The fascinating discussion on this site of the piece which Jeffrey Goldberg published on Bloomberg on 19 March, under the title 'Israelis Grow Confident Strike on Iran's Nukes Can Work', sent me back to the article he published, under the title 'The Point of No Return', in the Atlantic in September 2010.
Quite clearly, in both articles, Goldberg has been acting as a conduit for Israeli government propaganda. As so often in contemporary journalism, the implicit deal appears to be that a favoured reporter is granted access, on the condition that he or she uncritically relays the messages which his or her sources want broadcast. As a result, while Goldberg's interviews with Netanyahu and others are extremely useful for all of us attempting to assess what that Israel is likely to do in relation to Iran, the evidence they provide is difficult to interpret.
Perhaps ironically, given that the argument of the 'Point of No Return' article depended upon the use of 'proof texts' to establish that the Iranian government is a kind of Second Coming of the German Nazis, Goldberg provides a classic illustration of how difficult it can be to infer from what people say what they are actually likely to do.
What put the problem into the sharpest possible relief was the invaluable evidence presented on an earlier thread by jdledell. Summarising conversations with contacts in Israel who had a proper grasp of the technical problems involved in an attack on Iran and were not in the propaganda business, he confirmed what Colonel Lang, and others, have argued time and again on this site. On its own, Israel simply cannot expect to do significant damage to the Iranian nuclear programme. Among multiple problems, the refuelling capabilities that would be required for effective strikes just are not there.
Quite clearly then, there can be no rational basis for the confidence which Goldberg attributed to the Israeli leaders about what can be achieved by acting on their own. To act as he suggests they may intend to do would not only involve risking important military assets, but also court a humiliating demonstration of impotence which would mean that, far from providing a way out of the country's security dilemmas, Netanyahu and his associates would have been likely to have made its situation immeasurably worse.
As F.B. Ali noted, jdledell's comments – actually put up the day before Goldberg's Bloomberg article – suggested a variety of possible ways in which that article could be interpreted. In what follows, I am going to try to explore further a range of possible interpretations, and some of the issues they raise.
Irrational Israelis … ?
One possible interpretation of Goldberg's recent article has to do with the Holocaust trauma which was a recurrent theme of the earlier one. It may be that this so dominates the perceptions of Netanyahu and his associates that they are incapable of seeing the threats facing Israel in any kind of rational perspective – of grasping, for instance, that foolish and indeed obnoxious remarks by Ahmadinejad do not make him a new Hitler.
A further legacy of the Holocaust is evident in an observation quoted in the 'Point of No Return' article by the former Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh, that he does not put his life 'in the hands of goyim.' Here, a propensity to exaggerate the malevolence of genuine antagonists comes together with a belief that Jews ought to be able to rely for their security only on themselves.
So one way of reading the Bloomberg article is as a nemesis of a Holocaust-inspired exaggeration alike of the threats facing Israel and of what that country can expect to do about them, which is now only partially susceptible to deflation by the kind of rational analysis contained in jdledell's comments. Of course, as F.B. Ali points out, if this is so, the more relevant question may be not whether the Iranian government is a 'rational actor', but whether the Israeli is.
And this is a matter of some moment, given that while the Iranian government has no nuclear weapons, and it is certainly not proven that it has an aspiration to acquire them, the Israeli government commands a large nuclear arsenal. Although it has been suggested that Israel might compensate for its inability significantly to damage the Iranian nuclear programme by conventional means by using this arsenal, that is not really I think the problem.
What is the problem is that wars can very easily escalate in unpredictable ways. If there is no prospect of Israel finding any kind of lasting modus vivendi with its Arab and Muslim neighbours, and its future is likely to be one of recurrent war at infinitum, then the possibility of its nuclear weapons sooner or later being used in anger has to be a very real one.
That is obviously something which Middle Eastern governments need to factor into their strategic calculations, as also do American and West European policymakers. And in this context, if indeed the Israeli leadership are as crazy as Goldberg suggests, it is a very alarming prospect indeed.
… or Machiavellian manipulators?
It is however a recurrent problem that evidence which may indicate that a country's leaders are irrational can also be explained by the hypothesis that they have 'rational' reasons to pretend to be. An obvious possibility is that the suggestion that the Israelis believe they can mount a unilateral attack on Iran is simply propaganda, part of an ongoing campaign to get the American military to inflict the kind of damage to the Iranian nuclear programme which Netanyahu and others are quite well aware that they have no hope of achieving themselves.
A corollary of this hypothesis is that, if one finds it credible, it would provide some grounds for optimism that the Israeli government might be at least sufficiently 'rational' not to gamble on a unilateral attack.
However, a possibility which has preoccupied many of us for some considerable time is that an Israeli government might calculate that a unilateral attack on Iranian nuclear facilities might precipitate an escalation in which the United States would find it impossible not to join in on the Israeli side. Moreover, as the veteran USAF war planner Colonel Sam Gardiner noted in his March 2010 paper 'The Israeli Threat', the dynamics of the escalation might push the United States government both into an all-out attempt to eliminate Iranian nuclear facilities, and into making 'regime change' a war objective.
A corollary of this argument, obviously, has been that it has been perfectly possible to imagine a process of 'rational' calculation, according to which the Israeli leadership might believe that a unilateral strike on Iranian nuclear facilities might make perfectly good strategic sense. And, of course, as numerous commentators in recent discussions on SST have pointed out, escalation could perhaps he helped along by 'false flag' operations.
One important feature of such a strategy is worth pointing out. If in fact the objective is to push American civilian and military leaders into doing something which they would not do unless pushed, it might very well seem appropriate to obscure the fact that this is what is being attempted. Accordingly, it might very well be 'rational' to suggest that an attack was being made on the basis of confidence in what Israeli forces could expect to achieve on their own, even if there was actually a realistic appreciation of how little they could do.
Likewise, it might be 'rational' to suggest that you were not anticipating that the attack would bring the United States in on your side, when the coherence of your strategic calculations depended quite precisely on the expectation that this would happen.
However, such a strategy would represent a desperate gamble, in two ways. One possibility, obviously, is that the attempt to inveigle the United States into attacking Iran would fail. Another is that it would succeed but that the consequences for the United States – and also Western Europe – would be dire, if not indeed absolutely catastrophic. This F.B. Ali has suggested is extremely likely, and I agree.
If the consequences are indeed massively damaging for Britain, there are two results which would be probable here. The empowerment of Jews, which is been regarded as perfectly natural and unobjectionable among almost everyone over the past decades, would be come, in some measure, into question. I am not talking here about a recurrence of anti-Semitism, although that is possible. What would certainly be at issue would be that it would no longer be natural to assume that a Jew could be, for example, Foreign Secretary, without the question of where his or her prime loyalties lay being raised.
At the same time, and related to this, in part precisely because Israeli behaviour had quite patently damaged British interests, divisions among British Jews whose extent has I think been disguised by the fact that the impact of the increasing unsustainability of the 'liberal Zionist' position has been both gradual and largely obscured from view, would become acute. At that point Jewish anti-Zionism, which was very strong prior to the Holocaust, could be expected to enjoy a dramatic revival.
How far similar developments could be expected in the United States I cannot judge, but a good deal of evidence appears to suggest that although the American and British situations are different, the differences are not so very radical. The apparent insouciance of Goldberg and others about the possibility that an Israeli attack on Iran could have seriously adverse effects on the extremely favourable position enjoyed by American Jews in recent decades frankly baffles me.
Be that as it may, in addition to a possible interpretation of his writings according to which the Israeli leadership has taken leave of reality, there is a possible interpretation according to which the patently absurd claims about what Israel can expect to achieve on its own reflect a Machiavellian strategy.
Personal experience of Israel is something I completely lack, and although my wife and I have known a wide variety of British Jews, and had close Jewish friends all our lives, it has become amply apparent that the mentality of the British – and American – Jews we know well is no guide whatsoever to that of figures like Netanyahu. It is clear that different members of this 'committee of correspondence' who do have extensive personal experience of Israel have different views.
Repeatedly, Colonel Lang has suggested that to count on the assumption that the Israelis are 'rational actors' would be naïve – and he has made clear that he thinks that Netanyahu could well be crazy enough to launch a unilateral attack. By contrast, jdledell has suggested yet another interpretation of how Goldberg's Bloomberg article should be read. According to this, Goldberg himself has lost any idea of what, in the Israeli propaganda he uncritically recycles, is true and what is fiction. As to the propaganda itself, Netanyahu should be seen as a windbag.
And certainly, it is one thing to pose as a leader capable of resorting to desperate measures when interviewed by a sycophantic sympathiser like Goldberg -- and particularly a sympathiser who, as Goldberg patently is, is prepared to swallow sentimental kitsch. It is quite another actually to live up to the self-presentation.
Hubris and nemesis.
But of course, it is not impossible that there are elements of truth in all these interpretations. It may be that the Israeli leadership, having pursued what it believed were 'rational' strategies, has ended up in a dead end, where none of the available courses of action are very promising, either from the point of view of the country's interests, or of the personal political prospects of its leaders.
Particularly given that few of us are so very 'rational' in situations where an objective examination suggests that there are no very good options, there is a common propensity to pretend that intractable problems can be wished away: think the Japanese leadership in 1941. So another possible interpretation of the recent Goldberg article is that at least some of the statements quoted reflect the fact that the Israeli leadership, having boxed itself into a dead end, does not have any very clear idea of how to get out of it.
And indeed part at least of the explanation for the weird mixture of ludicrous pessimism, equally ludicrous optimism, and sheer incoherence in Goldberg's writing may be that he is simply reflecting the mental condition of those who have to decide whether Israel will attack Iran. They may be in a muddle, and trying to obscure the fact that they do not have any clear idea of what to do.
It is, I think, not difficult to see why the Israeli leadership might be going round in circles. A hubristic confidence, largely arising from unquestioning American support, has led the ineffably stupid Netanyahu to define Israeli security requirements in such an expansive fashion that, in the long term, it is wildly unlikely that they can be met. And the Israeli government has been encouraged along this disastrous course by similarly stupid American fellow-travellers like Goldberg himself, and all the Perles, Wolfowitzes, Haasses, and Beinarts.
A result has been an underlying confidence that, sooner or later, the United States could be manipulated into doing what the Israelis cannot do for themselves. However, recent developments have called this confidence into question. Although it certainly remains eminently possible that the course of confrontation on which the United States and the Western Europeans are set with Iran will end in war, what have seemed to be increasing causes for pessimism on this point are now balanced by some real causes for optimism. Meanwhile, grounds for doubting that a unilateral Israeli attack could precipitate an all-out effort by the United States to set back the Iranian nuclear programme have grown a great deal stronger.
Potentially, at least, this puts Netanyahu in a very difficult position indeed. Hubris may be being followed by nemesis.
An absurd analogy.
Where the expectation of unquestioning American support has led the Israeli government into a particularly problematic dead end has been in blinding it to the dangers of the repeated insistence that an Iran able to exercise its rights under the NPT constitutes the 'gravest threat since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people.' Doubtless this ludicrous formulation – recycled uncritically by Goldberg in the 'Point of No Return' article – has roots in very genuine and deep trauma. However, invoking the Holocaust, both to dramatise the Iranian threat and play on gentile guilt, has also been a highly effective instrument in manipulating the United States, and other Western democracies.
One consequence of a style of politics which depends upon a continual reiteration of inflated estimates of threat to American audiences may well have been that Netanyahu has – as often happens – become the victim of his own propaganda. Accordingly, just as much as mouthpieces like Goldberg, he and many others in the Israeli leadership may have lost the ability to distinguish between truth and fiction.
I find it difficult to see any other explanation for statements like that of an Israeli planner, quoted in the 'Point of No Return' article, which seems to give an extraordinary hostage to fortune. Having explained that 'many Israelis think the Iranians are building Auschwitz', the planner goes on to say that 'we have to let them know that we have destroyed Auschwitz, or we have to let them know that we tried and failed.'
The point about reckless analogies between Nazi Germany and the Iranian Ayatollahs is not simply that they inflate a real threat out of all proportion: it is that, having attributed to the Iranians a strategy of frightening Israelis out of the Middle East, those who do so appoint themselves the 'useful idiots' of the supposed strategy.
Among the very many ways in which the Auschwitz analogy is absurd is that, in sharp contrast to the situation in the Thirties, educated and technologically sophisticated Jews confront no difficulties whatsoever in moving to the United States, or indeed Western Europe. Even to use such an analogy, one would think, is liable to encourage members of Israeli elites to emigrate, or at least to put contingency plans in place which would enable them to do so, should the situation in Israel get substantially worse.
But to use this analogy also greatly restricts the room for manoeuvre available to Israeli leaders, in the event that confidence that the United States can be inveigled into attacking Iran proves misplaced. Moreover, claims made about what could be achieved by a unilateral Israeli strike – irrespective of whether they are underpinned by delusion, part of a Machiavellian strategy, or simply hot air – further restrict the room for manoeuvre.
The claims made by Goldberg's Israeli contacts, and uncritically recycled by him, are helping to create a situation where either to make an abortive unilateral strike, or to fail to attempt one, is liable to represent a colossal own goal for Israel. If one tries to imagine how the scenario of an Israeli official explaining, in the wake of an abortive unilateral strike, that the IDF had 'tried and failed' to destroy Auschwitz, might actually play out, it will be apparent that it courts one of two responses.
The less dangerous for Israeli prospects of survival is 'what is this windbag blathering on about?' The more dangerous, and indeed potentially fatal, would seem to be: 'Perhaps this really is Poland in 1935 – my grandparents did not try to get out/tried and were unable to, but I can get out and have every intention of doing so while there is still time. Maybe I should e-mail that friendly Mr Goldberg and ask about job opportunities in the United States or perhaps I should take out a Polish passport, and move to London. The descendants of my great-uncle, who did manage to make it over there, don't seem to be doing too badly.'
If the consequences of an abortive attack are bad enough, however, the consequences of practising this kind of threat inflation, and then making clear that you are unable even to attempt to do something about the threat you have painted in such lurid colours, when you have repeatedly suggested you had it in your power to do so, might also be quite serious.
A 'psychological complex'?
A further consequence of the path down which Israel has gone may be to lock that country's leaders into an impossibly contradictory relationship with the United States. Earlier, I referred to remarks by Ephraim Sneh, quoted in the 'Point of No Return' article, to the effect that he does not put his life 'in the hands of goyim.' In fact, however, the whole direction taken by the policy of Israel's leaders over the past decades has been to throw away such prospects as there were of creating a strategic situation in which the country's prospects for long-term survival were not totally dependent on the American 'goyim'.
This remark by Sneh comes at the end of a paragraph where he has told Goldberg that the wounds of the Holocaust 'do not heal', and asserted that the catastrophe that engulfed Europe's Jews is 'not some sort of psychological complex', but 'an historic lesson.' Having recounted the fate of his grandparents, murdered in Poland after they had been handed over by Poles to whom they had paid substantial sums to shelter them to the Germans, Sneh goes on to say that this is the reason that he does not 'trust the goyim'.
In fact, the meaning of 'trust' here is ambiguous. In so far as a prudent Israeli policy should not be premised upon the assumption that one can rely upon indefinite American support, it would indeed be eminently sensible not to 'trust the goyim' – and a key problem with Israeli policy is quite precisely that it has not taken this fact adequately, or intelligently, into account.
Insofar as Sneh is suggesting that he believes that all 'goyim' harbour a deep-rooted latent propensity to manic anti-Semitism, however, his position is patently problematic – as also is Goldberg's apparent inability to see the potential implications of an identification with such a position among Jews outside Israel.
How either Sneh or Goldberg expects that American 'goyim' are likely to react to the suggestion that a fundamental truth about them has been revealed by the behaviour of Poles under Nazi occupation is not clear to me. In fact, however, these remarks reveal very clearly a very deep gulf which has developed between Jews who found refuge in Israel, and very many of those who were able to find it in Britain.
Certainly Jews my wife and I knew who made it over here from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia immediately prior to the outbreak of war were scarred by the Holocaust. However they gave no visible signs of expecting that their British friends harboured any aspiration to murder them: least of all in the case of the only Jew I knew who had spent time in a concentration camp, one of the least fearful human beings I have known.
What appears not to have struck Goldberg is that for a British, or indeed or American, Jew to identify with Sneh's position is to court one of two responses. One is that the traditional anti-Semitic suspicion that the essential loyalty of Jews is to other Jews, and that they can never really be unqualifiedly loyal to any predominantly gentile polity, has something in it after all. The other is that the Holocaust has indeed, for many Israelis, become a kind of 'psychological complex'.
As such, of course, a non-Jew may sympathise with the trauma. But a question is obviously raised as to whether one wants trauma victims influencing crucial matters of foreign policy, to which the trauma is relevant, and where it may lead them to advocate courses of action potentially catastrophic alike for their gentile associates and themselves.
Last but hardly least, Sneh's remarks raise the question of whether Israel has turned out to be a place where the traumas of the Holocaust cannot heal, not simply among the children and grandchildren of its victims, but indefinitely. Moreover, there may be structural reasons why the deeply unhealthy relationship in which Israel has come to be dependent on American Jews manipulating American gentiles whom at least some Israeli leaders suspect of harbouring an ineradicable anti-Semitic virus is hard to escape.
And here one comes back once again to the implications of the kind of reckless threat inflation contained in the 'Point of No Return' article. To admit that the fate of the grandparents of today's Israelis in Poland or Germany in the 1940s is of the most marginal relevance to the prospects their grandchildren might have, if they left Israel for San Francisco or Surrey, is to give further force to the question of whether it makes better sense for Jews to see their future away from the Middle East.
To insist that the Holocaust remains an 'historic lesson', as Sneh does, however, is to leave Israel with no obvious future but as an embattled ghetto. While in relation to its Arab and Muslim neighbours, it sees itself as a beleaguered outpost of Western civilisation among the savages, the inhabitants of that ghetto have difficulty in abandoning the suspicion that Western civilisation is inherently and ineradicably anti-Semitic. Accordingly, the definition of a Jew comes to be as a member of a tribe whose members, for inexplicable reasons, practically everyone has a lurking aspiration to murder. This is hardly a promising identity to ask intelligent young people to embrace.
As I have said, I have no experience of Israel, but at this point I find myself wondering whether the society is not threatened not simply by its inability to offer rational reasons why Jews concerned for self-preservation should remain, but by the fact that Zionism cannot in the end offer a viable Jewish identity. This may be a presumptuous claim. But I note that the question of whether Israel has disintegrated into a ghetto, which simply cannot be an appealing place for the adventurous and curious, was among the issues raised by Avraham Burg in his notable exchange back in January 2008 with Ari Shavit.
What this exchange also brought out is the fact that to call into question the belief that the Holocaust is an 'historic lesson' is to call into question the validity of all the sacrifices that Zionists have made to create and sustain the Israeli state. And to have to confront the possibility that sacrifices may have been meaningless is liable to be, in itself, a deeply traumatic experience. To say this, of course, is to say that the history of Zionism is a tragedy -- as also is that of the Palestinians.
And exercise in escalation.
However, the notion that one can indefinitely play on gentile guilt, even when it involves manipulating the 'goyim' into courses of action which run deeply counter to their own interests, is patent nonsense. And here one comes back again to the Auschwitz analogy. The attempt by Netanyahu to use the failure of the Allies to bomb Auschwitz as providing grounds why the United States should attack Iran increasingly seems to have something of an air of desperation about it.
The other crucial element in assessing the significance of Goldberg's Bloomberg articles is a series of developments which have called into question not only the assumption that the United States can be brought to initiate a war against Iran, but also the assumption that it can be inveigled into one. Confronted by the massive assault levelled by Netanyahu, with the assistance of Israel's fellow travellers, on his visit to Washington, Obama accommodated, but hardly gave grounds for hoping that the United States, under his watch, would either initiate war against Iran or allow itself to be inveigled into one.
Certainly, he may have given hostages to fortune. But if he is re-elected, Obama's power position with regard to the Israeli lobby will be much stronger, so these hostages may not matter, unless the Iranians are foolish.
Crucial, however, are developments in the American military. The fact that Obama now has, in General Dempsey, a tough-minded and clear-thinking CJCS who cannot either be forced out or intimidated, clearly changes the situation very materially. Meanwhile, the recent 'Internal Look' exercise, to the New York Times report of which F.B. Ali pointed, is of enormous significance.
What Goldberg has to say about this in the Bloomberg article is extremely interesting – and again very hard to interpret. Some Israeli officials, he suggests, 'believe that Iran's leaders might choose to play down the insult of a raid and launch a handful of rockets at Tel Aviv as an angry gesture, rather than declare all-out war. I'm not endorsing this view, but I was struck by its optimism. (A war game held by the U.S. military this month came to the opposite conclusion, according to the New York Times: A strike would likely lead to a wider war that could include the U.S.)'
The report of the 'Internal Look' exercise is certainly worth a much closer examination. While I may be reading too much into it, it seems to me to contain a very clear indication that, if the relevant American military commanders have any say in the matter, the kind of uncontrollable escalation leading from a unilateral Israeli strike to an American destruction of the Iranian nuclear programme and regime which Colonel Gardiner suggested might be unavoidable might not actually be impossible to prevent.
Indeed, as the scenarios for escalation appear to depend entirely on Iranian actions, if I were an Iranian planner I would be tempted to see the way 'Internal Look' has been presented as containing a kind of implicit covert offer of cooperation to contain the possible consequences of a unilateral Israeli strike. The message I would take from it is that, while escalation is commonly very difficult to avoid, there is sufficient chance that a 'proportional retaliation' directed solely at Israeli targets would not trigger it to make it worthwhile going for precisely the kind of muted response Goldberg suggests. And if there were hotheads who had concluded that escalation might be the least worst Iranian option, I would be explaining that to avoid it might be a cunning chess move, which while it did not guarantee an immediate checkmate of the Israelis, might lead to an endgame in which the odds were heavily stacked against them.
If in fact Israeli leaders have faced up to the weaknesses jdledell describes, they must realise that the strategy in which Goldberg suggests they believe could precipitate a devastating Iranian victory. Although it may suit Israelis to suggest that they believe it is 'optimism' to believe escalation can be avoided, on the basis of the NYT report at least, 'Inland Look' seems to me like a crucial further stage in the process whereby Netanyahu's options are being closed off.
Whether in fact he is crazy enough to risk a 'damp squib’ attack leading to limited Iranian retaliation, without escalation, or prefers to risk the consequences of being exposed as the blabbermouth jdledell believes him to be, we shall see.