Another Round With Jeffrey Goldberg: Is the Bomb-Iran Threat Receding?

A month ago my Atlantic colleague Jeffrey Goldberg joined me for two rounds of Q-and-A about the heated military rhetoric between Israel and Iran. My main question was whether Prime Minister Netanyahu could really be serious in his threats to bomb Iranian facilities if he thought that Iranian progress toward nuclear-weapon capability has passed a "point of no return" -- and that the United States wasn't going to attack on its own.

I phrased it that way -- could he really be serious? -- because the judgments I had heard from US and international military figures for nearly a decade had so consistently indicated that this was not a plausible plan. A spasm, yes; something that made either tactical or strategic sense, no. (I am aware of the main counterargument: the claim from strike advocates that, even if bombing Iran is a bad idea, Israel would have no choice about averting an "existential" threat.)

Therefore I thought that at some level this had to be bluff -- to force the U.S. toward a harder-line policy, to ramp up international pressure, generally to move the options and terms of argument in the direction Netanyahu preferred. You can read the previous rounds, and Jeff Goldberg's explanation of why he thinks Netanyahu has been in complete earnest, here: first, second, and third.

A lot has happened in this past month, and Jeff Goldberg has agreed that it's time to continue the discussion. So here goes.

Dear Jeff:

Thanks for agreeing to further discussions on the state of relations among Israel, Iran, and the United States. And after the preamble above, I'll try to limit myself to one question: shouldn't we feel better about this whole situation than we did a month ago?

It's just one question, but naturally it will take me some space to set it up.

By "better" I mean that the chance of an Israeli strike in the foreseeable future has gone down. You and I agree that such a strike would have terrible military, economic, and diplomatic consequences. The question is whether the Netanyahu government will conclude that nonetheless it must go ahead -- and that Israel could sanely and prudently go ahead with a strike. "Prudently" in terms of the reaction from the United States, possible retaliation against Israel, ramifications for the world economy, and other effects.

That seems less likely and imminent now, for two reasons.

The minor reason is the upshot of the "P5 + 1" talks in Istanbul this month. To save you saying it: I realize that talks like this usually go nowhere. And I recognize that it's not easy to think of an agreement that will simultaneously satisfy
    - the Iranians, who insist on the right to some uranium-enriching capacity within their borders, for "peaceful" purposes, as in principle they can do under the terms of the Non-Proliferation Treaty;
    - the United States (and a slew of other countries), who insist on for-real, intrusive inspections to make sure that the enrichment stays within those peaceful terms; and
    - the Israeli government, which is so skeptical of any guarantees, commitments, or even inspections involving the Iranians that it believes it cannot safely live with any Iranian enrichment capacity at all.

But there are many recent reports suggesting that the talks were not an automatic and instant failure. Here are a few: from a LA Times reporter, another from the LAT, from the BBC, and from Bloomberg.

Maybe this is all a ruse and playing-for-time ploy by the Iranians. But maybe not. Negotiations on "impossible" issues do not always fail - Dayton, Northern Ireland, the Camp David talks of 1978, the Shanghai Communique of 1972. Conceivably this could be another for the list.

The major reason for the changed prospects is something else. In my view it is the recently widened international publicity about longstanding disputes within the Israeli security establishment over the apocalyptic, "never again!"-Holocaust framing that Prime Minister Netanyahu has brought to coping with Iran.

Last week it was the Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Force, Benny Gantz,  with his "let's slow down here" message. As you pointed out at the time, Israel's military leadership, like America's, is distinctly less enthusiastic than some politicians about launching an attack. (Although of course if politicians gave the order, military leaders would carry them out.)

It seems to me that things reached a significant new level over the weekend with statements from the recent head of Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin (right), that the overall approach from Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, to Iran was reckless and irresponsible. For readers who, unlike you, haven't followed this, these quotes from Haaretz convey the point:
"I don't believe in either the prime minister or the defense minister. I don't believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings," [Diskin] added...

"They are misleading the public on the Iran issue. They tell the public that if Israel acts, Iran won't have a nuclear bomb. This is misleading. Actually, many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race," said the former security chief. 

There is another Haaretz account to the same effect. And as the NYT story today put it:

Analysts here say there has long been a rift between the elected leaders and the defense and intelligence professionals over the urgency of the Iran threat, the efficacy of an independent Israeli strike and its likely repercussions.

I take the attention to these comments as good news, and only in part because I agree with the warnings that Gantz, Diskin, and others are giving. The real significance of the statements, I think, lies in exposing the American public to a reality everyone in Israel understands: that there is deep disagreement within the country's military and intelligence experts on the wisdom of confronting Iran in the way Netanyahu has.

It has been convenient for Benjamin Netanyahu to present the following maxims to America:
    - If you care about Israel's security, you must agree with me;
    - If you don't agree with me (about bombing Iran, settlements, etc), it therefore follows that you must not care about Israel's security, and further that you probably are callous about the lessons of the Holocaust and the welfare of Jews worldwide.

This argument is bad from America's perspective, because it presents a glossed-over version of disagreements within Israel. I think it's not just bad but dangerous from Israel's perspective, since an Israeli attack would drag the US into a war our own military and political leadership opposes -- and which, we now can see, many influential Israelis view in the same way.

To bring this back to my one question for you: Is it right to think that the odds of an Israeli strike are lower than they were a month ago? Because there is at least some chance that the combination of sanctions-plus-negotiations will produce an agreement? And because we are getting a more realistic and rounded view of the range of opinion within Israel?

Please tell me that my "war is not at hand" inference is correct. Or, if you can't in good conscience do that, please tell me how you read this recent news.

Thanks, Jim
UPDATEs: I wrote on a night flight back to DC, before I had seen (1) the news that Benjamin Netanyahu's father, Benzion Netanyahu, had died at age 102. Such a loss is hard, at whatever "ripe" age it occurs; (2) the lead story in Monday's NYT making a similar case about the apparent reduction in imminent-war tensions; (3) the story about former PM Ehud Olmert also attacking current PM Netanyahu for recklessness in his approach to Iran. This part of the story about Olmert, referring to his frosty reception from an apparently more hawkish audience in the United States, was particularly striking -- and valuable, again, for showing the range of opinion within Israel:

‪ Mr. Olmert was booed again when he declared that while Israel should prepare the military ability to strike Iran's nuclear program as a last resort, it should first push for American-led international action against Iran, including sanctions and possible joint military action.‬

‪This time [in contrast to his waving off a previous round of boos], he responded caustically.‬

‪"As a concerned Israeli citizen who lives in the state of Israel with his family and all of his children and grandchildren," he said, "I love very much the courage of those who live 10,000 miles away from the state of Israel and are ready that we will make every possible mistake that will cost lives of Israelis." ‬