March 19, 2012

If Iran is really so dangerous...

If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu really considers Iran an "existential threat", why hasn't he acted to remove other items from Israel's strategic plate? He could stop expanding settlements and take the initiative to resume talks with the Palestinians, so at least he'll have some diplomatic capital to lose if Israel does strike Iran -- at the moment, he's barely treading water. He could act as though Israel is really waiting to see if sanctions work, so he might have a few friends (France, Croatia, USA?) if Israel ends up attacking.

What has Netanyahu actually done so far? He has been lobbying his own Cabinet and assorted Western leaders on the merits of a hypothetical Israeli attack. The result of this down-beat on the war drums has been to undermine credibility of the same crippling sanctions against Iran that Israel has been demanding, and which U.S. President Barack Obama and other allies have been pushing. In Netanyahu's narrative, any sanctions are either too little or too late -- so why bother at all? His policy on settlement expansion has been so defiant (or determined, if you prefer) that the Obama administration has given up on stopping settlements or promoting peace with the Palestinians, and is now indistinguishable from its immediate predecessor on the issue.

What has Netanyahu NOT been doing? He has NOT been preparing Israel for the consequences of any military confrontation with Iran. Even if such a strike were to become unavoidable -- and even if it could succeed in significantly derailing Iran's nuclear program -- the backlash and retaliation against Israel would be devastating. Is there a plan for that, or any urgency to prepare Israel's 8 million inhabitants, most of whom were born after the 1973 war that last brought Israel close to the brink of destruction, for what might easily escalate into a Total War?

It's possible -- even if Iran poses such a threat -- that there's little more Israel can do about it beyond deterrence. Not deterrence against Iran COMPLETING a nuclear weapon, but against its USING one. This would be the case if he accepted the prevailing analysis of the security elite in Israel and the United States, that a military attack would have only limited success and/or launch a major regional conflict that's not worth the trouble. But if Netanyahu is putting all his rhetoric behind a "pre-emptive" attack (i.e., as soon as Iran crosses a technological threshold), deterrence falls apart as soon as it becomes clear that Israel has no intention of attacking. So, which is it?

At the same time, we will soon have elections in Israel and in the United States. It helps Netanyahu to be seen talking tough to Obama, as much on settlements as on Iran --- especially now that he knows It won't cost Israel any actual support from Washington. As an added benefit, Netanyahu's tough talk helps energize his right-wing American political allies at a time when Obama faces re-election and control of Congress hangs in the balance.

It's still possible Netanyahu sincerely believes Iran poses an "existential threat" to Israel, a belief many of us share, in which case his actions are very hard to justify or understand.

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