A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Is Israel Looking for a Way to Climb Down from War Rhetoric?

Although you wouldn't know it from last week's Republican National Convention in Tampa, there seems to be a growing consensus that the likelihood of Israel attacking Iran in the near term is somewhat reduced. Amos Harel in Haaretz argues that Netanyahu and Barak overplayed their hand (in a poker game with Washington, not Tehran):
Here is a less speculative assessment: In the Iranian poker game, which they are playing primarily against Washington, Netanyahu and Barak raised the stakes a few weeks ago. From Haaretz's interview with "the decision maker," aka Barak, to the leaks of classified information regarding the dialogue with the United States, Netanyahu and Barak have been ratcheting up the pressure. But they appear to have overplayed their hand.
The result has been a tougher American stance that has led Israel to calm down a bit, as reflected in recent reports that Barak has changed his mind and now opposes attacking at this time. Thus many officials now believe an attack is not as inevitable as it previously seemed.
The Washington Post  sees Israel easing tensions with the US but wanting a strong statement on Iran from the US; while a Reuters article reports:

Stunned by a rebuke from the United States' top general, Israel is preparing a climbdown strategy in its war of words over Iran's nuclear program, aware that its room for maneuver is shrinking rapidly.
Anxious to prevent any flare-up in the Middle East ahead of November elections, there is also a good chance that U.S. President Barack Obama will provide Israel with enough cover to avoid a loss of face, analysts say.
A burst of bellicose rhetoric over the last month led Western allies to fear that Israel was poised to launch a unilateral strike against Iran in an effort to hobble the Islamic Republic's contested nuclear facilities.
So is Israel looking for a way to climb down? A few of us have thought so all along: Gary Sick's "Please Exhale: Israel is Not Going to Attack Iran" appeared last month and I commented on it then. Soon after, Shai Feldman assured us that "The Israeli Debate Over Attacking Iran is Over."

The facts are that Netanyahu has not only faced opposition from the Obama Administration and the US Joint Chiefs; Israeli President Shimon Peres, opposition leader/former IDF Chief Shaul Mofaz, and a number of former intelligence figures have all openly opposed an attack or dismissed Iran's threat; it's widely believed serving security figures also oppose the idea. If Netanyahu and Barak cannot command public support in Israel (however much they are backed to the hilt by AIPAC and the US Republican Party), then the hand they have overplayed was a weak one indeed. As the Reuters story previously quoted notes:
Despite all the obvious activity, it is hard to shake off a sense of skepticism. Although Israel is believed to have the region's only nuclear arsenal, it lacks the sort of conventional firepower pundits believe is necessary to put a serious dent in Iran's far-flung, well-defended atomic installations.
"All this talk of war is bullshit. If they could do it, then they would have already done it long ago," a senior European diplomat in Israel said.
As I have noted before, it would also be the most publicized surprise attack in history.

Of course, there is still a danger that Netanyahu and Barak, having talked themselves out onto a limb, will make a desperate move because they can't find a way to retreat. Many wars have been blundered into out of desperation, but I'd at least say the odds are against an attack at least in the short term.

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