It seems irresponsible to write a blog about Israel without at all addressing the biggest question regarding Israel these days, which is of course whether or not Israel is going to launch an attack on Iran. I will leave the wisdom of such a move for another post, but examining what is going on in Israeli domestic politics yields conflicting answers as to whether or not it is going to happen.
Aluf Benn argues in today’s Haaretz that Netanyahu is preparing Israelis for war by trying to convince them that attacking Iranian nuclear sites is the only way to prevent another Holocaust and that Israel is capable enough to do the job on its own. Certainly Netanyahu’s AIPAC speech was in the same vein, with its exhortation that Israel cannot afford to wait much longer and cannot depend on other states to guarantee its security. The fact that Bibi and Ehud Barak – according to various reporting the two most vocal proponents of an attack – appear to be freezing out the rest of the Security Cabinet while making decisions on how to respond to rockets from Gaza does not bode well for any restraint on Iran down the road. There is a speculation that Netanyahu is simply bluffing in an effort to get the U.S. to bomb Iran on its own and thus ensure that the job is done well while blunting any international condemnation that will rain down on Israel should it go alone, but to paraphrase Jeffrey Goldberg, such a gambit would make Netanyahu the favorite to win next year’s World Series of Poker main event.
On the other hand, Daniel Levy makes a strong argument that Israel will not attack Iran because Bibi’s history shows him to be risk-averse, likely to avoid military confrontation, and bombing Iran risks Netanyahu’s high popularity should the mission go wrong. Opinion polls indicate that there is not a majority of Israelis in favor of an attack, and Bibi does not want to endanger a third term, particularly if he decides to capitalize on his current status and call early Knesset elections. Furthermore, Levy points out that the Netanyahu coalition is based on expanding Israel’s hold over the West Bank, not getting into a war with Iran. It is also striking that very little has been done from a civil defense perspective to prepare for retaliations from Iran or Hizballah in the event of an Israeli raid. Matan Vilnai, the cabinet minister in charge of civil defense abruptly resigned in February to become the new ambassador to China, homefront drills have been canceled due to budget shortfalls, and gas masks have not been nationally distributed nor have bomb shelters been designated. In short, aside from a lot of overheated rhetoric, Israel does not appear to be a country busily preparing itself for war and the various repercussions that might accrue.
So what’s going on here? Option A is that Bibi is incompetent and rushing into a war without making the vital preparations first, but that does not ring true to me. I think Option B is the answer: Bibi wants someone to take out Iranian nuclear sites but does not want to be the one to do it, and this is all one enormous act for the benefit of the U.S. and other international players. It’s a variation on Richard Nixon’s Madman Theory, or an example of Robert Putnam’s two-level game, in which Netanyahu commits himself domestically to war so that he can then turn to Obama and say that his hands are tied unless the U.S. does the dirty work for him. The question that now bears watching is whether it will work.