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The Long Play

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I’m not terribly interested in the project of calling Jeffrey Goldberg out as a propagandist; he’s Jeffrey Goldberg, so of course he’s a propagandist. As I suggested yesterday, I don’t find the claims put forward in the article particularly new or revelatory. Essentially the same argument was put forth in a “major” article in the January 2007 New Republic by Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi. I’d rather read Oren directly than have Goldberg as a mediator, but whatever. What I’m more interested in is the Israeli strategic mindset that Goldberg depicts. The two article have the same central argument: Iranian nukes pose an indirect threat to the long term survival of Israel, and the United States should do something about that.

First on timelines. Goldberg writes:

I have been exploring the possibility that such a strike will eventually occur for more than seven years… The reasoning offered by Israeli decision makers was uncomplicated: Iran is, at most, one to three years away from having a breakout nuclear capability (often understood to be the capacity to assemble more than one missile-ready nuclear device within about three months of deciding to do so)

Allowing that Goldberg emphasizes the period since July 2009, I have to wonder how long Israelis have been telling him that Iran is 1-3 years away from a bomb. To put it as delicately as possible, Israel has a robust history of either a) being wrong, or b) lying about Iran’s progress on a nuclear weapon. Assuming that Iran actually has a nuclear weapons program (and I believe it does, even if I don’t believe it represents justification for war), it has progressed at a rate far slower than that predicted by the Israelis. Since I don’t believe that Israeli intelligence is really that bad, I have to conclude that the Israelis have consistently been lying about their estimates of Iranian nuclear capability. For example, the 2007 Oren and Halevi article asserted that “according to Israeli intelligence, Iran will be able to produce a nuclear bomb as soon as 2009.” I’m not naive; this is the international system, and even friends lie. There’s no injunction, however, to believing those lies or failing to call them out. What the nature of these lies indicate, however, is that the key purpose of these articles is to convince the United States to do something.

One of the key points of both the Goldberg and the 2007 TNR articles is that while Israelis are happy to tell the rubes in the United States that Iran is planning to commit national suicide by lobbing a nuclear warhead at Tel Aviv, they don’t actually seem to believe it:

The challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack, Netanyahu told me. “Several bad results would emanate from this single development. First, Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one. Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph.

“You’d create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area,” he went on. An Iran with nuclear weapons would also attempt to persuade Arab countries to avoid making peace with Israel, and it would spark a regional nuclear-arms race. “The Middle East is incendiary enough, but with a nuclear-arms race, it will become a tinderbox,” he said.

Other Israeli leaders believe that the mere threat of a nuclear attack by Iran—combined with the chronic menacing of Israel’s cities by the rocket forces of Hamas and Hezbollah—will progressively undermine the country’s ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens. Ehud Barak, the defense minister, told me that this is his great fear for Israel’s future.

“The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality,” he said. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people want to come here.” This vision is threatened by Iran and its proxies, Barak said. “Our young people can consciously decide to go other places,” if they dislike living under the threat of nuclear attack. “Our best youngsters could stay out of here by choice.”

Three observations. First, I think it’s plausible that the Israeli strategic leadership really believes this. Although there’s good reason to believe that they’re exaggerating these claims in order to convince the United States to go to war, it’s hard to say something like this over and over again without coming to believe it. Second, by publicly making outsized claims regarding the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, they actually make the situation worse; if the problem is that people will believe the Iranians are insane and thus leave, then talking about how insane the Iranians are all the time doesn’t help the perceptual problem. Third, the belief that an Iranian nuclear weapon can destroy Israel by osmosis is palpably insane, regardless of how firmly Netanyahu believes it.

This last clearly bears elaboration. First, the actual mechanism of how the Iranian bomb is supposed to destroy Israel without being dropped are deeply suspect. I discussed the violence this argument did to reality back when the Halevi and Oren article came out, and nothing has changed since then. There isn’t the faintest reason to believe that any of the mechanisms that the Israelis discuss (more rockets, more terrorism, etc.) will actually be affected by the presence of an Iranian nuke.  The stability-instability paradox (the idea that high level nuclear stability produces low level conventional instability) is important, but doesn’t preclude response to conventional provocation by proxies.  The United States, after all, waged open war against several Soviet proxies during the Cold War.  I expect that the Israelis will promptly bomb the bejeezus out of Hamas and Hezbollah as soon as Iran goes nuclear, just to reinforce perceptions of “resolve” and “credibility.”

Second, an Israeli strike on Iran cannot solve the problem. If the issue is really a feeling of insecurity on the part of Israelis, then the very existence of an Islamic Republic of Iran with an interest in developing a nuclear weapon provides that insecurity, whether or not the weapon is ever developed. Israel could probably delay an Iranian nuclear weapon, but no one thinks that it can completely destroy the program. Barring either regime change or the annihilation of Iran (and even the former might not do the trick), the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon would do precisely the work that Israel’s leadership claims an actual warhead will do; create uncertainty. Nevertheless, Goldberg badly misrepresents the effects of the Osirak strike, suggesting that it ended Iraq’s nuclear program when in fact it appears to have accelerated that program. What ended that program was a major war in 1991 combined with a long campaign of sanctions and bombing, followed by another major war in 2003. This is beyond Israel’s capability, which is probably why the US is being so aggressively pushed towards war. Joshua Pollack details the nonsense of the idea that an Israeli bombing campaign could permanently prevent Iran from developing a nuke. The Israelis are proposing an extremely short-term solution to what they themselves assert is a problem that will play out on the scale of decades.

Finally, this entire concept rests on the notion that Israel has enjoyed some fundamental level of existential security that will be lost if Iran finds a nuke is, to reiterate, mind-boggling insane. It’s ISRAEL, for crying out loud. The entire national myth is built around the idea of existential vulnerability, just as the myths of the 1948, 1967, and 1973 wars are predicated on the notion that if something had gone wrong, the Arabs might have pushed the Jews into the sea. The conflict with the Palestinians is invariably depicted in existential terms; Hamas cannot be negotiated with because it threatens Israel’s existence. The idea that some nebulous concern about an event that even Israel’s leaders do not believe likely will drive Jews to resettle elsewhere is absurd on its face. If the Swedes suddenly faced an existential crisis, I’d be interested in thinking about how that might affect Swedish society, immigration patterns, etc.   Israel was built around the idea of permanent existential crisis.

It’s also more than a little irritating that both the Goldberg and the Halevi/Oren articles try to construct the Iran situation as a US problem.  We are simultaneously asked to believe that an Iranian nuclear weapon poses an existential threat to the state of Israel and to the survival of the Jewish people, AND that it really, really poses a more serious threat to the United States.  The best I can say about this is that it’s incoherent; no one will be moving out of the United States because of a fear of Iranian nukes.

And this is where it would have been useful to have somebody that wasn’t Jeffrey Goldberg conduct the various interviews. While I doubt that anyone unsympathetic to the case for war could have gotten the access that Goldberg enjoyed, it nevertheless would have been nice if Goldberg had brought up these objections.  They aren’t particularly complicated or novel.   What he did manage to do was transmit Israeli propaganda to a US audience.   I preferred the propaganda when it came directly from Israeli officials.

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