Jeffrey Goldberg, who's been warning us for two years that Israel is likely to strike Iran's nuclear facilities, recently mused aloud whether Netanyahu might not have been bluffing all along -- threatening a strike to induce the U.S. and the world to ramp up economic pressure on Iran. That stirred some indignation, since Goldberg has projected a kind of mind meld with Netanyahu, relaying his purported thinking and motive in detail. If he's been played, he's been a main conduit for the rest of us being played. James Fallows, accordingly, in his genteel way, has challenged Goldberg (via blogalog) to make a judgment. What's his best guess now? Bluff or strike? Would he like to reassess his past analyses in light of what he's recently learned?
When I read that challenge, I thought of what I'm learning now about the Israeli government's conduct of policy in the wake of the 1967 war -- at least as presented by Gershom Gorenberg in The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. Then, an analogous question might have been posed: annexation or land-for-peace? (There is a crucial difference, in that there was not a short-term clock running on that decision, but the analogy still holds to a degree.) And Gorenberg's thesis is that the leadership -- Levi Eshkol in particular at the outset -- never decided: their de facto policy was not to decide.
The Israeli leadership had conflicting impulses, individually and collectively. They did not want to rule a million additional Arabs. They did not want international opprobrium. They wanted peace and at first thought that a global settlement with their Arab neighbors might be imminent. At the same time, they wanted that Biblical land so bad. They were predisposed by experience and culture to create facts on the ground, or at least wink and smile at young zealots creating facts on the ground. They told the Americans and the world they were creating temporary military outposts while enabling settlers to create civilian kibbutzim. Eshkol not only presented facts differently to Americans and his cabinet colleagues; he presented facts differently to different cabinet colleagues, and to prospective settlers and his cabinet colleagues. The highly fractious nature of Israeli politics -- with small parties wielding outsized influence, and contrary impulses within the large parties -- helped midwife this keep-all-options-open/decide-not-to-decide approach.
According to various reports, the Israeli cabinet has been closely divided about striking Iran; according to one recent story, they have recently tipped 8-6 in favor. Perhaps, then, Fallows' question makes sense now; perhaps a decision has effectively been made, or provisionally made. But with regard to looking back over two years, I strongly suspect that either/or is a false frame. I doubt that the Israeli leadership has really known which way it will ultimately swing -- or that Netanyahu, if he was predisposed to strike, has known whether he could take his cabinet with him. I suspect that remains true now -- such decisions can be contingent until the moment of action. And I very much hope that Daniel Levy is right: that Netanyahu is not, at bottom, a risk taker; that he is currently cruising politically; and that his right wing doesn't want a strke.
Of course, Levy is also worried that in trying to leash the Israelis, Obama will box himself in to eventually striking. It's hard not to share that worry.