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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Empty Threats?

The effort by some Israeli officials to threaten a unilateral strike against Iran if the United States doesn’t act first, as reported in Jeff Goldberg’s new Atlantic article, may be little more than bluster.

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Pro-Israeli journalist Jeffrey Goldberg's article in The Atlantic magazine was evidently aimed at showing why the Barack Obama administration should worry that it risks an attack by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Iran in the coming months unless it takes a much more menacing line toward Iran's nuclear programme.

But the article provides new evidence that senior figures in the Israeli intelligence and military leadership oppose such a strike against Iran and believe that Netanyahu's apocalyptic rhetoric about an Iranian nuclear threat as an "existential threat" is unnecessary and self-defeating.

Although not reported by Goldberg, Israeli military and intelligence figures began to express their opposition to such rhetoric on Iran in the early 1990s, and Netanyahu acted to end such talk when he became prime minister in 1996.

The Goldberg article also reveals extreme Israeli sensitivity to any move by Obama to publicly demand that Israel desist from such a strike, reflecting the reality that the Israeli government could not go ahead with any strike without being assured of U.S. direct involvement in the war with Iran.

Goldberg argues that a likely scenario some months in the future is that Israeli officials will call their U.S. counterparts to inform them that Israeli planes are already on their way to bomb Iranian nuclear sites.

The Israelis would explain that they had "no choice", he writes, because "a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people."

He claims the "consensus" among present and past Israeli leaders is that the chances are better than 50/50 that Israel "will launch a strike by next July", based on interviews with 40 such Israeli decision-makers.

Goldberg is best known for hewing to the neoconservative line in his reporting on Iraq, particularly in his insistence that that Saddam Hussein had extensive ties with al Qaeda.

Goldberg quotes an Israeli official familiar with Netanyahu's thinking as saying, "In World War II, the Jews had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us. Six million were slaughtered. Today, six million Jews live in Israel, and someone is threatening them with annihilation."

In his interview with Goldberg for this article, however, Netanyahu does not argue that Iran might use nuclear weapons against Israel. Instead he argues that Hezbollah and Hamas would be able to "fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella".

But Israel relies on conventional forces – not nuclear deterrence – against Hezbollah and Hamas, making that argument entirely specious.

Goldberg reports that other Israeli leaders, including defence minister Ehud Barack, acknowledge the real problem with the possibility of a nuclear Iran is that it would gradually erode Israel's ability to retain its most talented people.

But that problem is mostly self-inflicted. Goldberg concedes that Israeli generals with whom he talked "worry that talk of an 'existential threat' is itself a kind of existential threat to the Zionist project, which was meant to preclude such threats against the Jewish people."

A number of sources told Goldberg, moreover, that Gabi Ashkenazi, the Israeli army chief of staff, doubts "the usefulness of an attack".

Top Israeli intelligence officials and others responsible for policy toward Iran have long argued, in fact, that the kind of apocalyptic rhetoric that Netanyahu has embraced in recent years is self-defeating.

Security correspondent Ronen Bergman reported in Yediot Ahronot, Israel's most popular newspaper, in July 2009 that former chief of military intelligence Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash said the Israeli public perception of the Iranian nuclear threat had been "distorted".

Farkash and other military intelligence and Mossad officials believe Iran's main motive for seeking a nuclear weapons capability was not to threaten Israel but to "deter U.S. intervention and efforts at regime change", according to Bergman.

The use of blatantly distorted rhetoric about Iran as a threat to Israel – and Israeli intelligence officials' disagreement with it – goes back to the early 1990s, when the Labour Party government in Israel began a campaign to portray Iran's missile and nuclear programmes as an "existential threat" to Israel, as Trita Parsi revealed in his 2007 book "Treacherous Alliance."

An internal Israeli inter-ministerial committee formed in 1994 to make recommendations on dealing with Iran concluded that Israeli rhetoric had been "self-defeating", because it had actually made Iran more afraid of Israel, and more hostile toward it, Parsi writes.

Ironically, it was Netanyahu who decided to stop using such rhetoric after becoming prime minister the first time in mid-1996. Mossad director of intelligence Uzi Arad convinced him that Israel had a choice between making itself Iran's enemy or allowing Iran to focus on threats from other states.

Netanyahu even sought Kazakh and Russian mediation between Iran and Israel.

But he reversed that policy when he became convinced that Tehran was seeking a rapprochement with Washington, which Israeli leaders feared would result in reduced U.S. support for Israel, according to Parsi's account. As a result, Netanyahu reverted to the extreme rhetoric of his predecessors.

That episode suggests that Netanyahu is perfectly capable of grasping the intelligence community's more nuanced analysis of Iran, contrary to his public stance that the Iranian threat is the same as that from Hitler's Germany.

Netanyahu administration officials used Goldberg to convey the message to the Americans that they didn't believe Obama would launch an attack on Iran, and therefore Israel would have to do so.

But Israel clearly cannot afford to risk a war with Iran without the assurance that the United States being committed to participate in it. That is why the Israeli lobby in Washington and its allies argue that Obama should support an Israeli strike, which would mean that he would have to attack Iran with full force if it retaliates against such an Israeli strike.

The knowledge that Israel could not attack Iran without U.S. consent makes Israeli officials extremely sensitive about the possibility that Obama would explicitly reject an Israeli strike.

Goldberg reports that "several Israeli officials" told him they were worried that U.S. intelligence might learn about Israeli plans to strike Iran "hours" before the scheduled launch.

The officials told Goldberg that if Obama were to say, "We know what you're doing. Stop immediately," Israel might have to back down.

Goldberg alludes only vaguely to the possibility that the threat of an attack on Iran is a strategy designed to manipulate both Iran and the United States. In a March 2009 article in The Atlantic online, however, he was more straightforward, conceding that the Netanyahu threat to strike Iran if the United States failed to stop the Iranian nuclear programme could be a "tremendous bluff."

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.

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