Netanyahu’s empty gun: War with Iran less and less likely

The rhetoric of Israel’s prime minister and defense minister stands at odds with what seems like a growing recognition that Israel will not attack the Iranian nuclear facilities on its own.

There is an absolute consensus in the Israeli security establishment that striking the Iranian nuclear facilities now, without the support or the approval of the United States, is complete madness. Despite a massive campaign on this issue, the public is still split – with a slight majority for those opposing the war – and so is the political system.

Under these conditions, which haven’t really changed in the last five years, I don’t believe that Israel will strike Iran. I think Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Netanyahu’s recent statements on this issue are meant to serve two political objectives: putting more pressure on the American administration, and avoiding future criticism at home, when Iran officially reaches the status of a nuclear threshold state (one which doesn’t have a fully operational bomb but can assemble one in a relatively short period of time).

I don’t rule out an attack completely. Leaders in the past have gone to war despite a lack of consensus at home and fierce international opposition (the war in Iraq comes to mind). Plus, it should be noted that Netanyahu and Barak have the legal means to launch such a war. Under the Israeli system, a Knesset vote is unnecessary and a government or a cabinet decision is enough for initiating any sort of military operation. The prime minister also has the authority to fire or add ministers to those decision-making forums, so he can make sure that he always has a majority for his opinion. Prime ministers have done that in the past. So if Netanyahu and Barak decide to strike Iran, nothing can really stop them. Still, if I had to bet I would have said that they both have made up their mind not to attack this fall.

This is entirely a speculation – I can’t tell what’s inside the leaders’ minds – but there are some public signs that the attack won’t come this fall, and probably not at all. Here are some of my reasons to think so:

The debate is becoming very political. Leading Israeli politicians – Shimon Peres and Shaul Mofaz being two examples from this week – are taking a public stand against the attack. This is very uncommon in Israeli political culture when real wars are on the line. I think that the political system is sensing that Netanyahu is bluffing.

The voices coming from Barak and Netanyahu feel more like a lament, rather than actual mobilisation for war. Nahum Barnea of Yedioth Ahronoth, who was one of the authors’ of last week’s expose on Barak’s effort to get the army to support the war, wrote in an op-ed on Monday that he got the feeling Barak was preparing his “I told you so” argument for the next elections. It makes sense.

By leading the camp of hawks on Iran, Netanyahu and Barak are making sure that nobody can accuse them in the future of not being active enough. Barak was criticised in the past of his alleged opposition to the strike on the Syrian nuclear facilities committed by the Olmert government. He won’t let that happen again.

Barak didn’t fire or replace any of the generals that opposed the war (or more importantly, leaked their positions to the media). I don’t think that any officer would refuse the order to attack, but a reluctant military is a real problem for the defense minister. Could Iraq have happened if the entire military was against it, unanimously and publicly?

The window for an attack is here, yet nobody seems to care. Life goes on as usual. No foreign country has issued travel warnings for the next three months. No events were cancelled. Maybe I am over-speculating here, but if the United States was truly convinced that an attack is imminent, evacuating citizens or simply warning those planning to travel seems like the obvious thing to do, no? Even the not-so-apocalyptic scenarios Barak is throwing around (300-500 civilian casualties) should make the diplomatic corps or the Birthright kids disappear back home. As it happens, they are all still on the Tel Aviv beach.

Civil Defense preparations are not taking place outside the army, the public wasn’t instructed to prepare bomb shelters, and the minister for home front defense was even replaced this week. The army’s civil defense corps is currently airing a prime time TV commercial regarding… what to do in the event of an earthquake.

I think that the current hype has to do more with political maneuvering than with actual preparations for war. With all the statements and leaks, Netanyahu and Barak are able to control the political agenda (the Israeli opposition has all but evaporated lately) and prepare the ground for next year’s elections. I also believe Netanyahu is enjoying pushing the U.S. administration into a corner on this issue, by appearing more and more desperate. This is where he differs from Barak, who wants to maintain good relations with the Democratic administration. A couple of recent examples: Barak congratulated Obama on the latest aid promise (made on the day Mitt Romney visited Jerusalem); Netanyahu deliberately avoided doing so. Barak acknowledged in his Haaretz interview last week that the United States can’t commit publicly to an attack; proxies to Netanyahu are demanding exactly such public guarantees. There are no surprises here: Barak, who has no real public support here or in the States, needs to be accepted by the administration; Bibi has AIPAC and Congress, so he can play for the GOP.

Finally, it’s important to note that an attack – while highly unlikely – is still possible. There is also something self-defeating about the game Barak and Netanyahu are playing (I have written about this in the past here), because the more catastrophic and trigger happy their rhetoric gets, the greater the need to eventually go into war, if only than to save Israel’s (and their own) credibility. It is a well-known paradox of deterrence in geo-political relations, and we can only hope that it won’t be the leading factor in determining the outcome of the current game.

Read also:
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Derfner: It’s over – there will be no Israeli attack on Iran