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.

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