The media is full of reports from Israel about leading intelligence and military officials publicly assailing the Netanyahu government's line on Iran. One after another, Israel's most knowledgeable (and usually hawkish) members of the security establishment are coming around to the U.S. view that the Iranian government has not yet decided to develop nuclear weapons. They are concluding that the best way to avoid that eventuality is through a combination of diplomacy and sanctions, not war. This is also the Obama administration's view.
This developing consensus, combined with the start of negotiations with Iran, has led the New York Times and other major media outlets to conclude that the threat of an Israeli attack is receding. Even Obama administration officials seem to be moving in that direction.
That, in turn, has led the two Israelis who will make the decision whether or not to attack to double down on their threats of military action. Neither Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu nor his Minister of Defense Ehud Barak wants anyone to believe that they consider the war option dead. Here is Barak's latest warning as reported by the Times:
Just imagine the most unstable elements in the hands of the most unstable regime in one of the most unstable regions of the world," he warned. "It is well understood in Washington, D.C., as well as in Jerusalem that as long as there is a future existential threat to our people, that all options to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons should stay on the table, and they will.
Barak's position makes sense on one level. He and Netanyahu might believe that indicating that the war threat is gone might encourage cockiness, even recklessness, in Tehran. Rare is the government that tells an adversary that the military option is "off the table." That comes after an agreement, not before.
Of course, it is unlikely that the war option has been ruled out by Netanyahu, Barak or the Israel lobby here.
They have been peddling the Iranian threat for well over a decade with the clear message that "crippling sanctions" are a start toward neutralizing Iran but, ultimately, the only sure means to accomplish the job is through regime change, which itself may only be accomplished by means of war.
Any doubt that this is the "line" from Jerusalem and the lobby can be quickly eliminated by reading what the Republican candidates for president (with the exception of Ron Paul) said during the primary campaign. Of particular significance are the hawkish positions of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney (who will almost surely be the GOP nominee) and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
That is because Romney and Netanyahu have been close friends since the 1970's and Romney has said that on matters relating to Israel, he will defer to Netanyahu. As for Gingrich, he will not be the GOP nominee, but his hawkish views on Iran are significant because his largest campaign donor, by far, is Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate, who is one of Netanyahu's most influential confidantes.
Neither Romney or Gingrich would be saber-rattling if Netanyahu and/or the lobby did not want them to. Like all matters related, even tangentially, to Israel, Iran policy is a campaign issue not a studied foreign policy position. The Republican hawks may or may not believe that war is the answer but they believe, and believe correctly, that war-mongering is what the Israeli government and its lobby want to hear.
That is why it's naïve to believe that just because Israeli security officials agree with their U.S. counterparts that the Iranian government is not now developing nuclear weapons, the Israeli government and its lobby are going to stop pushing for war.
If their determination to go to war was, in fact, motivated by the fear that Iran was about to develop nuclear weapons, the emerging consensus that it, in fact, isn't might stop Netanyahu and Barak's agitating for war. After all, once the supposed threat of Israel's annihilation was gone, so would be their desire to preempt.
However, it It is not Israel's elimination that the Israeli leadership and its lobby are worried about; it is the elimination of Israel's nuclear monopoly and its regional hegemony. Ehud Barak admitted as much to Charlie Rose last year. He said that if he were an Iranian government official, he would probably want a weapon, too -- not to destroy Israel but because "they look around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear, not to mention the Russians" -- and Israel.
In other words, Barak conceded that Iran's nuclear ambitions, if it had them, are not motivated by its determination to eradicate Israel but by its overall regional concerns. It aspires to play a larger role in the region and, no doubt, would like to serve as something of a check on Israel's regional power which enables the Israeli government to do whatever it wants whenever it wants to. (Israel does not approve of Turkey's regional ambitions either but can't do anything about them, given that Turkey is a member of NATO and thus a formal ally of the United States which Israel is not).
That is why Netanyahu and Barak have not set aside the possibility of attacking Iran. They, quite simply, want to put Iran in its place.
The good news is that the Israeli people do not agree with them. A full 63 percent of Israelis oppose attacking Iran, believing that war is a more frightening prospect than a nuclear-armed Iran. It is safe to assume that risking the lives of their children to assert Israeli hegemony would appeal to them even less than going to war to stop a theoretical Iranian nuclear weapon.
Both Netanyahu and Barak are known for their messianic view of themselves, and messiahs don't much care what lesser mortals think, even when those lesser mortals are some of Israel's most knowledgeable military and intelligence officials.
Here is Barak in the New York Times describing how seriously he takes their concerns:
It's good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us -- the minister of defense and the prime minister.
When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.
Wow. According to Barak, the only thing above him and Netanyahu is "the sky above us." This makes Louis XIV ("L'Etat, c'est moi") sound like James Madison.
Happily, Barak is wrong. Above him and Netanyahu, long before you get to the sky, is the United States of America and its president. The United States has interests in the Middle East too (like the safety of its military and civilian personnel) and it also supplies Israel with almost $4 billion a year in aid, more by far than it provides any other nation.
Netanyahu and Barak may choose to look skyward and not "down" to their own people. But they cannot ignore the United States which can stop an Israeli attack on Iran with a single word: no.
That is what George W. Bush did in 2008. Is it conceivable that Barack Obama would not do the same?