March 4, 2012
The intensity of background spin emanating from Washington and Jerusalem threatens to leave very little to the imagination in advance of the March 5 meeting between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Various U.S. officials, current and former, named and anonymous, have shared their skepticism regarding Israel’s ability to inflict decisive damage on Iran’s nuclear-enrichment program, as well as their trepidation at the costs, consequences, and retaliatory attacks that might follow from an Israeli strike. These same officials have intelligence-driven doubts as to whether Iran even has any intention of crossing a nuclear threshold to weaponization. Their Israeli counterparts, meanwhile, push home the need for the United States to draw red lines beyond which there will be an American commitment to military action (with former Israeli intel chief Amos Yadlin taking the case to the New York Times‘ op-ed pages) and suggest that Obama would be to blame in the event of an Israeli strike. Subtle it isn’t.
Meanwhile, most of the rest of the world is holding its breath, convinced that yet another military confrontation in the Middle East will have disastrous consequences, especially during such a tumultuous period in the region, including for the global economy, with energy prices already hitting new and unexpected highs. Even those regional leaders who might privately welcome a military poke in the eye for Tehran do so against the wishes of their own publics and with uncertainty as to what else might unravel in the wake of a strike.
Curiously missing in this flurry of coverage has been a more considered assessment of the internal dynamics in play for Israeli decision-makers and how those might be most effectively influenced. Too often, the calculations of Israel’s leaders are depicted as if this were a collection of think-tankers and trauma victims given a very big and high-tech army to play with. Netanyahu represents the latter, guided by his “existentialist mindset” and his 101-year-old historian father. (The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg drew heavily on the father-son relationship in his assessment 18 months ago that an Israeli strike on Iran was imminent.) Peter Beinart has written, “Benjamin Netanyahu has only one mode: apocalyptic.” And the prime minister often depicts contemporary realities as akin to 1938.
In Shalom Auslander’s new novel, Hope: A Tragedy, the lead protagonist, Solomon Kugel, discovers a living and elderly Anne Frank in his attic, at one level seemingly a metaphor for the identity politics of contemporary American Jewry — we all carry Anne Frank around with us in our heads. Bibi Netanyahu can sometimes sound like an Israeli version of Solomon Kugel, the difference being that in the Israeli “attic” we keep both Anne Frank and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the two apparently merging when it comes to the prime minister’s depiction of the threat posed by Iran and how it should be handled.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, by contrast, is portrayed as the rational, calculating calibrator of the “zone of immunity” when it comes to Iranian technical progress on the nuclear front and the precision of Israeli bombing thereof. When Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, in a lengthy and splashy New York Times Magazine essay, answered in the affirmative his own question of whether Israel would attack Iran, his assessment relied overwhelmingly on conversations with Barak.