A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, November 4, 2011

Israel vs. Iran: Imminent War, Political Posturing, or Something Else?

For a week now, the Israeli media has been chock full of reports hinting that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is imminent or, at least, that both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak are urging the Cabinet to launch one; meanwhile Israel's Air Force has been practicing "long-range operations" and Israel just carried out its first ballistic missile launch in some years, from the Palmachim launch site on the coast south of Tel Aviv (where launches are readily visible to a significant number of people. Up to now I've been convinced this is mostly posturing (you don't signal a surprise attack) but posturing can spin out of control (see August 1914 and June 1967) and I think it's time I weighed in here. For one thing, the Iranians are also talking tough.

There is also an emerging subtext involving an apparent profound disagreement between the Netanyahu government and the military, intelligence, and security services, which may be leaking information to undermine the government.

Is this real? There is a lot of guessing going on, but as already noted actual surprise attacks are usually planned as, well, a surprise. I think this can probably be considered a war of nerves, but that, too, can lead to a miscalculation.

Then there is this story, in which Haaretz quotes a Kuwaiti newspaper as saying that Netanyahu suspects the former heads of Shin Bet and Mossad as being behind the leaks. Those who've never reported from Israel may wonder why a respected Israeli paper would quote a Kuwaiti paper on an internal Israeli development. What is going on here is an attempt to get a story out that is probably well known among Israeli journalists but which they can't report due to military censorship: you quote a foreign newspaper, but the mere fact you chose to quote it tells readers who understand the rules that you consider it true.

Other reports suggest the leaks are coming from the military. This has sparked a debate in the US, with Peter Beinart wishing the US military had done the same in 2003 to block the Iraq war, but Andrew Exum responding that the last thing you want in a democracy is a military that undermines the elected political leadership's policies. Both are perhaps drawing too much of a comparison to the US, where civil-military relations are not as intertwined as in Israel.

In any event, a war between Israel and Iran would quickly involve the US and much of the region, wreck economic recovery and have unforeseen consequences. I hope this is all a bluff. If it's not, it's the clumsiest surprise attack in history.

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