Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic has become a major figure in the debate over whether and when Israel might attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.
When President Barack Obama wanted to score a pre-emptive public relations strike before meeting earlier this month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he called in Goldberg for a lengthy interview at which he asserted that he was not bluffing over his determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
More recently, Goldberg has become embroiled in a Twitter dual with Daily Beast blogger Peter Beinart over the wisdom of boycotting products from Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Goldberg spoke this week to Al Monitor Washington correspondent Barbara Slavin [Beinart has agreed to an interview next week.] Excerpts from the discussion with Goldberg follow:
Al-Monitor: Are you worried that people will begin to think that Israel is crying wolf with so many stories saying they are considering striking Iran but then no strike?
Goldberg: On the cover story…I was about three months too early. What happened after that story appeared was Stuxnet [a computer virus that attacked Iranian centrifuges]. It seemed to work, then it seemed to work really well and then it seemed to work not so well…I started hearing from American government officials … issuing dire warnings about Israeli … intentions. I am guided at this point by what CENTCOM [US Central Command] thinks and [US Defense Secretary] Leon Panetta thinks and what the NSA [National Security Agency] thinks. I test this question all the time. …. I try to go to Israel as often as I can. I just got back a few days ago.
….I don’t want to put any numbers on this anymore. The Atlantic now has this Iran war clock … 20 different experts who give this percentage chance that an attack will happen within a year. .. I think there’s a reasonably good chance that an attack will happen but it’s hard to know from day to day. I have this sneaking suspicion that son of Stuxnet is working its way through the centrifuges…
You’re on to something, though. If we exit 2012 or let’s say spring of 2013 and the Israelis haven’t done anything, then I think we can probably say that despite their protestations, they want the United States to do it.
Al-Monitor: That’s always been my impression which leads to the next question: Don’t you think that Bibi [Netanyahu] and Obama had a good heart to heart and Obama told Bibi, ‘Don’t do it, or at least don’t do it until I’ve been safely re-elected?’
Goldberg: … I think … you say to the Israelis, “I hope you don’t do anything in 2012.’ I’m pretty sure that’s what he [Obama] said …The thing that people don’t understand is … Israeli leaders seem to be very serious about maintaining their sovereign right to defend themselves from threats they think are existential. This comes out of the normal desire of a sovereign state to not subcontract out its defense to another country …It comes from understanding that Israel as a Jewish state won’t ever put itself in a position where it has to beg to a non-Jewish government somewhere to protect it. ….
I think the Israeli leadership believes that President Obama has reconciled himself to this …I’m not sure Obama would not be pissed off as anything [if the Israelis struck] …For all the reasons we understand, his options are fairly limited … especially before November. He’ll have the Republican candidate, whoever he is, breathing down his neck asking why he’s not strong enough in his defense of Israel… I think he thinks the Israelis should understand that he’s serious about not wanting Iran to get a bomb…
Al-Monitor: Do you think that a military strike on Iran’s facilities by Israel would really accomplish anything?
Goldberg: I think it’s a bad idea… What the Israelis would be doing … in trying to prevent a theoretical war, is creating an actual war… It could be opening up a nightmare for themselves, for their neighbors, for the US … I take very seriously what the Israelis say about the nature of the threat. I just think it’s premature.
Al-Monitor: Let me ask about this Twitter duel you have going with Peter Beinart. How do you get the Israelis to change their policies on settlements if you don’t have something like what Beinart proposed?
Goldberg: I just had a long conversation with Jeremy Ben Ami [head] of J-Street [an American Jewish organization that bills itself as pro-Israel and pro-peace and that holds its national convention this weekend in Washington] … who’s adamantly opposed to a settlement boycott for practical reasons and I agree with this. Understanding Israeli character as we both do, it will have the opposite effect. It will harden their position. It will draw more sympathy than they would otherwise get. It won’t work.
Settlements are the secondary issue. What has to be negotiated is borders. Once you negotiate borders, the settlements fall into place…
Al-Monitor: We all write this and then the settlements keep expanding
Goldberg: For historic reasons, economic boycotts directed against unpopular Jews are pretty unpleasant. … There’s no such thing as an incomplete boycott of Israel. It would inevitably transmogrify into a full-on boycott of Israel. Plus I hate the hypocrisy. We’re not going to have a boycott of China over its genocidal policies in Tibet ... At bottom, I take the J-Street position that it’s counterproductive. It’s not going to dislodge the settlers. It’s going to bury them further in the land.
Al-Monitor: What worries you most about the U.S.-Israel relationship at this point?
Goldberg: All the worry about the America-Israel relationship is subsidiary to the issue of what Israel does to get out of its jam. The thing that I want is for an Israeli government to make a grand gesture. I’d love to see the prime minister – and I don’t think it’s going to be this one; I don’t think it’s in his nature – to go to Ramallah… go to talk to an assemblage of Palestinian leadership and say, ‘Look we all know how this has to end. The only way this is going to end without bloodshed, without terror and horror is with an equitable two-state solution… have to negotiate and we’re going to give up a lot and you’re going to give up a lot but at the end of the day this is what it’s going to look like – a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza with land swaps, a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem, a safe and secure Israel, a safe and secure Palestine …’
Israel gets into trouble with the liberal segment of America when people think it’s not trying to achieve peace. The semi-tragic aspect of Netanyahu is that he’s the one politician in Israel who could deliver probably 75 percent of Jewish Israelis to a ‘painful’ peace deal. . . Perhaps the reason he’s the only one is because he’s so reticent to do it…
Al-Monitor: Do you think if President Obama is re-elected, he’s going to make a real effort on this front?
Goldberg: … The effort I imagine is a long visit to the region where he challenges both sides to come up with something real… But he obviously wouldn’t talk about it now.
Note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Goldberg's view of Israel's stance since his 2010 Atlantic article.