Monday, December 28, 2009


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By Barry Rubin

Of all the questions readers ask, there’s no question about which are the two most frequent. First, is Israel about to attack Iran or when will this happen? Second, do President Barack Obama and his entourage hate Israel and will there be a major confrontation or some kind of sell-out.

The first two questions are pretty easy to answer, the third less so.

Israel and an attack on Iran: Israeli policy is quite clear. Its current emphasis is on supporting strong sanctions. There is, of course, skepticism as to whether strong sanctions will be applied and whether such a step would work, but that’s not the determining factor. It is recognized that the West must thoroughly try diplomatic means to satisfy itself that everything short of an armed attack has failed.

Only when the sanctions have been seen to be ineffective at stopping Iran’s march to nuclear weapons would Israel even begin to go into an attack phase but even then there are two major considerations.

One is that Israel will only attack when Iran is on the verge of getting weapons. Not only would that situation make the decision about responding an immediate task but also because that would be when Tehran has the maximum equipment installed and the most damage can be done. There is no sense bombing half-empty buildings.

The disadvantage is that this would give the regime more time to disperse the facilities. And that introduces the other problem. An Israeli cabinet meeting would be held to determine whether an attack could be carried out, whether the political and security costs would be acceptable, and whether an attack would succeed in setting back the Iranian program by a big margin.

Is Israel capable of launching an effective attack? Without going into all the complex details, the basic answer is “yes.”

If destroying Iran’s nuclear capability is an existential imperative could Israel weather the diplomatic criticism and terrorist or other attacks? Again, yes. Hamas and Hizballah would escalate and launch rockets but they could be deterred or defeated.

It is the last point, however, that is critical: Would an attack achieve considerable success in putting back Iran’s nuclear program by years? That cannot be taken for granted. In military action lots can go wrong. Planes can crash; mechanical breakdowns or bad weather may cause failure. The distances involved are huge; the margin of error very fine.

What if the bombs miss and hit civilians? (Yes, Israel cares a lot about this despite all the slander and lies regarding its behavior.) Will dispersion of facilities mean that only a small portion of Iran’s facilities will be damaged or destroyed?

In short, is it worth launching an attack that only inflames the situation further, costs lots of diplomatic capital, and doesn’t do any good?

This is a question that can only be raised and decided in a cabinet meeting at the proper time. There is no determined choice already made and that is as it should be.

The second question relates to Obama and Israel. In my opinion, Obama has absolutely no warm feelings toward Israel at all and, if anything, his instincts are hostile. But previous American presidents—notably Richard Nixon—have followed pro-Israel policies despite being personally unfriendly. What is important is that Obama and his entourage have learned two things.

One of them is that bashing Israel is politically costly. American public opinion is very strongly pro-Israel. Congress is as friendly to Israel as ever. For an administration that is more conscious of its future reelection campaign than any previous one, holding onto Jewish voters and ensuring Jewish donations is very important. There will almost certainly not be a visit of Obama to Israel in 2010, he’ll wait until it will do him some good at the polls (which is a good thing since the less attention he pays to this issue the less harm he’ll do.)

The other point is that they have seen that bashing Israel doesn’t get them anywhere. For one thing, the current Israeli government won’t give in easily and is very adept at protecting its country’s interests. This administration has a great deal of trouble being tough with anyone.

If in fact the Palestinians and Arabs were eager to make a deal and energetic about supporting other U.S. policies, the administration might well be tempted to press for an arrangement that largely ignored Israeli interests. But this is not in fact the case. It is the Palestinians who refuse even to come to the negotiating table—and that is unlikely to change quickly or easily. Arab states won’t lift a finger to help the United States on Iran, Iraq, or Arab-Israeli issues. So why bother?

Moreover, no matter how much noise the administration makes about being engaged on the Israel-Palestinian front, it knows that not much is going to happen. Its envoy, Senator Mitchell, will run around and make plans but the top brass in Washington isn’t going to devote all that much time to this issue.

The hostility to Israel of the administration’s overall personnel can also be exaggerated. A couple of names come to mind of officials who are hostile, but there are also many—arguably more in number--who are reasonably friendly, including the secretaries of state and defense.

The idea that David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel constitute some anti-Israel cabal is misleading, too. If there were a serious peace process, they’d certainly push Israel harder to make more concessions than others would do but they are focused on domestic affairs and also know that this issue is a non-winner for them in terms of success, glory, or political advantage.

These two factors form the basic framework for understanding the Middle East in 2010. Putting down a smokescreen of diplomatic activity and proposals, the U.S. government is likely to place the “peace process,” whose non-existence is too real to ignore, on the back burner. Meanwhile, Israel is doing the same thing with an attack on Iran. The next year’s events in the region will come from other crises and issues.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.


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