“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” goes a famous line from the old Clint Eastwood movie The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
It catches well how the endless war talk from Israel this summer has passed the point of saturation and became ineffective. Even if Iran is the Bad
, then the Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu administrations
have found themselves at cross purposes as to who is the Good
and who is the Ugly
One thing is clear: the level of mistrust between Netanyahu and Obama has hit a low point not seen for decades. By this Labor Day weekend, it became apparent that Netanyahu’s strategy of poker brinkmanship had gone too far.
His most recent remark — that clearer US red lines on Iran’s nuclear program
offered the best chance to avoid conflict — actually marked an end to the talk of a unilateral Israeli strike. Still, the way in which Netanyahu pushed his bluff to the limits has left deep scars on American-Israeli relations — scars that will not heal at least as long as both these leaders remain in office.
Once upon a time, Israel was created and observed a unique national code of silence on all matters nuclear. There was there no open debate on the topic; the Israeli public granted its leaders the moral and political authority to make decisions regarding nuclear weapons away from the public eye. There was national consensus behind this practice. The public had neither the knowledge, nor the interest to seek that knowledge. The code helped Israel form its unique bargain
with the bomb under which Israel has never factually acknowledged possession of nuclear weapons even though the whole world has known about it for decades. It also shaped Israel’s modus operandi on other countries’ nuclear programs, such as Israel’s strike against Iraq’s Osiraq reactor in 1981 and the bombing of Syria’s Al-Kibar reactor in 2007.
This code has been shattered in the case of the Iran. Former Israeli governments led by Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert stuck to a laconic statement that all the options were on the table. Netanyahu, however, returned to power in 2009 by highlighting and magnifying the gravity of the Iranian nuclear threat, promising out loud that Israel would not allow a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu has repeatedly compared the Islamic Republic of Iran to Nazi Germany and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Adolf Hitler. An Iranian nuclear bomb in Netanyahu’s eyes means the possibility of another Holocaust.
The combination of Netanyahu’s determination and the complexity and size of the Iranian nuclear program shattered the old code of silence. Israelis recognized that a military action against Iran is not a two-minute aerial strike, but could lead to a full-scale regional war, drawing in three or more Israeli adversaries including Iran, Lebanon, Gaza and even Syria with many of the attacks directed against Israeli civilians.
Furthermore, it would be a war of unprecedented uncertainty about the actual damage Israel can inflict on the Iranian nuclear program, about the loss of Israeli lives and property and about Israel’s ability to bring the war to a close. There is also recognition in Israel that an attack on Iran could prove utterly counterproductive to Israel’s own objectives. Instead of halting Iran’s nuclear program — which most analysts believe is not aimed at this point at weapons production but rather at building capabilities that would place Iran on the threshold of making weapons — it would provide Iran with the political justification to move openly and aggressively toward the bomb.
A strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons program would require ongoing follow-up, something that Israel alone cannot sustain for the long run. If Israel would start such a war alone — not only without coordination with the United States but actually against its will — Israel could well remain alone in the aftermath. As insane as this conduct looks from the outside, Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been dead serious about pushing this idea to limits. It has been this determination that has fueled the extraordinary public debate we have witnessed in Israel over recent months. The more these two leaders look determined to lead Israel into a strike, the more alarmed and vocal their opponents became, both inside and outside of Israel. It turned out that the stiffest resistance to this adventurism came from the constituencies whose support is absolutely required for such action: Israel’s own strategic community and the US leadership.
In Israel, it became evident that entire defense establishment, past and present, opposed initiating a military strike against Iran at this time. This opposition came not only from the top brass of the Israel Defense Forces but also their civilian counterparts in the intelligence and possibly nuclear communities. While protocol prevents the latter from saying anything in public, leaks to the Israeli media made the community’s opposition clear. To highlight the point, a handful of retired generals and former intelligence chiefs took the unprecedented step of openly expressing their opposition to military action against Iran.This conflict between security professionals and the elected politicians became so open that Netanyahu had to remind the public awkwardly that in a democracy, the professionals’ are supposed to execute what the elected political leadership decides.
Then, in a remarkable rare moment of political defiance against the prime minister, Israel’s highly respected but ceremonial president, Shimon Peres
, assumed the elderly statesman role and stated publicly that an Israeli lone action against the wishes of the United States, would be a grave mistake. Netanyahu’s office countered with a list of Peres’ alleged political blunders over the decades.
If the Israeli domestic debate on Iran sounds like theater of the absurd, it was ultimately the Obama administration that exposed the Israeli bluff. From the US perspective, Netanyahu’s threats were more than hardball, they were ugly politics. Not only was Netanyahu threatening to take action in a sensitive moment during the US presidential election campaign, but such action appeared aimed at aiding Republican Mitt Romney — an act of clear interference in US domestic politics.
The Obama administration
responded by taking their own diplomatic gloves off. American spokesmen, in particular Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made the point that Israel’s military capabilities are limited in regard to damaging Iran’s nuclear program. Dempsey and others also made evident their view that the US would not allow itself to be sucked into a war it does not believe in.
To allow Netanyahu a face-saving escape, the Obama administration has added a few carrots, saying it might provide Israel with some more advanced military hardware, and would consider articulating an explicit red line on Iran. Netanyahu in return declared that the more explicit those red lines, the less chance there would be for confrontation. For now the Israeli war talk is off again. Many in Israel and elsewhere have realized that Netanyahu has pushed his brinkmanship game too far. Unfortunately, the ugly after effects of this exercise are likely to poison American-Israeli relations for some time.
Avner Cohen, an Israeli native, is a professor of non-proliferation studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) and a senior fellow at the Center for Non-Proliferation Studies. He is the author of Israel and the Bomb (1998) and The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb (2010), both published by Columbia University Press.