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Bibi’s Game: Nuclear Blackmail?
The Israelis are going all out to lure, threaten, and scare the US into attacking Iran: the world hasn’t seen such a frenzy of staged hysterics since my three-year-old niece threatened to hold her breath until her parents agreed to buy her all six Barbie Fashionistas. Complain, complain, complain: kvetch, kvetch, kvetch: that’s been Bibi Netanyahu’s shtick ever since this President took office. However, the hysterics reached a crescendo of unprecedented shrillness last week, a turn of events dutifully reported in the Washington Post:
“A flurry of public statements and anonymous quotes to the Israeli news media in the past week has raised speculation that an Israeli attack could come before the U.S. presidential election in November.”
Anonymous Israeli officials snort in disgust at those “unreliable” Americans who sent them nearly $4 billion last year, make a big display of testing the country’s anti-missile defenses, and issue gas masks in preparation for the much-threatened and long awaited Israeli first strike on Iran.
The Israeli wolf is at the door, but one has to wonder what this President’s house is made of: straw, sticks, or bricks? And when the wolf comes down the chimney, will the pot be set to boiling? Not to stretch an analogy beyond the point of no return, but when it comes to Israel and its ceaseless demands, “not by the hair of my chinny chin chin” isn’t in this administration’s vocabulary.
While some officials may express such sentiments privately, in public the American response to Netanyahu’s open attempt to blackmail this White House has been complete silence. If you listen real hard, you can hear the first leaves falling on the White House lawn. Aside from boilerplate rhetoric about leaving no option off the proverbial table, and hailing the “success” of sanctions, the Americans have been unusually restrained, even given their usual reluctance to tangle with Tel Aviv.
Why is that? Yes, yes, I know, it’s all about the Vast Zionist Conspiracy That Controls the World, as some of the more misguided and simplistic critics of Israel would have it. While nothing I say or write will talk such people out of their primitive reductionism, this is not to deny the existence and power of the Israel lobby in this country. It is merely to suggest that something else is at work here, a factor unreported but previously hinted at – and that is the possibility Netanyahu is playing a game of nuclear blackmail with this administration, threatening to launch a nuclear first strike at Iran.
This possibility was prefigured, you’ll recall, in a New York Times op ed piece by Benny Morris, an Israeli historian of note, published in the summer of 2008. Morris argued that unless the Israelis or the Americans took out the Iranians’ alleged nuclear weapons facilities in six to eight months,
“[T]he Middle East will almost certainly face a nuclear war — either through a subsequent pre-emptive Israeli nuclear strike or a nuclear exchange shortly after Iran gets the bomb.
“It is in the interest of neither Iran nor the United States (nor, for that matter, the rest of the world) that Iran be savaged by a nuclear strike, or that both Israel and Iran suffer such a fate. We know what would ensue: a traumatic destabilization of the Middle East with resounding political and military consequences around the globe, serious injury to the West’s oil supply and radioactive pollution of the earth’s atmosphere and water.
“But should Israel’s conventional assault fail to significantly harm or stall the Iranian program, a ratcheting up of the Iranian-Israeli conflict to a nuclear level will most likely follow.”
I said at the time I thought this would never have been published in the Times without at least the foreknowledge and encouragement of Israeli government officials, perhaps the most hawkish faction of the national security establishment. One has to wonder if Morris’s grim prophecy has come true to the extent that Bibi is now threatening to fulfill it.
It makes sense technically, because Israel’s threat to launch a solo attack is hollow otherwise. Iran’s alleged nuclear facilities are so well dispersed, and, in the case of the Fordow installation, so well fortified as to represent an insuperable challenge to Israel’s military capabilities. A first strike would simply not take them out, and the war to follow would last far longer than the mere thirty-day IDF blitzkrieg imagined by some Israeli officials. What would take them out, however – and possibly threaten the very existence of the Iranian regime – would be a few well-targeted nuclear bombs.
Of these, Israel has plenty: indeed, the Israeli Prime Minister reportedly had something to do with their original acquisition, according to recently declassified documents [.pdf] no one outside Israel is paying much attention to. What a narrative for our more melodramatic future historians and Netanyahu biographers: he blackmailed the Americans with the very weapon his young self stole out from under their averted noses.
Perhaps the Israelis will settle for something less than the head of Ahmadinejad in exchange for calling off their nuclear pit bulls – say, the release of Jonathan Pollard, a perennial favorite of right-wing Israeli politicians, and a clampdown on leaks underscoring the threat posed by Israeli intelligence to US interests in the Middle East. But how long will these concessions satisfy them? Blackmailers are rarely satisfied with a few pay-offs. The November election may come and go, with no Israeli strike forthcoming – but always, from this point on, there will be that possibility hanging over Obama’s head, a veritable sword of Damocles hanging by a very thin string. No wonder his hair is turning white.
Given the nuclear threat emanating from Israel, one has to wonder how and why the Europeans hopped on the sanctions bandwagon with such eagerness. After all, weren’t we told the Europeans were fanatically hostile to Israel, and that this was the direct consequence of the “new anti-Semitism”? Why the big turnaround?
When contemplating nuclear war and its consequences, the first issue is physical proximity: the environmental consequences of a nuclear conflict for Europe are bound to be significant. If indeed Bibi is engaging in nuclear blackmail, then it’s easy to see the Europeans going along with the tightest sanctions – and even preemptive war – in the interests of avoiding a greater evil.
This is to say nothing of the consequences for Israel should such a horrific scenario occur, upon which the whole world would sit in harsh judgment — not least of all, the judgment of history. Then again, the Israelis may not care so much about that.
In making an argument in favor of nuking Iran, Prof. Morris echoed a claim often made by Israeli government officials and their amen corner in the US: that the Iranian regime is not rational in the Western sense, and its leaders are not rational actors. According to this tired talking point, it’s all about Shi’ite theology, which supposedly means Iran’s leaders are eager to embrace martyrdom as their highest religious duty. Once they gain access to nuclear weapons, Tehran’s mullahs will not be deterred by the prospect of retaliation: since their religious duty is the destruction of Israel, they will not hesitate to launch a nuclear attack.
Without going into too much detail over the shoddiness of this threadbare argument, I’d like to suggest that one could, at this point, justifiably question the rationality of the current Israeli leadership. They seem determined to plunge the region into a conflagration that is likely to drag in much of the rest of the world.
In characterizing the Iranians as irrational actors, Israel’s propagandists are engaging in a classic case of projection. Blinded by a religious fundamentalism that envisions a Greater Israel as the fulfillment of Divine Will, the radicals who have taken over the Israeli government pose much more of a direct threat than their Muslim equivalents – because, after all, the Israelis are actually in possession of a great many nukes, as many as 500.
If we take Israeli rhetoric at face value, then the possibility of an Israeli nuclear strike is more than mere speculation. The Israeli position is clear: Iran even having the means to assemble a nuclear weapon without actually doing so represents an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. If they must choose between enduring another holocaust or inflicting one — what course will Netanyahu take?
If my guess is correct, then he has already made his choice – and the next move is up to the Obama administration.