Israel’s Not So Empty Threats

‘Israel has been threatening to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iran for two years now. Is it merely crying wolf?’

Iran Israel Points East & West

In September 2010, Jeffrey Goldberg wrote a brilliant feature in the Atlantic  in which he forecast Israel’s “point of no return” on Iran — the article’s title.

Goldberg had had extensive background conversations with very senior Israeli intelligence, military and political officials, including Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak. He concluded that there was a 50 per cent chance of an Israeli pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities before the following summer.

Goldberg is one of the most thoughtful and seasoned foreign policy commentators in America. He also has a commanding grasp of Middle East regional politics. Inevitably, his article generated dozens of responses from equally knowledgeable and senior policy analysts.

Summer 2011 came and went, but no attack took place.

Six months later, in January 2012, another seasoned investigator of Iran’s nuclear dossier, Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman, spent an afternoon with Ehud Barak. The conversation focused on Iran and produced a lengthy feature piece, “Will Israel Attack Iran?”, in the New York Times magazine. 

Bergman’s piece did not forecast dates, but gave the impression that decision time was approaching — again. The defence minister would not have been so candid, after all, on such a high-security matter, if it was not for the purpose of sending warnings and messages.

Goldberg’s and Bergman’s predictions may not have been spot-on when it came to timing — who, after all, would reveal such details even to a friendly journalist? — but the war drums kept beating in Jerusalem.

 By the summer of 2012, Israeli and US officials were locked in a verbal war of sorts, with senior Israeli officials sounding the alarm about a window of opportunity closing, and their American counterparts spending more time discussing the outcome of an Israeli strike than the consequences of a nuclear Iran.

In September, amid mounting speculation about a looming Israeli strike — perhaps in the middle of America’s presidential election campaign — Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly in New York. The speech was a coup — Netanyahu’s colourful illustration of Iran’s nuclear progress earned him the front page of most of the world’s newspapers the next day. But it also made it clear that “too late” was not October 2012 — as everyone seemed to have assumed until a moment before his speech. Netanyahu mentioned “spring to summer 2013” as too late.

Within weeks, he had also called early elections — making a winter strike the unlikeliest of occurrences. Postponed, again.

Months, even years, have passed, but Israel’s fighter jets remain in their hangars. No pre-emptive strike has been launched. None seem imminent. Everyone in the know seems to know the strike is coming. Israel winks and tells them it is. And then nothing happens.

How to explain what for many may by now sound like Israel crying wolf? Israel feels compelled to knock on every nation’s door and alert them to the dangers of a nuclear Iran. Israel must respond to the ugly Holocaust denial rhetoric coming out of a regime that seems intent on acquiring the tools to perpetrate the very same crime whose historical truth it seeks to deny and must make it crystal clear that it will respond to this threat. It cannot afford to project the image of the boy crying wolf — and yet it seems that is exactly what Israel has been doing lately.

Israel’s posture almost looks like a scene from Mel Brooks’s 1974 movie, Blazing Saddles, where the newly arrived black sheriff — confronted with the town’s readiness to lynch him — points a gun at his own head and threatens to shoot himself if the racists do not drop their guns. The sheriff gets away with it — his bluff induces the desired change of behaviour. But in Israel’s case, a bluff can only buy time, not solve the problem.

For Israel, occasional muscle flexing and erratic behaviour serve the purpose of telling the international community that, to avoid a pre-emptive strike, they must hold Israel back — and the only way to do so is to increase non-military pressure on Iran. It pushes back the point of no return; ultimately though, it does not erase it.

No country has ever launched a pre-emptive strike on an enemy’s nuclear complex in the short history of nuclear weapons — except Israel. Israel has done it not once but twice: against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.

Make no mistake then. Israel’s Blazing Saddles moment is not just a brilliant exercise in deception — Israel is also making it abundantly clear that it is crazy enough to follow through. Extending the deadline may be evidence that Israel’s pressure is working, but do not underestimate Israel’s resolve to eliminate a threat to its own survival. On existential matters, Israel has never taken a chance. This time is no different.