The start of a round of negotiations between Iran and the west over its nuclear program, the first such effort in several years, offers some hope that a solution may be found to the current standoff. In that context, it’s worth reviewing events over the past few months in an Israeli context to determine whether these negotiations present an opportunity for a compromise solution or a prelude to war.
To find a time when Iran wasn’t accused of making a nuclear weapon you’d have to return almost to the days of the 1979 Revolution itself. Scott Peterson, who’s compiled a comprehensive timeline of claims (bogus and otherwise) about Iran’s nuclear program, begins in 1984 with the first reference to Iran getting a bomb. In 1992, then Knesset back-bencher warned Iran would have a nuclear bomb in “three to five years.”
So the information in Sheera Frenkel’s recent expose of the Israeli campaign against Iran should come as little surprise (Frenkel interviewed Israeli intelligence analysts and diplomats who confirmed that this campaign has gone on for years, if not decades.)
This ambitious, multi-layered effort has included diplomatic and intelligence operations along with exploitation of American Jewish pro-Israel “agents of influence” designed to create an atmosphere conducive to war. This was the subject of the secret documents provided to me by Shamai Leibowitz, a then FBI translator, which showed Israeli diplomats ghostwriting anti-Iran op-eds for U.S. newspapers, then Sen. Sam Brownback reporting to Israeli diplomats on an anti-Iran conference he was organizing, a Texas Congressman meeting with a local Jewish donor and Israeli diplomat about congressional efforts to further isolate Iran, and a Senate foreign relations committee staffer being briefed by senior Israel military-intelligence figures, who were eager to warn the staffer, who was working for Sen. John Kerry, about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons program.
This was how Israel convinced Americans that Iran was building nuclear weapons that it would use if it got them, against Israel and the United States.
Once it succeeded in persuading Americans that Iran was bent on getting nukes, Israel argued that Iran had to be stopped by any means necessary. Sanctions were all well and good, but Israel, despite protestations to the contrary, doesn’t believe in them and never really has. Israel believes in military force when it comes to dealing with its enemies. Israel wants to attack Iran. Really, it wants the United States to attack and has cajoled and wheedled us to do so or to join Israel in doing so. But barring U.S. involvement, Israel believes the only thing that can stop Iran is a big, bloody nose.
In 2007, George Bush, against the strong urging of Dick Cheney, not only refused to attack Iran, he gave Ehud Olmert a red light and told him not to. Olmert listened. With all his faults, Olmert was a political pragmatist. Netanyahu is not. He is a dyed-in-the-wool ultranationalist. Because of that, he doesn’t have a real relationship with Obama as Olmert had with Bush. He is not swayed much by the U.S. president.
The Israeli prime minister has Congress in his back pocket and that’s all he needs. Whenever there’s a conflict, he goes over the president’s head and appeals to Congress. Netanyahu is reasonably certain that if he attacks, Obama will stand back and not get in his way. Netanyahu’s probably right about this.
Barack Obama has, in my opinion, given up on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the beginning of his presidency we all had high hopes (as he did) for change in the Middle East. We hoped finally for a peace agreement and a president who would expend the sort of political capital that would be necessary to get one. Instead, Netanyahu outmaneuvered Obama at every turn. The president was frustrated. George Mitchell, his chief negotiator resigned.
Now, the president wants as little to do with Netanyahu as he can reasonably get away with (given the electoral necessities of wooing the Jewish vote, it becomes difficult to have no contact with the Israeli leader).
He also likely doesn’t want another U.S. involvement in the Middle East after Iraq is winding down and Afghanistan will be doing so in the coming year (or sooner if there are more massacres like the one that happened there in recent weeks). Obama isn’t prepared for another adventure.
In his last term, George Bush allocated $400 million for a destabilization campaign against Iran and its supposed nuclear program. This was meant either to substitute for a military attack or to serve as a precursor to one (depending on your level of cynicism).
This was how the covert terror campaign against Iran came to be. The Bush funding along with Israeli cyber warfare expertise, engineered the computer worm called Stuxnet to wreck Iranian centrifuges at fuel enrichment plants. The program used Iranian dissidents who were members of the Mujahadeen e-Khalq, a terror group, to bomb missile bases and assassinate nuclear scientists. As recently as yesterday, the New York Times’ James Risen confirmed that the Mossad has worked together with the Mujahadeen e-Khalq on such acts of terror.
The Mujahadeen e-Khalq plays a complicated role in the terror cold war. It has assembled a host of major U.S. leaders who have joined the gravy train, accepting $30,000, $40,000, and $50,000 retainers to speak at conferences in DC and Paris. They include Rudy Giuliani, Louis Freeh, Tom Ridge, Howard Dean, and the newest celebrity at the trough, Alan Dershowitz.
All of this would merely be a curiosity, except for one fact: the Mujahadeen e-Khalq is designated a terror group by the U.S. Treasury. For a U.S. citizen to accept funds from such a group or help it in any way is a violation of federal law. In other words, these people are not just foregoing their principles for wads of cash, they may be breaking the law. They’re working for terrorists. That’s why the Justice Department has subpoenaed the records of former Gov. Ed Rendell’s agent to determine whether the Mujahadeen e-Khalq paid his speaker fees.
Guiliani, Dershowitz and the others are the first people to cry out when they hear of Arab or Muslim terror; to warn the country of the menace of radical Islam. But apparently, there are good terrorists and bad. The Mujahadeen e-Khalq are the good ones and the Iranian Ayatollahs are the bad.
Returning to Israel-U.S. relations: Netanyahu made his annual AIPAC pilgrimage to Washington last month, during which he met the president. We know for certain that Pres. Obama told Netanyahu the United States would not join him in an Iran attack.
But did Obama promise him something in return for Israel not attacking Iran? I think it’s very possible that the president told Netanyahu that if Israel held back for a year and allowed sanctions to work, that the U.S. would join him in attacking later.
When I heard Netanyahu’s words of appreciation for Obama during his Aipac speech, I thought perhaps the Israeli leader was mollified. But now I’m less sure.
Last week, Netanyahu went before the Knesset and gave a stem-winding speech that all but bayed for blood. Here are some passages he delivered, which ostensibly dealt with the rocket attacks from Gaza, but really dealt with Iran:
“The dominant force behind the events in Gaza is not the Palestinians, but Iran,” Netanyahu said. “The terror groups there stand under an Iranian umbrella. Imagine to yourselves what will happen when that umbrella is armed with nuclear bombs.
“Sooner or later Iran’s terror base in Gaza will be uprooted. Iran is what is happening inside Gaza. Where does the funding come from? Iran. Who equips the terrorists? Iran. Who builds the [terror] infrastructure? Iran. Gaza is Iran’s frontline.”
The Gaza bloodshed in which twenty-six Palestinians were killed began when Netanyahu returned from Washington and approved the assassination of a Palestinian militant leader. This broke a ceasefire that existed since the 2009 Gaza war. Then all hell broke loose and 200 Palestinian missiles rained down on southern Israel (causing no deaths or injuries).
Was this an Israeli warm-up for Iran attack or substitute for it? At the time, I thought it was a substitute that was meant to mollify the prime minister’s right-wing constituency, which expected war against Iran and might not be getting it.
But then came Netanyahu’s Knesset speech. In retrospect, one might view the Gaza attack as a warning to Hamas’ leadership that in the event Israel attacks Iran, if Hamas joins in the fight they will have that (twenty-six dead) and more bloodshed to contend with.
Israeli journalist Ben Caspit, writing in Maariv, did a nose count of the cabinet and finds an 8-6 majority in favor of an Israeli attack. Though, another more recent Israel report finds Avigdor Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu ministers opposing an attack (reportedly due to the heavy lobbying of Lieberman’s patrons, the Russians) and causing a 7-7 stalemate.
Jeffrey Goldberg writing in Bloomberg and Ronen Bergman in the New York Times, each say they believe Israel will attack. Not that they are Delphic oracles when it comes to such matters. But both definitely have their ear to the ground when it comes to hearing war drums from Netanyahu’s camp.
After the Knesset speech, Aluf Benn, Haaretz’s managing editor, wrote a column saying Netanyahu is preparing Israel for war. It would be as if Jill Abramson, the New York Times’ executive editor, wrote that Barak Obama was preparing the United States for war. That’s a lot different from Roger Cohen or even Tom Friedman saying so:
Until Netanyahu’s trip to Washington, he and his supporters in the media refrained from such explicit wording and made do with hints. But since he’s been back, Netanyahu has issued an emergency call-up for himself and the Israeli public.
“Emergency call-up.” It’s what we all need if war is coming. Thankfully, average Israelis are mobilizing themselves, as they did to create the J14 Social Justice movement last summer. Websites like Israel Loves Iran, Facebook pages like Israelis Against the War, and Twitter accounts are filled with the message sorely discomfiting Israel’s leaders. Even CNN and MSNBC have reported this story.
A local peace activist in the Pacific NW is preparing to mount an international petition campaign asking hundreds of thousands to sign a statement opposing war and pledging to divest from Israel if there is one. Tikkun itself published a full-page New York Times ad saying no to war with Iran.
It feels like war grows incrementally closer each day. Recently, Hillary Clinton told the Russians to tell Iran that upcoming April negotiations are Iran’s last chance to resolve issues before a military attack. This is the way both Bushes spoke about Iraq before they attacked in 1991 and 2003. They offered ultimata rather than serious negotiating points. This is what you do if you want or expect war but don’t want to appear to want it too much.
Polls show that neither Americans nor Israelis want a war with Iran now. Israelis may be prepared for the United States to attack Iran, or for the United States to join Israel in such an attack. But they are opposed to the sort of unilateral attack Netanyahu proposes.
The New York Times recently reported on a U.S. military war game simulation that shed light on possible outcomes of an Israeli strike against Iran. In the simulation, a hypothesized Israeli strike led Iran to sink a U.S. warship and the United States was thus drawn into the conflict. This brought a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities that only set back Iran’s nuclear program by three years. Meanwhile Iran took its revenge through attacks on Israel and U.S. targets in the region and throughout the world. A 2010 Israeli think tank simulation found a similar result.
Israel has become what I call a “permanent war state.” It is neither prepared for nor willing to cede its interests to mere diplomacy. There have been other such nations in history: Sparta in ancient Greece. Napoleon’s France, which fought a series of endless wars in an effort to conquer Europe for that nation’s greater glory. Pre-WWII Japan was also a militarized state mobilized for perennial conquest and constant hostility. Hitler’s Germany between 1938-45 was another regime that thrived on war to attain its objectives.
Israel’s history is replete with wars which served as substitutes for having a strategic foreign policy to protect and advance Israel’s interests: 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, 1982. Then there was a twenty-year lull before Israel retreated from Lebanon in 2000. That in turn brought a new series of wars in 2006 (Lebanon) and 2009 (Gaza). This year may bring war with Iran.
In Israel’s case, wars replace diplomacy since Israel feels it cannot achieve its objectives through normal channels of foreign policy discourse. It seeks to maintain its dominance in the region and the only way to do this is by teaching those who threaten it a “lesson” every few years. The generals in Israel cynically call it, “mowing the grass.” When treasury minister Yuval Steinitz talked about attacking Iran recently, he called it performing a “root canal.”
Though Israel has between 200-400 nukes, it refuses to allow any other nation in the region to get its own. Iran is a deep concern to Israel because, unlike other Arab states who Israel co-opted, and whose leaders (like Mubarak, Assad, or Abbas) didn’t rock the boat—Iran has never proven malleable or obsequious. That’s why Netanyahu feels he has to take it down a peg or two.
But contrary to what Netanyahu claims, Iran is not an existential threat to Israel. Risen’s article notes that U.S. intelligence suggests to this day that Iran has not yet decided to get a nuclear bomb. If it does get one, it will likely not use it. Iran would likely maintain such a bomb as a deterrent against neighbors who would otherwise attack, just as Israel claims to do.
Netanyahu says Iran is run by a bunch of mad mullahs bent on national suicide in order to realize a set of crazy Shiite messianic beliefs. Ironically, many Arabs believe that Israel is run by a bunch of nationalist zealots bent on rejecting any Muslim claim to the Holy Land. They see Israeli leaders as trying to realize a set of crazy messianic beliefs involving God’s biblical promise to return Israel to the land, and a divine warning never to give up an inch of it.
Each side’s crazies are a mirror of the zealotry on the other side. The problem is there are not enough on either side who have enough distance from the conflict to recognize this.
Let’s look a bit deeper at the flaws in Israel’s picture of Iran: in this century, and going back even farther, Iran has not started any wars. It has defended itself after being attacked (by Saddam among others). But not started wars. Even if it got a nuclear weapon, which is by no means assured, its most likely target would not be Israel. Hard as it may be to believe, given the glaring headlines, Israel is not Iran’s biggest worry. It has neighbors closer at hand to worry about including Iraq, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.
Israel should heed the warnings of cultural icons like David Grossman, who said a war with Iran would “destroy the chance for peace for generations” and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan who called an attack on Iran the “stupidest thing” he’d ever heard during his first interview on 60 Minutes.
How does American presidential politics feature in the run-up to war? Our Republican presidential candidates are falling all over themselves to see who can be the most bellicose, the most jingoistic regarding Iran. To hear Mitt Romney tell it, American troops would be on their way to attack Iran the minute he became president. The only candidate who’s speaking sensibly on the subject is Ron Paul, and we all know how much baggage he has. It’s like the 1968 presidential campaign and George Wallace is the only candidate who’s making sense on the issues. It’s a sorry, sorry sight.
What can we do to stop war, or barring that, expressing our opposition to it forcefully? My activist colleague’s petition campaign is one way. Tikkun’s newspaper ad is another. Using social networks and media to reinforce the peace message is also critical. Yet another is to write senators and Congress members to tell them to stand against an Israeli war with Iran. Most of Congress is a beneficiary of the largesse of AIPAC’s pro-Israel donors, and will not exercise real leadership in this matter. But we have to keep them honest.
Keep informed about the issues. Don’t give up just because things go bad. The worst cannot go on forever. History is on the side of justice. Perhaps not always in the short term. But always in the long term. Conflicts like those in Kosovo, Serbia, and Northern Ireland that have lasted for decades have been resolved peacefully. The key is not to despair when the lunatics seem to be taking over the asylum.
We are the sane ones, and if we allow them to run the place, then no one will be left when circumstances become ripe for change, as they undoubtedly will. Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and those still battling oppressive governments in the Middle East never had an inkling that revolution would come. But it did. The key is to be ready and resist until that day comes.