On Monday, November 6, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu gave an interview on Israeli TV in which he reiterated his willingness to go to war with Iran without American support. Bibi stated:
“When David Ben-Gurion declared the foundation of the state of Israel was it done with American approval? When Levi Eshkol was forced to act in order to loosen the siege before 1967, was it done with the Americans’ support? If someone sits here as the prime minister of Israel and he can’t take action on matters that are cardinal to the existence of this country, its future and its security, and he is totally dependent on receiving approval from others, then he is not worthy of leading. I can make these decisions.”
Netanyahu added that he was “ready to press the button if necessary,” and declared that “in the final reckoning, the responsibility [to decide about a strike] rests with the prime minister.”
By now, this is a familiar refrain. If you’ve been following the issue, you know it isn’t the first time Netanyahu has made such a threat – indeed, he’s been sounding the warning alarm about Iran’s nuclear program for almost as long as I’ve been alive. So you could be forgiven for thinking at this point that Bibi’s comments are more of the same, especially since he backed down a little bit in his now-infamous bomb drawing speech at the United Nations in September. But even so, the prime minister’s loose talk is problematic, and deserves critical examination in the context of the ongoing efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue without resorting to force.
First of all, although the United Nations speech suggested that Netanyahu would not press military action until at least next spring or summer, this does not mean that such military action is out of the question. Earlier this week, we got a look at just how close Israel has come in the recent past to making good on its hawkish rhetoric.
An Israeli news show has reported that, in 2010, Netanyahu ordered the Israeli Defense Forces to raise their alert level to prepare for a possible military strike. The order was rebuffed by top defense officials Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Dagan on the grounds that raising the alert level could lead to inadvertent escalation that would in turn get Israel into a war that the cabinet had not authorized. Ashkenazi, who at the time was Chief of Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, said in response to the order: “This is not something you do unless you are certain you want to execute at the end. This accordion will make music if you keep playing it.”
As Max Fisher noted on the Worldviews blog, the story suggests that Netanyahu was willing to “go it alone” in 2010, but it also shows that “Israel’s internal politics and its military capabilities both seem to have ultimately overcome Netanyahu’s personal willingness to set a strike in motion.” On the other hand, some observers worry that Netanyahu is laying the foundations for more robust domestic support for a strike on Iran: on October 25, Netanyahu’s Likud party approved a merger with the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu. Two Haaretz journalists, in separate evaluations, suggested that this may be a way to consolidate domestic and international support for a strike.
Yet despite all of the tough talk and troublesome reports, it may be that Netanyahu no longer means what he says about attacking Iran as fervently as he once did – after all, his hawkish stance is increasingly a minority view in the Israeli security establishment, and respected US experts from both parties agree that a unilateral Israeli strike wouldn’t be effective. In that case, do Bibi’s words still matter?
Yes, they certainly do. Trita Parsi wrote in October that Netanyahu seems to have a policy of taking three steps forward and one step back – that is, making moves toward a confrontation with Iran, and then backing down slightly every so often. In this way, Parsi argued, Netanyahu keeps pressure on the US and Europe to keep the pressure on Iran, and has “ensured that the trajectory of developments are in his favor.” The problem with that is that the Obama administration, which won reelection last night, faces undue public pressure from Bibi to draw red lines and take more rigid stances towards Iran that may ultimately be counterproductive in the quest to resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically.
Bibi’s most recent comments suggest that he has no plans to change course, but less rigidity and more creativity are exactly what’s needed. And with the administration now less constrained in its pursuit of diplomacy with Iran, let’s hope that a diplomatic solution can finally be found.