Sunday, May 17, 2009

Bibi Gun


I have learned much from Jeffrey Goldberg, and generally admire what he does with his contradictions; but yesterday's New York Times column on Benjamin Netanyahu is troubling on so many levels one hardly knows how deep to drill first.

Basically Goldberg is saying this: You may suspect (given Netanyahu's record, presumably) that the prime minister is an ideologue and something of a manipulator, that he is actually committed to Greater Israel, and is throwing Iranian sand in our eyes, trying to distract us from the occupation and the settlements. But this would be wrong.

Netanyahu, Goldberg continues, truly does believe that Iran is a threat to Israel's very existence, and he believes this for three reasons: strategic, Jewish, and familial. I, Goldberg, do not necessarily believe these things myself, but I have access to Netanyahu and his strategic planners, a purchase on the way Israeli Jews think, and a sympathetic grasp of his family dynamics. So I'm going to explain him to you. (Goldberg does not tell us why, if he does think Netanyahu is misguided, the prime minister's sincerity is a virtue or even worth talking about; or why Netanyahu and his aides particularly like to speak with him. But I digress.)

THE STRATEGIC POINT is the important one, and Goldberg does not so much report it as (how did Stephen Colbert put it?) write it down. He is, no doubt, accurately reflecting the views of most of the professionals currently involved in Israeli strategic planning, from Uzi Arad (Netanyahu's confidant and head of Israel's National Security Council) on down. Roughly, their scenario runs like this:

Iran may or may not be going for a nuclear bomb, but we have to assume that it is; and once Iran reaches the capacity to build one, this will change the Middle East in a way that will eventually destroy Israel. Even if mad mullahs do not just drop one on Tel-Aviv, the mere fact of a "nuclear umbrella" will embolden Hamas and Hezbollah to fire missiles. It will also turn Iraq into a client state, which will cause Kuwait and the Gulf states to fall in line behind Iran's power. Then Saudi Arabia will fall in line, or get a bomb of its own, or both; all of which will eventually bring Islamists to power in Cairo. So Israel cannot allow these dominoes to fall, which will bring its end. Even if an Israeli air strike only delays the Iranian bomb by a few years, it must hit before doomsday processes are set in motion. (Goldberg is by no means alone in reproducing this scenario. Israel's foremost Churchill wannabe--also a kind of IDF stenographer--Haaretz's Arie Shavit, has been flogging it for months; you can read Shavit's version here.)

I say currently involved in Israeli strategic planning because there are plenty of professionals, from former intelligence boss, Ephraim Halevy, to former Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who think an attack would be madness, however uncomfortable it might be to live with a nuclear Iran. But how about mere civilians using their heads for a change? The fact is, every terrible domino that the existence of an Iranian bomb is supposed to topple is far more likely to be toppled by an attack on Iran.

GOLDBERG, VENTRILOQUIZED BY Netanyahi and Arad, is not convinced. "Talk of containing Iran after it acquires a nuclear capacity," he writes, "does not make the Israelis (or Iran’s Arab adversaries, for that matter) happy and, in fact, might push them closer to executing a military strike." Notice the parenthetical aside, implying as Netanyahu loves to imply, that Israel would actually be doing the work of moderate Arab states like Egypt and Jordan, and with their tacit blessing. Goldberg does not tell us that Mohamed El Baradei, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and an Egyptian, has called a strike "completely insane"; that it would "turn the region into one big fireball, and the Iranians would immediately start building the bomb--and they could count on the support of the entire Islamic world."

If you want to know what an Israeli attack will really mean, just read this extraordinarily trenchant summary by Reuven Pedatzur, ironically entitled, "Here's how Israel would destroy Iran's nuclear program." The piece, relying on a study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, blasts the Netanyahu-to-Arad-to-Goldberg thesis more thoroughly than a bunker buster.

Oh, as for missiles coming from Gaza and South Lebanon, you may remember that these have not needed an "Iranian nuclear umbrella" to be launched. You also may have noticed that Israel's nuclear umbrella did not seem to do much good against them either, or for that matter, get its neighbors to fall in line. It seems that, if you subscribe to the big swinging dick theory of diplomacy, the enlargement you can expect from a nuclear bomb is rather limited. (I have had more to say about deterring, not attacking, Iran here and here.)

BUT STRATEGY IS not enough, apparently. To really get Netanyahu we must also understand how "Amalek" (the biblical people that mercilessly attacked the rear of the camp when the children of Israel were leaving Egypt) rattles around in the minds of Israeli planners--also how hard it is to be the son of the Jabotinsky movement's favorite historian of Jew-hatred, and the younger brother of a military icon, to boot. Amalek, Amalek. The ultimate enemy, the metaphor for every anti-Semite, Nazi, and terrorist.

Goldberg might be forgiven for going all squishy here about Jewish fears, though Netanyahu is not the only person to have a difficult father or lose a loved one to terror. But as long as we are onto Amalek, Goldberg might also have noticed that there are two times that biblical Israelites themselves commit genocide. The first, in Prophets, when Samuel commands King Saul to attack Amalek for what their forebearers did. They were to kill every child, lamb, and calf. The second time was after Haman, the Amalekite prime minister in the "comic" Book of Esther, planned to annihilate all of the Persian King's Jewish subjects. The Jews responded preemptively, and with the King's permission, to "destroy, massacre, and exterminate" all of Haman's "sons," and the killing became a bloodbath against Jewish foes that--so the story goes--took over 75,000 lives.

Such Jewish stories, and whether Israelis are to regard them as heroic or tragic, raise the question of what Netanyahu means when he insists on Palestinians recognizing Israel as a "Jewish state." But that's another story.