Will Israel Bomb Iran?
A close reading of Jeffrey Goldberg's Atlantic article.
And it may provide cover for the Saudis and other Arab nations—which fear and distrust Iran almost as much as Israel does—to join the pressure campaign against Tehran and perhaps, though covertly, help Israel more than they might otherwise if military action becomes unavoidable.
Those who find this notion outlandish should recall that, in July 2006, a few days after Hezbollah militiamen in southern Lebanon crossed the border, killed three Israeli soldiers, and kidnapped two others, prompting retaliation from Israeli rockets and artillery, the Arab League issued a statement condemning Hezbollah and supporting Israel's right to self-defense. Some specialists urged then-President George W. Bush to seize the moment—a potential strategic turning point—with a round of shuttle diplomacy. But he didn't; the Israelis escalated their strikes to disproportionate levels; and the Arab League backed away.
However, Goldberg doubts that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will initiate this sort of diplomacy, and his analysis of why is one of the most disturbing things about the Atlantic article. The key to understanding this fact is the prime minister's 100-year-old father, Ben-Zion Netanyahu, a former secretary to Vladimir Jabotinsky, the founder of the most militant branch of Zionism and a firm opponent of any territorial concessions. A friend of the prime minister's told Goldberg, "Always in the back of Bibi's mind is Ben-Zion. He worries that his father will think he is weak." Another said that as long as the old man is alive, "Bibi could not withdraw more" from the West Bank "and still look into his father's eyes."
It's a thunderbolt of historical revelation to muse that, no less now than in the time of Greek tragedies, the fate of the most ancient turbulent region might be guided less by rational interests or Realpolitik than by father-son psychodramas, first the Bushes, now the Netanyahus.
One thing Goldberg writes is definitely true: Obama may soon be facing a defining moment, similar to John F. Kennedy's with the Cuban Missile Crisis but more complex, in that Kennedy had just Nikita Khrushchev to deal with, while Obama would have not only the (much more unpredictable) Iranians but also the Israelis and a slew of regional players to confront, accommodate, bargain with, or who knows what.
In October 1962, Kennedy and his advisers also had the luxury of 13 days to hammer out a solution, much of it spent in meetings whose very existence was kept secret (and whose deliberations were not truly revealed for a quarter-century with the release of Kennedy's White House tapes).
Obama and his team will not have that luxury. They might have to make momentous decisions and deals on the spot. Now's a good time, then, to figure out what they want the outcome of the coming crisis to be and how far they're willing to go to attain it.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of airplanes by Tony R. Tolley/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images.