The Dynamics Of U.S. And Israeli War Talk

In this post, Daniel Larison echos Daniel Levy’s point that Netanyahu is risk-averse, and delves into the political and popular constraints Bibi feels in Israel. Public opinion does not back the higher ups want to start a war with Iran. A poll from Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland recorded the following:

Only 22 percent of Israelis believe that a military strike by Israel would delay Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons by at least five years; another 22 percent estimate a delay of three to five years. Nine percent of Israelis believe the delay would be only one or two years. Thirty percent of the respondents believe a strike would either have no effect on the Iranian program or would accelerate it. Asked what the effect of an Israeli strike would be on the Iranian government, respondents were evenly split between those who believe a strike would weaken the Iranian regime and those who believe it would be strengthened.

On the key question of whether Israel should launch such a strike notwithstanding the fact that the United States and powers advise against it, only 19 percent of Israelis favor a strike even in the face of U.S. opposition. Thirty-four percent oppose a strike no matter what. A plurality—42 percent—would back a strike only if it had at least the support of the United States.

In this you can see the similarities that the conservative wing in both the U.S. and Israel have been beating the war drums. The penetration to the bulk of the populace is not very deep at the moment; both populaces have economic problems to focus on, and starting a costly and potentially extremely destabilizing war is not first priority. To me, the most important conclusion the poll makes is that a good percentage Israelis think a strike on Iran would do little to or accelerate any Iranian nuclear weapons program. Even if a strike was able to completely annihilate all of Iran’s nuclear operations, they would still have the capabilities to rebuild, and rebuild in secret, and in branched out form to lessen the affects of any future attacks.

One of the problems with the air of militancy at the moment are the upcoming Israeli elections. For both the U.S. and Israel, an attack on Iran would mean catastrophically high global oil prices. Aside from their aversion to striking for other reasons, the price at the pump would compound any political benefits from aggression. Not only is Netanyahu’s reelection a source for treading lightly while brewing up talk is that the Israeli higher ups obviously want U.S. backing their military coercion. So far we have not indulged this suicidal request. Perhaps this means that if President Obama is reelected a more forceful stance will be held after November. In the mean time Netanyahu’s own coalition is not fully supportive of his push for war. Daniel Levy makes this case:

Especially noteworthy is the extent to which the elements of Netanyahu’s coalition further to his right have not embraced or promoted military action against Iran. In fact, they tend to demonstrate a lack of enthusiasm at the prospect. This applies to both the ultra-Orthodox and the greater Israel settler-nationalists. One reason is that they view the Iran issue as peripheral when compared with, say, the pursuit of settlements and an irreversible presence in all of greater Israel. 

Leave it to the ultra-Orthodox and nationalists to always put the Israeli-Palestinian question over any other geopolitical consideration. Incredibly, Levy points out that an attack on Iran would take away from settlement efforts. Larison thinks this is a point lost on much of U.S. public opinion, who think war hawks are equally in favor of settlements. Levy’s point that Iran talk keeps many minds off settlements, a residual effect perhaps, but one that is advantageous to their goals.

At a speech before AIPAC today, Obama reaffirmed his goal of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, stated in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. This does not mean to decapitate the Iranian nuclear program; they would still have the capability, but his objective is to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of the Iranian government. From his speech at AIPAC:

Iran’s leaders should know that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon …. Already, there is too much loose talk of war. Over the last few weeks, such talk has only benefited the Iranian government, by driving up the price of oil, which they depend upon to fund their nuclear program. For the sake of Israel’s security, America’s security, and the peace and security of the world, now is not the time for bluster; now is the time to let our increased pressure sink in, and to sustain the broad international coalition that we have built. Now is the time to heed that timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: speak softly, but carry a big stick.

As Spencer Ackerman notes, Obama’s speech shows a resiliency against Netanyahu’s war mongering, and set his feet firmly in the sand; a position against war, and against nuclear weapons. From practical terms this should be a popular place to stand. Iran armed with a nuclear weapon would create a whole new dynamic in the Middle East. Nuclear proliferation would ramp up and many countries would try their hand in the race to armament. Israel would have to deal with many more threats to its sovereignty. The President also reaffirms his pledge to the Israeli state; something he must have felt compelled to do before AIPAC. Here’s Ackerman ending, peering into one of the many facet Netanyahu will have to consider with the cards in his hand:

Are we closer to avoiding an Iran war? It seems like it The onus is on Netanyahu now to respond to Obama. One can cynically suggest that one of Netanyahu’s targets in a strike on Iran is Obama’s presidency; I would not put anything past Netanyahu. But Netanyahu has to consider — and my understanding is his advisers are indeed considering this — that Obama may very well be reelected, and then Israel will have to deal with the consequences of defying him when he returns to the height of his political power. Obama’s speech to AIPAC threw down a gauntlet to multiple audiences, while challenging them to do things his way.

This leaves me with the ultimate hope that President Obama is leaving the door slightly ajar for a diplomatic solution. Perhaps it is possible to hash out a plan of denuclearization for the U.S. and Israel to whip up goodwill. It is hard to see the future road going anywhere good. Iran’s nationalistic pride over its nuclear program is a massive barrier to diplomacy of disarmament. And Israel, never even official stating that it has nuclear weapons, should be seen as an equally stubborn wall. President Obama must maneuver in such a narrow diplomatic strait that the chances of the ship grounding on either side of the problem is very high. Obama’s rhetoric leaves being drawn into war equally as likely as diplomacy. This is the main problem of his speech before AIPAC, that while firmly placing America’s feet in the sand, that position may be in front of the line it needs to be to stay out of costly combat. The challenge now will be whether the President can retrace his steps instead of being drawn consequences much larger than Libya. In the face of AIPAC he may not be able to, but if he is able to re-posture the conversation within a larger context of Israeli and U.S. popular opinion, he may be able to regain a workable backbone.

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