The Israeli defense establishment (past and present) is opposed to a preemptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The cost in civilian lives is inestimable, economists caution against the potentially calamitous effects of such a move, Washington states explicitly that Israel does not have the capacity to destroy the Iranian program, the international community is aghast, the majority of Israelis does not support an Israeli offensive, President Peres warns against a go-it-alone initiative — and yet Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak persist in leading Israel toward this objective. Why?
The enormity of the human, geo-strategic, global, economic and political threats posed by a nuclear Iran is hardly in doubt; what continues to be open to debate is the best way to deal with this challenge. The determination of the prime minister and his defense minister to pursue the most blatant military option has gathered steam in recent weeks. Rarely has so much effort been expended by an Israeli government to promote a high-risk policy so broadly questioned in professional quarters.
This is most evident in the media blitz that has accompanied the unbearable heat of this August. Nary a day has passed without several references to the dangers inherent in the Iranian program; high-level consultations are convened (and leaked to the press) on a regular basis; and despite the vigorous and open discussion on the topic, every official statement highlights the necessity of Israeli military action.
To drive home this point, special emphasis has been placed on increasing the defense budget in the midst of massive cuts in public spending. The civilian population has been bombarded with instructions on how to organize on the home-front. Special attention is being paid to arranging shelters to protect civilians from the barrage of missiles that may rain down on urban concentrations in the wake of an Israeli attack; tests of text messages to citizens are being conducted on a regular basis; the distribution of gas masks has been renewed. The newly recruited home front defense minister, Avi Dichter, has been charged with completing these preparations.
This appointment was also intended to consolidate the political groundwork for a decision on a military offensive. Indeed, given the deadlock in the “Forum of Eight,” the addition of a ninth member may yet prove to be a tiebreaker. It might also be the critical step in swaying a divided defense cabinet and a still-doubtful government. In order to further minimize in-house qualms in real time, new provisions for emergency decision-making which bypass full-fledged discussion were quietly enacted just a few days ago. At the same time, pronouncements relayed to the international community — highlighting not only Israel’s ability but also its sovereign right to make its own decisions — have been used to cloak governmental intentions in a patriotic garb designed to muster what to date has been less-than-enthusiastic popular support.
The attention devoted to justifying an Israeli military operation on Iran in the face of expert objection, popular hesitation and global opposition further begs the question: Why is the Netanyahu government so bent on pursuing a policy that seemingly flies in the face of all reason?
The most obvious explanation lies in domestic politics. The prime minister’s wager on postponing early elections and creating a short-lived national unity government has backfired, proving in retrospect to be a major strategic blunder. His popularity has dropped substantially in recent months. Playing up the Iranian threat is an excellent way to divert attention from the failure to provide an adequate answer to the issue of ultra-Orthodox conscription, to deflect unease on the rising cost of living, to distract citizens from ongoing investments in the settlement enterprise, and to rationalize the delay in the preparation of the 2013 budget. Relying on the time-tested adage that military audacity is a ticket to success at the polls, Netanyahu’s current obduracy is propelled by large injections of political fuel.
A second — and not unrelated — consideration focuses on the United States. Barak and Netanyahu are engaged in an act of brinkmanship aimed at forcing Washington’s hand on the Iranian issue, either by approving an Israeli initiative or, even better, by openly partaking in such a move. The particularly sensitive timing of this pressure serves their purpose well: if they fail to garner the support of President Obama, they still may be able to exercise some influence on the outcome of the US elections in November and hence on future policies in the region (while in the process probably testing the Israeli-American relationship beyond its already-extensive limit).
A third element is more personal in nature. Netanyahu, in his view, has nothing much to lose by raising the Iranian stakes. By doing all in his power to prepare for an attack on Iran, he is signaling that is doing his utmost for the country; should he be pressured to desist he has established a historical alibi. Given the prime minister’s consistent record of avoiding tough decisions and his ongoing recourse to the fear factor as a substitute for policy, he may indeed be using his rhetoric to explain away inaction while bolstering dependence on his leadership (but this assumes that the Netanyahu-Barak campaign is merely a bluff — a questionable presumption indeed).
All this leads up to a decidedly alarming conclusion: Netanyahu and Barak actually believe that the military option is the only way to go now and that Israel alone has the capacity to carry it out. Beyond the untold bravado intrinsic in such an approach, it reveals a narrow mindset incapable of entertaining and pursuing more refined options that rest on a mixture of economic, diplomatic and legal actions. Israeli impatience with the sanctions imposed by the international community is symptomatic of the virtually automatic preference for military measures that has come to guide policy-makers in recent years.
Perhaps it is not too late to remind Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak that using military might to deal with perceived threats proved counterproductive in Lebanon and Gaza in the past, and that there is no basis to believe that it should be otherwise in the case of Iran. There are no simple solutions to the increasingly complex problems in the region; the utilization of crude force in these circumstances is truly the last resort.
Israelis deserve a more sophisticated, strategic, reasoned and measured guiding hand during this momentous period. The almost-simplistic military penchant of the men that stand at the helm of the country at this daunting crossroads is beyond dangerous and irresponsible — it borders on the irrational.