When General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters yesterday that Israel and the United States are on “different clocks” regarding Iran’s development of nuclear weapons, he was doing more than stating what has already become obvious. Dempsey’s purpose in saying so publicly was more evidence that Washington is determined to ward off pressure from Israel to abandon its complacent attitude toward the Iranian threat. But it is also just one more instance in which the Obama administration has sought to create more daylight between U.S. and Israeli positions on security matters. While the president and his advisors think they are trying to teach the Netanyahu government a lesson, the main effect of this public disagreement is to encourage the Iranians to think that they don’t have to worry that much about either Israel or the United States.
Washington is frustrated because the Israelis won’t shut up about the consequences of a Western policy that has allowed the Iranians to keep refining uranium and getting closer to their nuclear goal. Dead-end diplomacy and loosely enforced sanctions have merely played into Tehran’s hands and the Israelis have been vocal about the fact that they are not going to simply stand by and wait patiently until Iran accumulates so much nuclear material stored in hardened underground bunkers that it will be too late to do anything about it. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is said to believe that moment will pass within a few months rather than the years the Americans say it will take. But rather than work with the Israelis and give them some concrete assurance that the president meant it when he said he would not allow Iran to go nuclear, the main reaction from the White House has been pique at Netanyahu’s chutzpah and public signals indicating the Israelis are on their own. This strengthens the security of neither the U.S. nor Israel. All it does is illustrate Mitt Romney’s point about the foolishness of the administration’s Middle East policy.
As Israelis and their government continue to debate the merits of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, the contempt for American foreign policy realists for the idea the Jewish state might decide to act in its own defense is considerable. Contempt for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be the primary motivation for the latest missive for James Traub, one of the realists leading writers, that appeared in Foreign Policy on Friday. Rather the focus on the “zone of immunity” that many Israelis and others worried about the nuclear threat believe Iran may be entering as its stockpiles get larger and are stored in invulnerable bunkers, Traub is more interested in what he calls, as the title of the piece puts it, the “zone of insanity.” As far as he is concerned Netanyahu and Barak are nuts to even think about acting without the permission of the United States.
But the answer to Traub’s points comes in his own column. Even the Obama administration now understands diplomacy and sanctions have failed. The only possible diplomatic solution is to agree to a compromise lauded by Traub that would leave Iran’s nuclear project intact. Under these circumstances, it is fair to ask who’s insane: The foreign policy realists who have been wrong about just about everything about the Middle East for decades and who now expect Israel to wait patiently for Iran to go nuclear or Netanyahu, who understands all too well that the Israel-hating ayatollahs mean what they say about eliminating Israel. If these purveyors of conventional wisdom are now counseling further inaction or more feckless diplomacy, that’s good reason for Israelis to think hard and long about attacking Iran soon.
In Israel this week, people are lining up for gas masks, a new Homeland Defense has been set to work to deal with the task of readying the country for the possibility of attacks from Iran, Lebanon and Gaza, and pundits are working overtime trying to figure out whether the nation’s political leadership is serious about launching a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities sometime this fall. Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is doing his best to convince Americans that the saber-rattling coming out Jerusalem is not a bluff aimed at forcing the West to toughen sanctions on Iran or start making their own credible threats about using force. In interviews with journalists and an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week, Oren has made a powerful case about the existential threat that a nuclear Iran presents to Israel, but Washington may be listening more closely to those figures inside the Jewish state who are claiming that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are begging to be talked out of an attack.
As the New York Times reported yesterday, Uzi Dayan, a former general who was asked to serve as Homeland Defense Minister, says his conversations with both Netanyahu and Barak led him to believe that the window of diplomacy with Iran that the Obama administration keeps talking about is still open. There are good reasons to believe the Israeli government would like nothing better than to have the war talk do what an earlier wave of speculation about a strike accomplished when Washington belatedly adopted a tougher sanctions policy. Jerusalem understands that even a successful strike on Iran will exact a terrible price in casualties and damage from counter-attacks from the Islamist regime and its terrorist allies. But those who assert that Netanyahu is just bluffing forget that Israeli anxiety is rooted as much in its lack of confidence in Washington as it is in knowledge of Iran’s genocidal ambitions.
Earlier this week White House spokesman Jay Carney reiterated the administration’s mantra about Iran, saying there was still “time and space” for a diplomatic solution to be found to resolve the impasse over its nuclear threat. While no one, not even the president’s loyalists actually believe there is even the slightest hope for diplomacy or sanctions to work, the White House is publicly clinging to this position since the alternative is unthinkable. By that I don’t refer to how unthinkable it would be for the future of the world for the ayatollahs to get their hands on a nuclear weapon. From the point of view of the administration, what is truly unthinkable is the prospect of being forced to admit that it has been wrong all along about Iran and must change course in order to avoid a catastrophe.
The spectacle of the administration standing by its determination to keep talking with Iran long after Tehran effectively scuttled the P5+1 nuclear talks has to be discouraging to Israel’s government and can, in no small measure, be the reason why the Jewish state seems to be bubbling over with speculation about an attack on Iran sometime before the U.S. presidential election. With even U.S. intelligence now finally admitting that Iran is working on a bomb and with the Islamist regime making it clear it has no interest in agreeing to a compromise agreement on the issue, those trusted with defending Israel’s existence may be rapidly coming to the conclusion that they have no alternative but to strike soon before it is too late. Though foreign policy realists and other Israel critics are denouncing the Israeli threats, the only way to convince Jerusalem to stand down and follow America’s lead is for President Obama to start speaking honestly about the failure of his belated attempt to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear ambition. In the absence of such honesty, there is little reason for Prime Minister Netanyahu to go on waiting until the danger cannot be averted.
Iran’s confirmation that the computers of a number of their officials have been attacked by a new virus will give further ammunition to those who argue that the nuclear threat from the Islamist regime can be neutered by intelligence coups and technology. Like the Stuxnet virus which supposedly flummoxed Iran’s scientists last year, the new Flame worm may cause some havoc in Tehran and the nuclear facilities scattered around the country. And it will give Western and Israeli intelligence agencies and government officials a chance to crow about their capabilities, much as Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon did today.
But even if this is Israel’s handiwork and the damage it does is greater than then the mere temporary inconvenience wrought by Stuxnet, no one should be fooled into thinking a virus will ultimately stop Iran’s nuclear program if the regime is determined to persist in its goal. Any technological attack will spawn a defense and a counter-attack. Though Flame may give Israel and/or the West a temporary advantage in the cyber war being conducted with Iran, it cannot by itself or even in combination with other covert activities such as assassinations, solve the problem. That is only possible by diplomacy or force.
With the approval of the outgoing Knesset, Israel is moving toward early elections that will send its people to the polls on September 4. The decision will allow a new government to be in place in advance of the U.S. presidential contest that will take place two months later. If Israeli opinion polls are correct that will mean even if President Obama is re-elected, he still will be faced with his old antagonist Benjamin Netanyahu as his counterpart in the U.S.-Israel alliance.
Since Obama spent much of his first term seeking to undermine if not oust Netanyahu from office, the timing of the elections may be no coincidence. Past American presidents such as the elder George Bush and Bill Clinton sought to intervene in Israeli elections to procure a more pliant Israeli negotiating partner. But with Obama fighting hard to hold onto Jewish votes by assuming the pose of Israel’s best friend, he dare not take a swipe at Netanyahu before the September vote. Given the lopsided result that pollsters expect, it might not make a difference even if he did try it.
The international press is doing its best to hype critical remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered by Yuval Diskin, the retired head of the Shin Bet security service, into a sign the government is in trouble. Diskin, a respected figure who retired last year, is the latest veteran spook to express his disdain for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. That there is a debate in the highest intelligence circles about the best strategy for dealing with Iran has never been a secret. But what Diskin’s comments and other attacks on Netanyahu from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reflect is not so much a revolt of the experts against the politicians but a standard trope of Israeli politics in which those who are frustrated about the fact that their ideas have not won the support of the Israeli public seek to overturn the verdict of democracy by appealing to the press and international opinion. It is no more likely to succeed now than in the past.
Though foreign news outlets treated Diskin’s remarks as a huge story that can be spun as part of a negative trend for Netanyahu, even the left-wing press in Israel is skeptical about that. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter noted that the personal nature of Diskin’s rant against Netanyahu and Barak at what he termed a “gathering of defense establishment pensioners” undermined their credibility. Unlike the foreign press, most Israelis are aware that Dagan’s animus against Netanyahu and Barak stems from the fact that he was fired from his post. That Diskin was passed over to replace Dagan may also explain his hard feelings. Moreover, the utter lack of public support for alternatives to Netanyahu or his policies makes farcical the claim in today’s New York Times that there is an “avalanche” of criticism about his stand on Iran.
German writer Gunter Grass is making the most of his recent disgraceful poem in which he sought to demonize Israel while portraying Iran as an innocent victim of aggression. In response to Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai’s declaration that the author of The Tin Drum was now persona non grata, Grass made a gratuitous comparison of the Jewish state to the former Soviet satellite state in East Germany and the current regime in Myanmar.
This exchange illustrates that paying too much attention to someone like Grass can be a big mistake. While the writer’s poem was worthy of condemnation, raising him to the status of a special case for exclusion as Yishai did merely allowed him to drag out the controversy and play the martyr. However, it bears mentioning that Israel actually has a valid reason to consider Grass ineligible for entry that has nothing to do with his views about the Iranian or Israeli nuclear programs because he is a veteran of the Waffen SS.
One aspect of the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe that is particularly perplexing for onlookers is the way hatred of Israel and Jews has been taken up by leading intellectuals. Perhaps the most egregious example of this trend is that of Gunter Grass. Grass, a Nobel laureate for literature and perhaps one of the leading figures of German letters of the postwar era, is a veteran leftist known for his hatred for the United States as well as his background as a member of the Hitler Youth and the Waffen SS under the Nazi regime. But yesterday, the author of The Tin Drum was back in the news for writing a poem defending Iran and attacking Israel.
Grass not only denied that Iran is working on a nuclear weapon but also denounced German support for Israel and called on the German government to halt the sale of submarines that are key to the Jewish state’s deterrence against aggression. Though Iran’s leaders have repeatedly called for the destruction of Israel as well as denying the Holocaust, Grass promotes a new blood libel when he claims it is Israel that is plotting to wipe out Iran and is the primary threat to world peace.
The campaign of administration leaks aimed at undermining Israel’s position on Iran has been widely noted. But according to Robert Satloff, the respected head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the White House isn’t satisfied with blaming Israel for the chance that Americans might be killed in the event force is used against Iran. Satloff says the Israelis see President Obama as blaming them for rising oil prices as well.
In comments quoted in the WorldTribune.com:
Satloff, who met “virtually everybody in the Iran debate,” said the Israeli leadership also saw the administration as blaming Israel for the sharp rise in U.S. gasoline prices. He said Washington attributed the higher prices to “Israel’s posturing” on Iran. “They [the Israelis] think the Iranians should be held responsible for the higher gasoline prices,” Satloff said.
The possibility that Washington would seek to scapegoat Israel for higher oil prices is an ominous development. While there have been, as yet, no public statements to that effect, or, as is generally the case with this administration, front page features in the New York Times claiming this is what anonymous senior officials are thinking, Israeli may believe this is something they expect to happen. Perhaps by making their fears on this score public, they hope to head off what they believe is an obvious next step from an administration that is friendly to Israel in public but oozing with hostility off the record.
Veteran Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari has written in the Times of Israel claiming last week’s bombshell from Foreign Policy magazine about Azerbaijan’s willingness to allow Israel to use its air bases to strike Iran was pure fiction. Yaari excoriates the editors of Foreign Policy, the Israeli press (including, presumably, the Times of Israel, which prominently reported it) and anyone else (including, presumably, me) for taking it seriously. But though Yaari presents some good arguments why it might not be true, unlike magazine author Mark Perry, he offers no sources or reporting to back up his assertion.
But even if we assume Yaari is right and Perry’s piece is wrong, there are some interesting questions to be posed about the piece. Unless you are willing to believe, as perhaps Yaari and others disputing its authenticity do, that Perry is lying about the fact that senior officials in the Obama administration leaked the story to him, it’s still important to ask why they did so. What possible motive could they have had?
You could argue that this leak – which has the Israelis gaming out an Iranian-led assault on Israel and capping Israeli casualties at below 300 – is a ruse designed to make the world think they’re not bluffing about a kinetic operation against Iranian nuclear facilities. Alternatively, it could be that the report is absolutely true, and that having already concluded that an attack would reap significant benefits, the Israelis are now confirming that its costs have been exaggerated. The math would then work itself out:
In the event of an Iranian attack on Israel, less than 300 people would be killed during three weeks of non-stop fighting on multiple fronts, according to estimates delivered to the security cabinet in a briefing, Channel 10 reported on Monday. According to the estimates, described as a worst-case scenario, thousands of missiles would be launched toward Israel from Lebanon, Syria and Gaza as part of the Iranian attack. The scenario took into account Israel’s defenses as of 2012, with the Iron Dome rocket-defense system not yet at its full deployment.
If Iran became a nuclear power, would it risk its own regime survival to strike at Israel? Such questions remain at the heart of the current debate. Those who argue either President Obama should try diplomacy again or that containment can work argue that Iran would not launch their weapons in a first strike against Israel, never mind what Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani said during his term as president.
A recent article in the Iranian press written by Ali Reza Forqani, an ally of the Supreme Leader, however, should re-inject concern about what Iran’s true intentions are. Entitled, “The Fiqh [Islamic Jurisprudence]-Based Reasons for the Need for Israel’s Annihilation,” the Open Source Center recently provided a full translation. The article begins by recalling Ayatollah Khomeini’s views:
Last year, I visited Mlitta, a town in southern Lebanon which Hezbollah has turned into its version of an evil Disneyworld. One of the displays featured huge poster boards sporting Google Earth images of “the next targets.”
In his Alef article, Ali Reza Forqani, an ally of Iran’s Supreme Leader, goes further. After justifying a war against Israel, Ali Reza Forqani delves into how Iran should conduct its war:
Israel must come under heavy military strikes from the first blows until the last. The first step of the first stage of Iran’s military attack on Israel must lead to the annihilation of ground zero points in Israel. Iran can use its long-range missiles to accomplish this task. The distance from Iran’s eastern most point to western most point of Israel is about 2,600 kilometers. The Israeli targets deep inside Israeli territory are well within the reach of Iran’s conventional missiles.
The potential for an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities may be a lot greater than skeptics may have thought. That’s the upshot of a story published yesterday in Foreign Policy that alleges Azerbaijan has granted the Israelis access to airbases in that country. If true, Israel’s ability to launch a strike from bases on Iran’s northern border would make the Jewish state’s military challenge in seeking to knock out Iran’s nuclear plants a lot simpler. The assistance of the Azeris would enable the Israelis to make repeated attacks and would eliminate the need to refuel their planes in midair in order to make the long flight from Israel to Iran.
Yet at the same time, a report in Ha’aretz insists that Tuesday’s announcement by the U.S. Defense Department that it would ask Congress for more money for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system ensures there will be no attack on Iran before the presidential election this year. While that assumption may be unfounded, along with similar speculation that followed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama earlier this month, it leaves open the possibility that Israel is heeding U.S. requests to hold off an attack. The question for Iran is, which of these stories do you believe?
A peculiar phenomenon has been dominating Israeli social media. As tensions between Israel and Iran reach fever pitch, a young Israeli couple has launched a campaign showing pictures of couples kissing under the heading “Iran, we love you, we will never bomb your country.” Some Iranians have reciprocated with rosy memes of their own carrying a similar message to their Israeli courtiers. Cute. Last Saturday, the campaign hit the streets of Tel Aviv. Hundreds waved banners and shouted into megaphones their disapproval of what they perceive to be Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s “needless” warmongering. Calls for Netanyahu’s resignation were heard over chants for “social justice instead of war.”
Most pundits would agree that Iran’s nuclear program has little, if anything, to do with Israel, even though a nuclear Iran would certainly make the region more unstable and dangerous for the Jewish state. The demonstrators’ claims aren’t likely to be taken seriously by Israeli decision makers who are focused more on intelligence evaluations of the Iranian challenge than social media.