Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Long Con

A long time ago, in the days when I was a kid (or not so long ago, in the days when I was a husband), if I got caught red-handed in the wrong, I'd do everything I could to change the subject. After all - as the saying goes - the best defense is a good offense, or at least a diversion.

Which brings us to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. In today's Haaretz, diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid reports that on Bibi's upcoming visit to the United States, the Israeli PM will ask the President of the United States "to state unequivocally that the United States is preparing for a military operation in the event that Iran crosses certain 'red lines.'" You read that right: Bibi (according to an unnamed "senior" Israeli official) is going to ask the US to engage in yet another "WMD-maybe" campaign in the Middle East. Israel may or may not have the capability to attack multiple targets over a week of sorties - no one knows, not even the Israelis - but Bibi apparently is prepared to present President Obama with the request to commit the United States military to such a scenario.

So it has been for the last 4 years between Israel and the Obama administration. Every time the United States wants to talk with Bibi about the Arab-Israeli peace process, Bibi changes the subject. For a time, the Obama administration tried to stay focused on what it would take to jump start the moribund peace process; and at every turn the Israelis responded with the "existential threat" of a nuclear-capable Iran.

The long con has worked. Never mind that absolutely nothing has changed in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that Iran is years away from a bomb, and that the Iranian leadership hasn't yet made a decision to go that route. Never mind that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly stood by his 2004 fatwa that nuclear weapons are immoral. (Yes, such a fatwa can be rescinded, but in the land of vilayet-i fagih such a thing is a rare occurrence.) Never mind the clandestine effort to sabotage the Iranian nuclear project and kill its leading nuclear scientists. Never mind that an attack on Iran - Israeli or American - would lead to a surge of nationalist pride for the currently unpopular regime inside Iran, and possible attacks worldwide on American hard and soft targets, and drive the price of oil through the roof. Never mind that a nuclear strike against Israel (with 20% of its population Muslim) would make Iran a pariah within the Muslim world.

Israelis don't see it that way. A few weeks ago, a preposterous but well-done Cloverfield-style video popped up on the Internet, portraying from a ground-level perspective a nuclear attack on Jerusalem - capital of the Jewish state but also home to the Dome of the Rock. Israeli government officials - at least the ones who haven't resigned over the Iran issue - keep repeating the "existential threat" mantra.

Make no mistake: Bibi has effectively changed the agenda of the US-Israel discussion. Israeli settlements are no longer a burning issue, and the Palestinians have no unified political authority to talk to. So Israeli-Palestinian talks are now out of the question. The Arab Spring has rendered the Egypt-Israel rapprochement dead, and any talk of an Israel-Syria deal for the Golan Heights a non-starter for the foreseeable future. There is nothing left on the agenda but Iran. And now that the long con is reaching its culmination, an Israeli PM is reportedly set to spring the final dramatic move - defying 7 decades of agreed policy that the Israelis will never ask American soldiers to shed blood for the homeland. "If you won't commit to a military operation, we will - and by the way we will not give you any warning,"  Just no talk of a peace process - not now while we face down a modern-day nuclear-soon Hitler.

There is some precedent for this kind of Israeli overreaching. In 1956 an Israeli Prime Minister successfully proposed a joint Western-Israeli military imbroglio, when David Ben Gurion proposed to the British Foreign Secretary and the French Defense and Foreign Ministers a grandiose re-ordering of the Middle East which would, among other things, bring an end to the Nasser regime in Egypt and dissolve the kingdom of Jordan, leaving Israel with its West Bank and Iraq with its East. In the end the French and British agreed with Israel to a more limited operation designed to unseat the new military rule of Nasser and return the Suez Canal to Western hands. The ensuing 1956 Suez War was a particular disaster for the French and British, and caused untold embarrassment for Ben Gurion for years to come. 

So this new grandiose Israeli request (if you can call it that) isn't particularly uncharted territory in the annals of Middle Eastern history. This time, there are actually 2 principle players in the proposal: Bibi and his Defense Minister (and former PM) Ehud Barak. Bibi plays the bad cop, Barak the good cop. Barak dangles before the Americans that he is all for a comprehensive Palestinian-Israeli settlement but can't imagine a clear path to that goal without eliminating the destabilizing threat of a nuclear Iran. Bibi will have none of it - charged with the historic mission of saving the Jewish people from a Nazi-like "existential" threat, he won't even broach the possibility of a deal.

And the thing is (I hope): the Obama administration knows it is being conned. There are so many good reasons for the United States not to get militarily involved this year (or the next year, or the next, or the next...) in this truly pointless con. I personally like the route of STUXNET, unexplained explosions in Isfahan, and magnetic bombs on scientists' automobiles. None of this can stop a nuclear Iran, but all of it can push off the decision far beyond the 2015 date found in the NIE. In the end, the world will have to get used to a nuclear Iran, just as we have a nuclear South Korea, a nuclear Pakistan, a nuclear India, and a nuclear Israel. Iran isn't crazy - it is after all a "rational player" in the world according to every war gamer who has played out this scenario. To move from an intentionally vague policy of "nothing is off the table" to a clear commitment to a military operation is folly, despite the drumbeat of the GOP contenders and the breathless American media. Here's hoping that President Obama, finally hearing the true intent of Bibi's long con, simply says "no."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Is this the year Israel attacks Iran?

I am on sabbatical this semester, and 2 days ago I stopped off at the office for the first time since the semester began to check my mail and say hi to my colleagues at a department meeting. Within 30 seconds of setting foot into the room, 2 of them asked me if Israel was going to attack Iran. I know what drives their curiosity and concern: a big article in the Sunday New York Times Magazine and US Defense Secretary Panetta's recent pronouncement that he thinks Israel will attack by the early summer.

Every now and then The New York Times simply loses its shit. The most recent example comes in the form of a 7500-word cover essay by Ronen Bergman in last Sunday's Magazine. The article has generated lots of interest, with nearly 300 comments from readers, and blog coverage aplenty. Ronen Bergman is a journalist for Israel's mainstream daily Yediot Ahronot (with a cyber-parallel newsite in Hebrew and English known as Ynet). Bergman is a journalist and Israeli television reporter with a Cambridge Ph.D. in history, so it is not an easy thing to write off his report. Bergman replicates for the reader the domestic back-and-forth for and against an attack, and then concludes with the surmise that Israel will attack within the next 12 months, insofar as Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have concluded that the moment has come, the mission is possible, and the world community won't raise holy hell.

What Bergman failed to report is context - the character of these two pathetic political animals: Netanyahu and Barak. Bergman describes them as sober national leaders fully endowed with A-class strategic and political skills. Neither is either. Bergman got to spend hours with Barak in preparing his story; nowhere does Bergman even suggest that Barak is a failed Prime Minister currently representing an unpopular micro-political faction in the Israeli Kenesset with a zero-percent likelihood of winning even a single seat in any future vote. Barak imagines himself a profound military strategist without which the country of Israel will be left adrift. When you look at the desultory outcome of Barak's recent commands to the Israeli army (Cast Lead, Mavi Marmara), you get the sense that Barak - the Stanford-educated polymath who suffers from a Napoleon complex - hasn't a clue. It's like having Donald Rumsfeld in charge.

Nowhere does Bergman mention that Netanyahu is far less popular in his own hometown legislative body than he is in the US House of Representatives. Netanyahu is a media-driven conciliator, what an Israeli might call a pachdan (hard to translate, but close to "scaredy-cat"). His bark is far, far worse than his bite. In any dicey situation, Netanyahu would rather dither than do. I am not endorsing an attack and then calling Netanyahu a coward; I am suggesting that whatever the proper course might be - Netanyahu's consistent pattern when a bold decision  is required is to talk a lot and do very little. When you put these two puny neurotic men in a room together, very little will come from all the strategic santorum they will produce.

It's a 50-50 proposition. No doubt, when you have 2 people like this in charge, the likelihood of a monumental mistake is quite high. But given their "caught in the headlights" history, I think the status quo is far more likely. My bet therefore is no - the year 2012 will pass without an Israeli attack on Iran.