Israel is likely to launch a strike against uranium-enrichment sites in Iran within a year. Or so Jeffrey Goldberg reports in the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly. If the Iranians continue to defy the International Atomic Energy Agency and Obama refuses to pursue a more muscular punishment, he warns, an Israeli attack is a ‘near certainty’. Tony Blair, we must assume, would agree.
The risks involved, Goldberg conceded, are enormous: ‘a full-blown regional war’; the end of the special relationship between Tel Aviv and Washington; a ‘cataclysmic’ rise in oil prices; terrorist attacks on Jews in the diaspora; the loss of whatever moral prestige Israel has left. Yet the potential gains just might make them worth taking. For if, as he puts it, Israel succeeds in liquidating Iran’s nuclear programme, it will have eliminated ‘the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people’. Moderate Arab regimes may frown in public, but behind closed doors they will thank Israel: the destruction of Tehran’s nuclear programme may even strengthen the fight against nuclear proliferation and thus win praise from ‘the enthusiastic counter-proliferator who currently occupies the White House’ – no small achievement for the country that introduced nuclear weapons to the Middle East.
Was the article intended to prod Obama into taking tougher action against Iran before Israel takes matters into its own hands? Many readers thought so, not least because Goldberg is a former New Yorker writer who, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, published a series of hawkish articles based on chats with Bush administration officials, Kurdish rebels and other equally reliable sources. Goldberg is also a passionate supporter of Israel: he went to live there as a young man, served with the IDF in the Occupied Territories, and writes a blog for the Atlantic that has made him an influential figure in American Zionist circles. One would never guess from his piece that, despite its support for militants in Palestine and Lebanon, and its often incendiary rhetoric, Iran has tended to avoid direct confrontation with Israel; or that a number of Israeli leaders, including Ehud Barak and the former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, have made it clear that they don’t see Iran as an existential danger. What Goldberg’s critics say is that, knowingly or not, he is acting as a mouthpiece for hawks in Tel Aviv, much as he used to do for Cheney and Rumsfeld. In Stephen Walt’s words, he is ‘mainstreaming war with Iran’.
But if that was the intention, the article succeeded only in showing how far out of touch with mainstream Western opinion Goldberg’s interviewees – about 40 Israeli officials, some of them retired – are. Netanyahu, for example, is depicted as still being in thrall to his 100-year-old father Ben-Zion, a former aide to the right-wing Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky. And for all their emotional talk about averting another Holocaust, the Israelis Goldberg spoke to appear to be less afraid of a ‘direct attack’ by Iran (which some concede would be suicidal) than they are of the ‘more subtle’ threat an Iranian nuclear arsenal would present. In other words, Israel would lose its nuclear monopoly in the region, Iran would enjoy growing influence over Israel’s Arab neighbours and, most frightening of all, Israel would attract fewer and fewer bright Jewish immigrants – ‘the real threat to Zionism’, as Barak sees it.
Still, Goldberg’s article was sensational enough to cause concern. The former US senator Gary Hart issued a terse set of reasons not to attack Iran, while Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and presidential adviser (Obama was one of those he advised), urged the United States to ‘send a clear red light to Israel’. More out of the ordinary was Fidel Castro’s decision to summon Goldberg to a conference centre in Havana to discuss the piece. Assuming a new role as an elder statesman, and drawing, no doubt, on his own experience of a nuclear stand-off, he had words of wisdom for both leaders. Netanyahu, he said, had to choose between giving up his nukes and giving up his nuclear monopoly, while Ahmedinejad was to stop slandering the Jews and denying the Holocaust.
Goldberg isn’t the first writer to predict an Israeli attack. On 18 July 2008 in the New York Times, the Israeli historian Benny Morris claimed that ‘Israel will almost surely attack Iran’s nuclear sites in the next four to seven months.’ Like Goldberg, he made much of Israel’s fear that ‘its very existence was at stake’ so long as the Holocaust-denying, Israel-denouncing, Hamas-and-Hizbullah-supporting Ahmedinejad remained in power, and argued that Iran too would be better off if Israel attacked now, confining itself to a conventional air assault against Natanz and other nuclear sites: if Iran managed to acquire the bomb, he said, war would break out, and Israel, with its second-strike capacity, would reduce Iran to ‘a nuclear wasteland’.
Two years on, the need to confront Iran is being aggressively peddled by neoconservative groups – the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, for example, which lobbied for the Iraq war – and by a handful of liberal hawks, Blair’s friends. But there are few indications – Goldberg’s article aside – that Israel is any closer to contemplating military action. ‘My understanding is that the political and military upper echelon just isn’t keen on a unilateral attack,’ Zvi Barel, a reporter for Haaretz, says. ‘They don’t want this issue to be perceived as an Iranian-Israeli conflict, but as a global one. Also, they’re not sure that Israel can absorb all the casualties that Iran’s retaliation would cause. Sure, Netanyahu has said all the options are on the table – so have the Americans – but some options are more on the table than others.’
The Iranians are well aware that war is the least likely of them. The Obama administration has little appetite for it, especially when Iran could do much to undermine the precarious campaign in Afghanistan. Are they worried that Netanyahu might step in and do the job for Obama, as Goldberg predicts? ‘I don’t think they would take Goldberg’s article seriously,’ the Iran expert Hooman Majd says. ‘They certainly wouldn’t read it and think: “Unless we do something, there’s a 50-50 chance they’ll bomb us.”’ Others say the piece will probably be dismissed as ‘psy-ops’, its real aim being, as usual, to push the image of Iran as a Nazi-like threat and of the Israelis as potential victims of a new Holocaust – images that Ahmadinejad’s anti-semitic rants do little to dispel.
The more people in the West worry about Iran’s weapons, sceptics claim, the less they’ll worry about Israel’s siege in Gaza, or its own extremist clerics, one of whom – Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition – recently called for the annihilation of the Arabs. The Iranians may also find consolation of a kind in the mere existence of Goldberg’s article, and in the frankness with which his sources discuss the military option. Before Israel attacked the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981, it gave no advance warning, and the same radio silence preceded the bombing in 2007 of a secret North Korean-built nuclear reactor in Syria. Being threatened by your enemies isn’t great, but sometimes not hearing from them is even worse.