October 29, 2014 § 4 Comments
Frustrating the deeply held convictions of “Zionist Occupied Government” conspiracy theorists everywhere, it has not exactly been a banner week for the U.S.-Israel relationship. First there was the Bogie Ya’alon snub during his sojourn to Washington, where the Israeli defense minister met with Chuck Hagel and Samantha Power – the latter reportedly only because the White House was too late in trying to prevent it – but was not granted meetings with Joe Biden, John Kerry, or Susan Rice. Then came yesterday’s already legendary Jeff Goldberg piece in the Atlantic, henceforth known as the chickenshit article, during which an unnamed senior administration official used that moniker to describe Bibi Netanyahu. The piece, which proclaimed a crisis in U.S-Israel relations, was right and has now inflamed that crisis even further. As dedicated readers may recall, in July I wrote that despite the very bad personal relationship between Netanyahu and President Obama, the bilateral U.S.-Israel relationship was not going to be threatened in the long term, and I think that is still true. Nevertheless, what is going on now is certainly serious and can derail things in the short term. So to make up for my lack of recent blogging, and my even longer lack of blogging about Israel specifically, here are some semi-extensive thoughts about the entire contretemps.
First, just as Israeli officials are completely out of line and do damage to their own cause and interests when they make nasty comments about Obama, Kerry, and other U.S. government officials, the same goes for the inane and childish comments made to Goldberg about Netanyahu. I am and have been highly critical of Ya’alon, Naftali Bennett, and others who have launched inappropriate personal attacks; it reflects terribly upon them and does absolutely nothing to rectify whatever it is that has made them upset. This is no different, and the intensely personal nature of denigrating the courage of a former Israeli special forces commando is particularly ugly. Literally taunting an Israeli prime minister for not bombing Iran – as if the issue is a lack of guts rather than an array of barriers to doing so, from Israel’s security cabinet to intense differences of opinion about such a move across the political and military spectrum to serious pressure from the U.S. – is boorish and petty and smacks of smug, childish amateurism, not to mention a terrifyingly myopic and incomplete view of how foreign policy actually operates. I hope that the outrage expressed by some in the U.S. when Ya’alon has insulted Kerry in the press is also expressed today. On the flip side, those who found nothing wrong with Ya’alon’s remarks a few months ago should have the appropriate sense of self-perception to keep their mouths shut now as well. It’s not good when Israelis trash their American counterparts, and it’s not good when Americans trash their Israeli counterparts, but if you are a pro-Israel American, your outrage at one had better be matched by your outrage at the other.
Second, Netanyahu’s broadside in return today is a great example of a world leader who does not properly appreciate his country’s position in the international system. Israel is a regional power in its own right, but it is also largely dependent on the largesse of its great power patron – for which, by the way, it has no genuine feasible alternative replacements should that largesse ever be withdrawn. Despite the heady excitement Israelis have over increased trade ties with China and India, the optimism that this will translate into political support is misplaced, as excellently outlined by Rory Miller in Foreign Affairs, who demonstrated that both countries have completely delinked their economic relations with Israel from their political relations with Israel, and are not going to reverse that path any time soon. Were Netanyahu smart about this, he would have expressed his anger and disappointment behind closed doors, and publicly kept his mouth shut. The fact is that Israel and the U.S. will never be equal. There is an enormous power imbalance in the relationship, and the U.S. can afford to alienate Israel (although it shouldn’t and it would make things harder for U.S. initiatives in the region) but Israel can absolutely not afford to alienate the U.S. I get why Netanyahu’s impulse is to lash back out, but this is a tit-for-tat exchange that Israel will always lose. Israel’s greatest geopolitical advantage is its relationship with the U.S., and thus a well thought out plan would be to swallow whatever American insults come Israel’s way and do nothing to harm that relationship. Some Israeli leaders, including rightwing Likud politician President Ruby Rivlin, get this. Netanyahu quite obviously does not.
Third, leaving aside the damage in the day to day working relationship, the infamous chickenshit interview has potential to backfire on the U.S. when it comes to the Iranian nuclear program in two ways. One has to with Israel, and the other has to do with Iran. On the Israeli side of the equation, the White House is quite obviously happy that Jerusalem has so far sat on its hands and kept its planes far away from Fordow. In the context of an Israeli populace and political class that sees external threats rising up around it, nervousness that the U.S. is getting snookered by Iran in the nuclear negotiations and will agree to nearly any terms to just make the problem go away, and an election coming soon in which the threats to Netanyahu come not from the left but from the right, is there a better way of prompting Netanyahu into taking military action against Iran than denigrating him as a chickenshit who is too scared to use his military? It’s almost as if the person or persons who felt the need to go blabbing to Goldberg are trying to end up with egg all over their faces. I’d agree that the chances of Israeli action at this point are remote, but just listen to some of the saner and more respected security voices in Israel – Amos Yadlin and Ya’akov Amidror are two who come to mind – and you will quickly realize that Israel does not necessarily share the same view of these unnamed administration officials that a bombing run is completely off the table.
On the Iran side of the ledger, I agree with Dan Drezner that there is a component to this that involves signaling to Iran. I am not as certain that it is intentional, however; rather, my fear is that the U.S. is instead unwittingly and massively reducing its negotiating leverage by openly doubting Israel’s ability and willpower to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and by implying that it sees a nuclear Iran as a near fait accompli. Any Iranian leader reading the Goldberg interview would logically assume that there is nothing Iran can do that will invite a strike against its nuclear program, and that it really has no reason to offer any negotiating concessions at all. Irrespective of whether or not the Obama administration has privately decided that it wants a deal with Iran at any cost, this is terrible negotiating strategy and very poor strategic behavior.
Fourth, the chickenshit comments are more likely than not going to exacerbate the type of Israeli behavior that frustrates the U.S. unless the insults and vitriol are ultimately accompanied by a genuine change in policy toward Israel. If things continue along the same path, meaning that there is no real penalty for increased settlement activity in the form of reduced intelligence and military cooperation, reduced defense aid, or reduced support at the United Nations, the takeaway message for Netanyahu is going to be that the only price for driving U.S. officials to apoplexy is having to absorb personal insults. I don’t know whether policy is going to change following the November elections or not; I have read some predictions that the cover for Israel at the U.N. in particular is something that will be endangered, but I have serious doubts as to whether that will be the case. The point is, if Goldberg’s unnamed official thinks that his or her words alone are going to have any real effect on Israeli policy, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for it.
Finally, it is pretty clear to me that this is not just a random attempt to make Bibi look bad here, but a deliberate ploy to damage his political prospects. There is a perception among Israeli elites that picking a real fight with the U.S. is fatal for Israeli politicians, and many in various U.S. administrations believe that as well. My friend Brent Sasley has argued otherwise, although others take a different view of the Shamir loss in 1992. In this case, in the short term the fight seems to have bolstered Bibi, with people like Bennett coming out and strongly backing him against the chickenshit comments. It makes him look like a stronger leader standing up to a petty and bullying American administration. In the long term, however, I think that the White House political calculation here is correct in the sense of wanting to play up the hostility between Netanyahu and the White House in order to damage him. There are going to be elections in the next few months, and there are plenty of rightwing politicians aspiring to unseat Bibi who can claim that they will stand up to Washington when need be but do not have the baggage that Bibi has. Ya’alon is obviously not in this camp, but Bennett, Moshe Kahlon, Avigdor Lieberman, and even Yair Lapid will all try to take advantage of this dynamic to siphon votes away from Likud and toward themselves.
Ultimately, whomever it was that has now made the term chickenshit a permanent part of the foreign policy lexicon may feel a lot better today after a self-satisfied venting session, but this kind of thing is entirely counterproductive. Allies can and do disagree, but this is not the way to do it. Nobody in the Obama administration should be too pleased with themselves this afternoon.
March 6, 2014 § Leave a comment
Bibi Netanyahu and the Israeli government have had the same two important decisions regarding the U.S. hanging over them for over a year, and they aren’t going away. The first is whether to cooperate with the U.S. to the hilt on the peace process and agree to anything the Obama administration asks them to do. The second is whether to cooperate with the U.S. to the hilt on Iran and agree to refrain from striking Iran, which is a commitment that the Obama administration clearly seems to want. The question is, if Israel does not deliver on either of these issues to the fullest extent, what will the fallout be, and which one is the higher priority for the U.S.?
There’s a lot of chatter recently about this being Israel’s last chance for peace with the Palestinians along with dark warnings about what will happen if the talks break down. In an interview with Jeff Goldberg last week, President Obama spoke at length about what he thinks the negative ramifications will be. Echoing John Kerry, he said that demographics, settlement growth, and the possibility that Mahmoud Abbas will be gone from the scene in the near future make this the last best chance for a deal, and that should a deal not happen, Israel will face increasing isolation and the end of its status as both Jewish and democratic. He also warned of a decreased ability on the part of the U.S. to protect Israel in international institutions and from the growing hostility of the international community. Goldberg interpreted this last point as (in his words) “a veiled threat” which would suggest that the U.S. may at some point stop using its veto to shield Israel from unfavorable UN Security Council resolutions.
This comes on the heels of months of Israeli-perceived threats from Kerry, including his prediction of a third intifada if talks fail, his denouncement of Israel’s military presence in the West Bank, and most recently his observation that efforts to boycott Israel are only growing. Never mind that none of these statements were threats but were rather predictions of how other actors will behave should the two state solution disappear; the important point is that Israeli leaders have interpreted these statements as a warning that the U.S. will abandon Israel should these talks not produce results. There is also the news that Israeli defense and intelligence officials have had visas to the U.S. denied at a much higher rate over the past year, which could be an effort to warn the Israeli government about what lies ahead should U.S. wishes be defied.
For whatever reason, there is much less talk – both here and in Israel – about what will happen to the relationship with the U.S. if Israel goes and strikes Iranian nuclear sites. This strikes me as strange for two reasons. First, I think that the possibility of this happening is at least 50% and yet there is a lot more speculation about Israel not doing its best to come to an agreement with the Palestinians. Second, I strongly believe that compared to a peace process failure, Israel defying U.S. wishes on Iran will be far more harmful to the relationship and will bring a higher degree of fallout.
I have always been clear in my belief that the consequences for Israel should the two state solution evaporate will be similar to what the White House describes: isolation, boycotts, and a far more difficult dance on maintaining Israel’s democratic character along with a Jewish majority. I am not quite sure that this is the absolute last opportunity, but were I the prime minister of Israel, I would be making plans for a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank in the eventuality that a deal cannot be reached. But that is another post for another day; the main point here is that should the talks fail, I do not think that the consequences from the U.S. will be much to fear. For starters, this show is not new. The Israelis and Palestinians have spent decades talking to each other or not talking to each other, all to no result, and the American-Israeli relationship has proceeded apace with no real ruptures. If these talks fail despite intense American intervention, it will be no different than Camp David, Wye River, Taba, the vaunted road map…you get the point. The U.S. and Israel have a long history of getting over peace process failures no matter if the administration puts the onus on Israel or on the Palestinians, and I suspect this time will be no different. The U.S. interest in getting this resolved has not grown more than it was under Clinton, and the damage to the U.S. should the talks fail does not present a vital threat. Furthermore, the peace process requires not just Israeli acquiescence but Palestinian acquiescence as well, and if reports are to be believed, the Palestinians have no intention of acceding to the security plan formulated by the U.S. and General John Allen. What this means is that if the Palestinian side is intransigent to a larger degree than the Israeli side (and so far reports indicate that to be the case), any failure will not be pinned on Israel. So for a number of reasons, this Israeli fear of a rupture is far-fetched. This is not an attempt to provide an excuse for Israel not to make a deal, since I think that Israel should agree to any and every U.S. request if it means getting an actual permanent agreement, but just an observation that the global consequences of failure will be a lot harsher than those emanating from the U.S.
In contrast, I think that Israel might want to tread more carefully when it comes to Iran, because an Israeli strike will be harder than a half-hearted peace process negotiation effort for the U.S. to shrug off. For one thing, there is not much recent history of Israel carrying out military operations that will clearly upset the U.S. and thus less of a history of getting over it for Israel to draw upon. Two examples would be the Suez crisis in 1956 and the bombing of the Osirak reactor in 1981, but neither of those are truly comparable. On Suez, Israel was operating in conjunction with Britain and France, which blunted the reaction as Israel was not seen as a sole rogue party, and on Osirak, Iraq was not viewed as such a vital interest for the U.S. and it did not embroil the U.S. in any messy aftermath. In the case of a hypothetical future Israeli strike on Iran, these conditions do not apply. Israel will be doing it alone, in defiance of U.S. wishes ahead of time, and it will affect what is likely the number one American foreign policy goal at the moment, which is a nuclear deal with Iran that leads to a more general rapprochement. Not to mention that many will view the U.S. as somehow complicit, and there is a chance of blowback directed against U.S. interests in the region. Also in contrast to the Palestinian issue, there will be no other party to blame; if things get hairy afterwards, Israel cannot share the burden of blame with someone else. It will not blow up the U.S.-Israel relationship, which is far too institutionalized and based on public affinity, but I can imagine a variety of unpleasant consequences, such as arms shipments being halted, intelligence and security cooperation suffering, the visa situation becoming even more difficult, etc.
I fully recognize that in Netanyahu’s eyes, these situations are not equal. Iran targets Israel in a variety of ways, with the seizure of the ship carrying missiles yesterday as just the latest exhibit in a mountain of evidence. Bibi views Iran as an existential threat whereas he views the Palestinian issue as one that can be managed. I disagree with his assessment, but it being what it is, his motivation and incentive structure is likely to go it alone on Iran. If Israel does that, however, it should at least factor in the costs of defying the U.S. and not assume that everything will be copacetic in the aftermath.
December 4, 2012 § 9 Comments
Last night Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt point that all supporters of Israel should think about very hard. He wrote, “Two things can be true at the same time: Israel is judged more harshly than any other nation–and, Netanyahu is behaving terribly.” Israel is subjected to double standards to which no other country is held, and if you think that isn’t true, consider the nearly single-minded focus on Israel that is the hallmark of the United Nations General Assembly and Human Rights Council, or the harsh spotlight trained upon Israel over civilian casualties relative to other countries. Israel behaves badly on plenty of occasions, but so do other countries with far less complex challenges, and yet a visitor from another planet encountering Earth for the first time would lump Israel together with North Korea based on the media coverage (and if you think that is a fair comparison, please just stop reading now since you’ll be wasting your time). Israel always starts off in any situation at a complete disadvantage, and this is something that no other country deals with on a similar scale. Yet, this does not mean that Israel is a completely blameless actor in every instance, and none of the above obviates the fact that not all criticism of the Netanyahu government is a result of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, dislike of Netanyahu personally, or driven by a hidden agenda. To take the case in point, Netanyahu’s actions since last Thursday are not only childish and puerile, they are weakening Israel to an immeasurable degree.
Let’s zoom out for a minute and look at the long term picture. Israel is now perhaps more isolated than it has ever been on a number of levels, and certainly the most isolated it has been since 1975 during the Arab oil boycotts and the falling out with the Ford administration. Looking at Israel’s traditional regional allies, Israel’s relationship with Turkey is at an all-time low, its ties with Egypt are the most strained they have been in the post-Camp David era, and Jordan is too preoccupied with its own internal problems and the wave of refugees coming over the border from Syria to give Israel much cover on anything. While Israel does not have to worry about military threats from Arab states, it is looking at a long-term stream of diplomatic pressure from Islamist governments and less cooperation from Arab states on repressing non-state actors who threaten Israel.
In Europe, Israel faces an uphill battle as well. There is generally a lot of sympathy in European capitals for the Palestinians, but Europe’s indignation over settlements is real as well. This was driven home by the lopsided UN vote on Palestinian statehood, in which the Czech Republic was the only European country to vote with Israel. New allies Cyprus and Greece, to whom Israel has pinned such high hopes, both voted to grant Palestine non-member state observer status, and stalwart Israeli ally Germany abstained due to its anger over repeatedly being dismissed by Israel over the issue of settlement expansion. This all comes on the heels of the surprising European support for Operation Pillar of Cloud, which indicates that while Israel faces a tough audience in Europe, it has some wiggle room.
Then there is the United States, which has given Israel military aid for Iron Dome, constantly goes to bat for it in the UN including last week, was unwavering in its rhetorical support during military operations in Gaza, and also has been pleading with Israel to halt settlement expansion. The U.S. is unlikely to put heat on Israel like Europe does, but it has repeatedly expressed its displeasure with settlements and is very clear that it sees settlement growth as an obstacle to peace.
Given all of this, what is Israel’s most sensible course of action? Is it to loudly announce that it is going to “punish” the Palestinians for going to the UN by building thousands of more homes in the West Bank? Or is it to look at the big picture, realize that settlements are not just an excuse trotted out by anti-Semitic Europeans and Israel-hating leftists but are actually causing Israel all sorts of problems, and come up with some other way to deal with what it views as Palestinian intransigence? Israel went in the span of weeks from being viewed sympathetically due to Palestinian rockets indiscriminately targeting Israeli civilians to being denounced and having its ambassadors hauled in on the carpet over settlement expansion and being threatened with all sorts of countermeasures by the West. Please, someone make a cogent argument for me how this is somehow a brilliant strategy and how Netanyahu is ensuring Israel’s future existence, because from where I am sitting it is counterproductive, dangerous, and unwaveringly stupid. It’s all fine and good to constantly claim that Western views don’t matter and that Israel has the right to do what it wants, but that is the equivalent to burying your head in the sand. The fact is that Israel cannot exist on its own, it needs allies given the neighborhood in which it lives, and settlements are actually a problem for Israel’s allies. That’s the truth, and pretending otherwise is fiddling while Rome burns.
It has become clear to me over the past few years that contrary to the popular myth that the problems between Israel and the Palestinians stem from 1967, the parties are still fighting over 1948. Significant segments of Palestinians, with Hamas leading the way, simply will not concede the legitimacy of Israel, plain and simple. Concurrently, the constant refrains from the right about Palestinians not needing a state of their own because they have Jordan or the tired old canard that there is no land to give back to the Palestinians because it belonged to Jordan and to Egypt (always smugly spouted as if this is some brilliantly clever argument) is a vestige of 1948. Everyone loves to point out that Hamas doesn’t care about settlements, and that the PLO was founded in 1964, and both of these things are true and speak to the challenges that Israel faces that have absolutely nothing to do with settlements. But – and this a big one – settlements exacerbate the situation enormously, particularly with Western countries. Even ceding the argument that Palestinians of all stripes are never going to accept Israel in the pre-1967 borders and that Arab states will never want to make peace with Israel, Israel should then be doing everything it can to make sure it has the West on its side. You want to know what the best way to foul that up is? Proudly declaring that you don’t care what anyone else thinks and that you are going to build settlements wherever and whenever you like, and that doing so is not in any way an obstacle to a two-state solution and that in fact the blame rests solely with the other side. I am sick and tired of watching Israel’s supporters, of whom I am most definitely one, ignore the glaringly obvious facts that are right in front of their faces. Settlements are a huge problem, case closed. If you think that the benefit to expanding Israel’s presence in the West Bank outweighs everything else, then I respect your argument and at least you are going into this with eyes wide open. Pretending that settlements are an ancillary side issue though is willful blindness, and if that’s what you really think, then your powers of observation and analysis are sorely lacking.
November 7, 2012 § 5 Comments
As it became clear last night that President Obama was headed for an easy victory, a bunch of people on my twitter feed began speculating – or more accurately, making jokes – about what this would mean for Bibi Netanyahu. The joking actually turned into a serious conversation about whether Obama will somehow punish Netanyahu for his perceived support of Romney and clashes with the president, with some going so far as to speculate that he will tell Netanyahu that no help on Iran is forthcoming. It seems that Netanyahu is worried himself, as he is already clamping down on Likud members who are expressing negative reactions to Obama’s reelection out of fear that it will damage his standing with the White House even further.
Despite what is obviously not a great relationship between the two men, I don’t quite see how Obama’s reelection is going to have much of a negative effect on Netanyahu or the U.S.-Israel relationship at large. This is true for a few reasons. First, as Steven Cook persuasively argued last month, the relationship is institutionalized to the point that personal animosity between the countries’ leaders is not going to have much of an effect, if any. Let’s assume that Obama decides this morning that he wants to put the screws on Netanyahu – what precisely is he going to do? Aid to Israel is controlled by Congress, the joint military and intelligence cooperation is so deeply ingrained that it would take a long time to reverse, and there are deep ties between the two countries at all levels of government, business, and society. There are smaller things that Obama could do on the margins, but the immediate consequences are close to zero.
Second, and I cannot stress this enough, if you think that the myriad of ways in which Obama supported Israel during his first term was just a feint to win an election, then you are falling victim to the same delusion that said Nate Silver and all of the polls predicting an Obama win were deliberately skewing the evidence. Quite simply, there is absolutely nothing to suggest that all of a sudden funding for Iron Dome, joint military exercises, vetoing of anti-Israel UN resolutions, and other similar actions are going to stop now that Obama doesn’t have to worry about senior citizens’ votes in Florida. I will bet any amount of money that there is no drop-off in the administration’s support of Israel in the security and diplomatic spheres, and the folks who think otherwise have a large burden of proof to overcome that cannot be swept away merely by shouting “but he didn’t visit Israel” or “he left Netanyahu waiting while he ate dinner with his family.”
Third, Obama is not very popular among Israelis, and so even if he wanted to punish Netanyahu by trying to interfere in the Israeli election, it just wouldn’t work. Bill Clinton might have been able to sway Israelis when he was president, but Obama does not have the popularity, credibility, or familiarity with Israeli voters to pull of such a move. The fact that Obama was reelected is not going to factor into Israelis’ calculations when they go to the polls, as Brent Sasley helpfully pointed out previously. The idea that Netanyahu now has to be running scared because his hopes to have Romney elected did not pan out is a pretty flimsy one.
Finally, the suggestion that Obama is now going to tell Netanyahu that the U.S. has no interest in confronting Iran makes little sense to me based on previous U.S. actions and Obama’s long record of statements indicating that he views an Iranian nuclear bomb as a real problem. Aside from Stuxnet, crippling sanctions, and an increased carrier presence in the Gulf, Obama has made clear that preventing nuclear proliferation is perhaps the foreign policy issue that he holds most dear. The disagreement between he and Netanyahu over the red line of nuclear capability vs. nuclear weapons is still going to be there, but Obama has held firm to his own timeline so far and he is not going to now somehow make it even more firm because he has been reelected. The bottom line here is that Obama is worried about an Iranian nuclear weapon as well, and he is not going to drop his concerns just because he and Netanyahu do not get along very well.
P.S. For another argument on why the Obama revenge meme is an ill-informed one that focuses on different variables than mine, check out Peter Beinart this morning.
September 28, 2012 § 4 Comments
Bibi Netanyahu gave a widely covered and dissected speech to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday in which the main takeaway seems to be that he watched a lot of Warner Brothers cartoons during his time as a teenager living in the U.S. Brent Sasley and Jeffrey Goldberg both weighed in on what Netanyahu was trying to accomplish, and Ali Gharib pointed out that Bibi actually made a mistake with his cartoon bomb, so I don’t need to rehash what others have already eloquently written. Instead I’d like to pick up on a theme that Robert Wright captured, which is that Netanyahu essentially conceded that Israel will not be bombing Iran any time soon. As regular O&Z readers know, I have thought for months that an Israeli strike is unlikely to happen, and so now that the conventional wisdom has caught up with me, it is worth rehashing why most people thought that an attack was going to happen during the summer or fall.
The thinking in the DC foreign policy community on an Israeli strike has largely been shaped by the notion that the decision to attack lies with Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, and so the speculation over whether Israel was on the brink of striking Iran’s nuclear facilities broke down into two camps. On one side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are deadly serious about a strike. They view Israeli saber rattling as an effort to prepare the Israeli public for war and think that the reportedly reluctant Israeli military and political leadership will line up behind the prime minister and the defense minister once they decide to order military action. On the other side are those who believe that Netanyahu and Barak are engaged in an elaborate bluff designed to either pressure Iran into ceasing its uranium enrichment program or to convince the United States to handle the job of taking out the Iranian nuclear program. Israeli chatter about the looming threat from Iran is aimed at creating conditions under which the U.S. feels it has no choice but to do everything possible to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon and convincing the Europeans to back harsher sanctions on Iran. In this reading of the situation, the rest of the Israeli military and political leadership do not matter because Netanyahu and Barak are only interested in creating the perception that they are going to attack.
The question then of what Israel is going to do turns on Netanyahu and Barak’s true mindset; if they are serious about attacking they will attack, and if they are bluffing they won’t. It is a very simple dynamic, leading to an entire cottage industry designed to ascertain what precisely the two men’s intentions are, with an increasing focus on Barak – or, per his feeble attempt at anonymity, the “decision maker” – as the key figure. In this increasingly accepted view, there are only two possibilities and two outcomes, and the only people who matter are the Netanyahu-Barak tandem.
What this discussion has entirely missed, however, is that there is a plausible third outcome, which is that Netanyahu and Barak are dead set on launching a military operation against Iranian nuclear sites but that such an operation will not occur. People have discounted this possibility because they either misread the way in which national security decision making takes place in Israel or discount the Israeli political climate.
Netanyahu and Barak are not the only people who matter in this decision. When an American president wants to go to war, he generally gets his way irrespective of what his cabinet or generals want to do, with the Iraq War a good demonstration of how the president is truly The Decider. In contrast, Netanyahu and Barak will not be able to launch a strike on Iran without the near unanimous consent of the inner security cabinet and the larger political-security cabinet, and such authorization is not assured. Four of the nine members of the smaller group are currently believed to be opposed to a strike, and the fact that Netanyahu briefed Rav Ovadia Yosef in order to flip Eli Yishai’s support speaks volumes about Netanyahu and Barak’s power to order an attack against other ministers’ wishes.
There are also important constraints on Netanyahu and Barak’s decision making. Israeli public opinion does not favor a unilateral Israeli strike, the home front is woefully unprepared for retaliation from Iran or Hizballah, a myriad of current and former IDF and intelligence officials believe an attack is a bad idea at this point, and the specter of the Winograd Commission – which blasted former prime minister Ehud Olmert and the IDF chiefs for the 2006 war in Lebanon – hangs over everything. All of this is particularly salient given Netanyahu’s historical risk aversion when it comes to ordering military operations of any sort, compounded by the fact that this is an operation whose chances of success are seen to be limited to delaying Iran’s nuclear program rather than ending it and might end up with thousands of Israeli civilian casualties as retaliation. That the Obama administration is also opposed to an Israeli strike is an enormous constraint on Netanyahu given Israeli reliance on U.S. munitions and aid.
In the aftermath of yesterday’s speech, there is a rush of commentary focusing on the fact that Obama looks increasingly likely to be elected and so Netanyahu feels like he needs to back off and not risk angering the White House any further. I am sure that is part of what is going on, but this narrative implies that Netanyahu would have ordered a strike by now if Romney were ahead in the polls. I think that is wrong, and misses the fact that there is lots going on here on the Israeli side and that the U.S. is only one of many variables in this equation, and perhaps not even the most important one. If the focus is exclusively on the argument that U.S. pressure has sufficiently convinced Netanyahu to change his plans, then analysts are guaranteed to get it wrong again in the months or years ahead when trying to figure out what Israel is going to do.