.” This vision is threatened by Iran and its proxies, Barak said. “Our young people can consciously decide to go other places,” if they dislike living under the threat of nuclear attack. “Our best youngsters could stay out of here by choice.”
If this truly is the real fear, then it seems to me, at best, highly hyperbolic to equate it with another Auschwitz. In fact, the whole scenario seems rather obviously manipulative. "If you don't bomb Iran, you'll be responsible for a Second Holocaust" is not the argument a sober and rational ally should make to its indispensable benefactor. It's a form of moral and emotional blackmail.
And the story about Ben Zion Netanyahu is clearly designed by the Israelis - like stories of how crazy Reagan was - to prompt real American concern that Israel will indeed bomb Iran if the US doesn't. Jeffrey injects enough skepticism into his piece to avoid being used by this; and the essay is balanced enough to allow shrewd readers not to fall for it entirely; but the Israelis still get their point across.
So it seems to me that Israel wants to bomb Iran not because it fears it will be annihilated, but because it likes its total nuclear monopoly in the region, because this monopoly gives it both a sense of invulnerability and the security umbrella to continue to occupy and settle the West Bank indefinitely, if they decide it's in their interests, and police its wider borders with impunity. Worse, Israel fears both that giving up the West Bank will leave it vulnerable to Iran's proxies and that if it gives up the West Bank in return for a guarantee that the US will stop Iran's nuclear facilities, the US, under Obama, may never come through. Lose-lose, in other words. Hence delay-delay.
Under those circumstances, it seems pretty clear to me that Israel is for the foreseeable future both incapable of letting go of the West Bank and incapable of being restrained if Iran goes nuclear. The question for the US therefore becomes: what then?
Well, you cannot stop an independent country attacking another one - especially after America's own pre-emptive war on the basis of alleged WMDs - and you cannot imagine US troops shooting down Israeli planes flying across Iraq or Saudi Arabia. And the Israelis clearly have no interest in giving the US an actual veto over such an adventure:
I spoke with several Israeli officials who are grappling with this question, among others: what if American intelligence learns about Israeli intentions hours before the scheduled launch of an attack? “It is a nightmare for us,” one of these officials told me. “What if President Obama calls up Bibi and says, We know what you’re doing. Stop immediately.’ Do we stop? We might have to. A decision has been made that we can’t lie to the Americans about our plans. We don’t want to inform them beforehand. This is for their sake and for ours. So what do we do? These are the hard questions.” (Two officials suggested that Israel may go on pre-attack alert a number of times before actually striking: “After the fifth or sixth time, maybe no one would believe that we’re really going,” one official said.)
So this ally would either try to fool the US or present it with a fait accompli, a military assault that could wreak havoc on US troops, global interests and the entire West, and ignite World War III for good measure.
My own view is that, under these circumstances, if Israel continues to refuse to budge on the West Bank, US interests are affected enough to lay out its own preferred final status boundaries and conditions for a Palestinian state, and press forward on those lines at the UN, regardless of the position of the Israeli government. At some point, the U.S. has to stand up for itself and its own interests if an ally refuses to be reasonable in lending a hand.
This position would prompt a huge fuss at home, but also dramatically alter moderate Muslim views of the US abroad, while also strengthening the credibility and underlining the necessity of tightening sanctions around Tehran. The latter is, obviously, in the interests of the US - and, of course, Israel. And we should do all we can peacefully to prevent Iran getting its nuclear bomb. That seems to me to be the sanest way forward: removing the open wound of the West Bank occupation from the West's armor against Jihadism, and tightening the economic vise around the neck of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Then: resolve in containment.
But here's where I will probably lose what few readers I have managed to persuade so far. I would love the Tehran regime to realize its bid for a nuclear bomb is far too damaging to sustain, especially if they can no longer posture, as part of their propaganda, about Israel's utter illegitimacy (an illegitimacy that would be weakened profoundly if the Arab states made peace with a properly partitioned Israel and Palestine). But I am not delusional about the nutters in Tehran, even as one should never give up hope that they, like the Israelis, can become more rational.
And, in the end, to take the longest view, I do not really see how it's possible to prevent a country like Iran, with a population as skilled and as educated as it is nationalist, from becoming a nuclear power if it really really wants to. If Iran's leadership is so intent on getting a nuclear bomb it is prepared to risk domestic unrest, economic crisis and unprecedented international isolation, there is not much anyone else can do about it in the long term. Even the Green Movement supports Iran's nuclear capacity. A calmer more rational Israel would begin to come to terms with this.
Instead of viewing an end to its nuclear monopoly as a return to Auschwitz, Israel could see it as a guarantee of mutually assured destruction, which can mean - and in history has demonstrably meant - peace. Netanyahu even alludes to this in his statement to Goldberg:
Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one.
Yes, it raises the stakes - because such conflicts can become nuclear and literally existential. But that is likely to inhibit such confrontations, surely, rather than exacerbate them. The fear of escalation to nuclear catastrophe inhibits both sides in their provocations. The only time a nuclear bomb has ever been used in warfare, after all, was when one power had a monopoly. In other words, a nuclear stand-off in the Middle East between Israel and Iran may be the least worst option for the future of the region. It may actually suppress conventional and paramilitary conflict - because of the far graver implications of things getting out of control.
You can argue that religious fanaticism alters that scenario, and the thought of a Khamenei or an Ahmadinejad having any sort of control of a nuclear weapon is too terrifying to contemplate. But more terrifying than unstable Pakistan's nuclear capacity, given its military's deep ties to the Taliban and Jihadist extremists? And if the unique danger of Shia religious fanaticism and Iranian anti-Semitism really is your case (crazier than Stalin or Mao), and no state influenced by religious fanaticism should be a nuclear power, then things get more complicated.
There are, after all, fanatics in Netanyahu's government just as intransigent as some Twelvers. Yes, Khamenei is more toxic than even the crazier West Bank settlers; except that, unlike the settlers, he has not invaded and occupied anyone else's country recently, or, unlike the Israeli government, bombed the living crap out of, say, Kurdistan the way Israel did Gaza. And, yes, the Revolutionary Guard dictatorship is leagues more evil than any imaginable US president or Israeli prime minister. But a democratic government is just as capable of unleashing nuclear war as a non-democratic government. In fact, the only time such a bomb has been dropped was by a democracy against a non-democracy. And when Sarah Palin talks of Armageddon and the necessity of more and more Jews occupying the West Bank and thinks of herself as Queen Esther, we may want to see things occasionally from the other side's point of view. Fanaticism is on the march everywhere.
I guess what I'm saying is that I do not fully buy the rational argument of the existential threat some Israelis say they fear from Iran (although I sympathize with the emotional reality of this fear, in the light of history); I think it can sometimes serve even as an excuse to delay actually coming to a decision on the West Bank, and a misguided means to maintain a nuclear monopoly that is in the long run untenable and destabilizing anyway. Moreover, I think Netanyahu simply thinks he can wait out Obama and get a Republican US president prepared to enable Israel in its doomed occupation (past the point of no return) and eager to bomb Iran as some kind of global power-move.
So he waits. And in practice, there is little the current president can do to prod Israel, except lay out an American ideal solution to the Israel-Palestine question, corral international support for it, offer as many enticements to Israel to come along, all the while ramping up sanctions against Tehran and hoping for some kind of diplomatic off-ramp or delay. This seems to me to be the obvious next move. If the Israelis will not or cannot move, then America should.
Obama shoud not be intimidated and move forward.
(Photo: Jim Hollander/Getty.)
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.