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Israel-U.S. Mistrust on Iran Paves Way to Attack

As U.S. drops signals of dissuasion, Netanyahu, Israeli leaders press on

Marc Tracy
March 20, 2012
The two leaders last Monday.(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
The two leaders last Monday.(Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

A consistent premise in the dizzying game-theory construct that is the run-up to a potential attack on Iran is that the closer the Israeli leadership feels to the U.S. leadership, the less likely Israel is to strike; the farther it feels, the more likely it is to strike. If Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, and the rest feel that President Obama truly “has Israel’s back” and would use military force—as he said he would as early as 2004—to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon (and is able to do so), then there is a good chance they will hold back; if they don’t trust Obama, they will almost certainly move ahead with action.

Two weeks ago, during the AIPAC Conference, the signs tended toward a renewed closeness and renewed hope for peace. Today, indications point toward war.

Communicating through their organ of choice, the New York Times, over the past few days U.S. military officials—and perhaps civilian ones as well—have sent the message that a military strike is not demanded by Iran’s nuclear situation and that one by Israel could have negative consequences, including loss of life, for the United States. On Sunday, it was a long article detailing the doubts U.S. and Israeli intelligence have over whether Iran ever restarted its weaponization program, which it reportedly suspended in 2003. While Iran has, it seems, continued to progress on fuel (enriching uranium) and weapon design, if it hasn’t decided to go ahead with weaponization, it could continue to do so and not become a nuclear power. And an article in today’s paper reports a U.S. military war game’s finding that an Israeli strike might prompt an Iranian counterstrike against a U.S. ship in the Persian Gulf, in turn provoking a U.S. strike on Iranian facilities.

Message from the U.S.: Don’t attack.

And the message from Israel, particularly following Sunday’s article, was: We may still attack. Among the things reporter James Risen reported Sunday was that Israeli intelligence, as opposed to its civilian leadership, broadly agrees with U.S. estimates of Iran’s current status. “Their people ask very hard questions, but Mossad does not disagree with the U.S. on the weapons program,” said one source. “There is not a lot of dispute between the U.S. and Israeli intelligence communities on the facts.” This jibes with former Mossad head Meir Dagan’s strident opposition to an attack, as well as with other reports.

Israel’s leaders proceeded to open the gap. Netanyahu said that Israel’s “clock” is shorter than the United States’. Barak repeated the fear that Iran’s program will soon become advanced enough as to be immune to the effects of an attack, or at least an Israeli one. Even Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman—who for all his hawkishness on the Palestinians has not been prominent in clamoring for action on Iran—got in the game, explicitly dismissing the Times’ reporting on U.S.-Mossad consensus.

No wonder Jeff Goldberg could report last week that, to some intentional level, Obama and Bibi were engaged in a good cop/bad cop routine, while this week, he finds as much evidence as ever that Israel is preparing for an attack. After these new reports, which are just as much messages, Israel no longer fully trusts Obama; and no trust will mean an attack.

Now, if the United States causes Israel to hold back, it will be because of the opposite of trust: It will be because it is much better for Israel if it has U.S. support.

Oh, and about that war game: The scenario in which retaliation against a U.S. ship prompts a counterattack could be designed to dissuade Iran from directly attacking the United States. Such restraint would seem to be in Iran’s interest: In the war game, the effect of the Israeli attack alone would be to postpone Iran’s nuclear development by all of one year.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.