Inside Bibi’s mind is a war waiting to start

Netanyahu (and not just he) seems to have talked himself into believing a war with Iran will be relatively painless

The question of whether Israel will attack Iran or not has come down to a guessing game of what’s inside Bibi Netanyahu’s head. He’s certainly given every indication that he wants to do the deed. The idea that he’s bluffing is, I think, pretty stupid; he’s been talking about bombing Iran for 10 years, and he’s hardly alone among Israeli leaders. This has been building up for a long, long time, and now it’s here.

That Netanyahu would like to do it if Obama won’t, that he thinks it’s necessary for Israel’s survival – I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. But still, there are doubts remaining: Would he do it even over the Obama administration’s continual objections? And during a U.S. presidential election campaign, when the results of an Israeli attack could conceivably cost Obama the election, or bring Obama’s wrath down on Israel if he wins re-election, and meanwhile cause a backlash against Israel and American Jewry by an American public outraged over skyrocketing oil prices, the possible deaths of American soldiers in a widening war, and terror attacks against American civilians? 

Finally, does Bibi Netanyahu have the sheer balls for such an audacious move? Ariel Sharon once said publicly that he “lacks the sound judgment and iron nerves required of an Israeli prime minister. He panics under pressure.”

So even if it’s clear he wants to bomb Iran, will Bibi, under the highly strained circumstances and given his dubious character, actually pull the trigger on Iran sometime within the coming weeks or months? My guess is that he will. 

Regarding American opposition, Netanyahu went out of his way to dismiss it during his Knesset speech after his return from Washington, claiming that Ben-Gurion defied American opposition in declaring statehood in 1948, Eshkol did the same in launching the 1967 war, and Begin followed suit in 1981 by bombing Iraq’s nuclear reactor.  Bibi is at least fibbing in all three cases – Truman backed statehood in 1948, LBJ’s administration had no problem with the attack on Egypt in 1967, and Begin never told Reagan before ordering the attack on the Iraqi reactor.  The point is that Bibi has talked himself into believing this fib, so he thinks he wouldn’t be doing anything out of the ordinary by starting a war the White House opposes. 

As for screwing up Obama’s re-election plans, I don’t think there’s any doubt Netanyahu would consider that a collateral benefit of the war. And if Obama wins, Bibi likely figures the president is too much of a wuss and Israel is too popular in Congress for there to be any real danger of a second-term payback – and if this is what Bibi’s thinking, he’s probably right.

But maybe the clearest indicator that he’s set on giving the order to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, that he’s put his mind at ease about it, is the growing confidence among Israeli decision-makers (see links below) that attacking Iran isn’t such a risky move after all – that it will bring relatively little pain alongside colossal, history-changing gain.

The word from Jerusalem, reportedly, is that the Iranian missiles can’t do that much damage; that Hezbollah and Hamas will stay out of it for the sake of self-preservation; that Syria is otherwise engaged; that the Sunni Moslem Middle East in general will not cry over Shi’ite Iran’s misfortunes; that Iran wouldn’t dare strike U.S. targets in the Gulf; that it lacks the wherewithal to disrupt the world oil market; that Iran won’t be able to rebuild its nuclear facilities for five years; and there’s Bibi’s notion that an Israeli attack might lead to the overthrow of the Tehran regime by a more liberal, less dangerous opposition. In the wake of such a war, Israel and American Jewry wouldn’t be the world’s scapegoats, but the world’s heroes. 

On the basis of Bibi’s own statements and the off-the-record remarks of people around him, the above is what seems to be inside his head.

As for whether he’s got the balls for such a move, whether he’s more of a saber-rattler than actual warmaker, I think there is indeed a weakness of character in Bibi that would enable an intimidating U.S. president to intimidate him out of hitting Iran. Unfortunately, Barack Obama is not that president.

Decision time “is not in a matter of days or weeks, but it’s also not in a matter of years. Everyone understands this,” Netanyahu said after coming back from Washington two-and-a-half weeks ago.

By now, winter’s ended; the skies are clear. Our pilots can see their targets. It’s perfect weather for a war.

Aluf Benn’s op-ed

Ari Shavit on a high-level U.S.-Israeli meeting

Jeffrey Goldberg on his recent interviews with Israeli and U.S. leaders