Israel gives Obama reason to worry
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - 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 Washington takes a much
more menacing line toward Iran's nuclear program.
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 Iran 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 US 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 US 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 [Adolf] 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 neo-conservative 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 in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza 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 Defense 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
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 US intervention and efforts at regime change", according to
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 Labor Party government in Israel began a campaign to portray
Iran's missile and nuclear programs 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 US 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 US 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 US 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
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 program could be a "tremendous
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US 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.