Commentary Magazine


The Israeli Punditry’s Own Goal

Though Barack Obama bears primary responsibility for fumbling the ball on Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli punditry has played a non-negligible supporting role.

Even before Hillary Clinton openly disavowed the possibility last week, U.S. military action against Iran was never a very credible threat, given Obama’s visible distaste for the idea. That left Israel as the only credible military threat. And without such a threat, no nonmilitary solution is possible — something even the Obama administration now tacitly acknowledges. As the New York Times reported this month, the administration’s main argument in trying to persuade China to back tough sanctions is that otherwise Israel is likely to bomb Iran, and the resultant instability in a major oil-producing region would be far worse for Chinese business than sanctions would. Thus, everyone who favors a nonmilitary solution to the Iranian problem has a vested interest in keeping the Israeli threat as credible as possible.

Incredibly, Obama has been doing the exact opposite. It’s hard for administration officials to persuade either Tehran or Beijing to take the Israeli threat seriously while simultaneously proclaiming Obama’s determination to stop Israel from carrying it out. But that makes it all the more important for Israel to project willingness and ability to strike Iran whether Washington likes it or not — which Israel has tried to do.

Unfortunately, Israel’s efforts have been undercut by a string of academic and media pundits proclaiming that Israel cannot possibly strike Iran without U.S. permission. A typical example is the editorial Haaretz published last Tuesday, reprinted by the International Herald Tribune two days later. Explaining why Israel has “no better option” than to sit quietly and hope Obama’s efforts succeed, it declared: “Israel will need full American support for any actions it may decide to take against the Iranian threat. If Israel goes to war, it will need intelligence help, prior warning, military equipment and diplomatic support from the United States.” The obvious corollary is that Israel cannot go to war without American support.

Such assessments are almost certainly wrong: Israeli governments have rarely heeded American vetoes when they felt a vital Israeli security interest was at stake, and it’s hard to imagine a more vital Israeli interest than keeping Iran from getting the bomb. But that doesn’t matter.

What matters is that Haaretz is widely viewed by overseas journalists and diplomats as a credible interpreter of the Israeli scene. And therefore, such assertions lead Iran and China to believe that as long as Obama remains unalterably opposed to an Israeli strike, they need not fear one. Hence, Iran can safely continue its nuclear program, and China can safely continue stymieing international sanctions.

Those who make such statements generally believe an Israeli strike would be disastrous and seek to prevent it. But by making the Iranians and Chinese feel they have nothing to fear, these pundits actually make it more likely that nonmilitary efforts will fail, leaving Israel with no choice but military action. Thus their ill-considered words may end up bringing about the very scenario they dread most.