Netanyahu (probably) won’t attack Iran

Daniel Levy writes: A tendency characterizing Netanyahu’s long term in office, and a counterintuitive one at that, is the degree to which he has been risk-averse, not only in matters of peace, but also in matters of war. No Operation Cast Leads, Lebanon wars, or Syria Deir ez-Zor attack missions under his watch. In fact, he has no record of military adventurism. What’s more, Netanyahu hardly appears to be in need of a Hail Mary pass, military or otherwise, to salvage his political fortunes. Polls consistently show that he is a shoo-in for reelection. The right-wing block in Israel currently has a hegemonic grip on Israeli politics, something that seems unlikely to change. Netanyahu secured his own continued leadership of the Likud party in Jan. 31’s primary. His primacy on the right faces few challenges from either within the Likud or beyond it. Despite never winning favor with much of the mainstream media, the messy management in his own office, and the challenges of coalition balancing (particularly over issues of religion and state), Netanyahu maintains solid approval ratings with a relatively strong economy and can even now bask in Israel’s lowest unemployment numbers in 32 years.

Although it is fair to speculate that a successful, daring mission to the heart of Iranian airspace would be domestically popular and a boost to the prime minister, such a mission is anything but risk-free. Not only would the specific military action be fraught with uncertainty and potential hiccups, but the fallout from a strike, even one successful in immediate terms, could have far-reaching repercussions and consequences for Israel in the security and diplomatic arenas and by extension, of course, in the domestic political domain. The Hebrew expression she’yorim shotkim (“silence when shooting”) is used to describe the phenomenon whereby domestic criticism of the government is suspended when military action is under way. The problem for Netanyahu is that all signs point to that rule not applying in this case. Former security establishment figures at the highest levels have mounted an unprecedented campaign warning Israel’s leader and its public of the follies of launching a solo and premature Israeli military action against Iran. Most outspoken has been recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who has described a strike on Iran as “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” But he has not been alone. Other former IDF chiefs of staff, as well as Shin Bet and intel leaders, have joined the cautioning chorus. Many are unlikely to shut up if Bibi defies their counsel. And in the public arena, these voices cannot be dismissed as just so many self-serving chickenhawk politicians. The fallout from an attack on Iran is possibly the biggest threat to Bibi serving a third term.

Another oft-overlooked aspect is the absence of public pressure in Israel for military intervention or of a supposed Iranian threat featuring as a priority issue for Israelis. The pressure to act is top-down, not bottom-up. And to the extent to which there is trepidation among the public, that is a function of fear at the blowback from Israeli military action, rather than fear of Iranian-initiated conflagration. Also to be factored in is the possibility of 2012 being an election year in Israel (though technically the current parliament could serve until October 2013). If Netanyahu does pursue early elections, as many pundits expect, then the political risk associated with an attack increases, heightened by the likelihood of a strike being depicted as an election ploy. What’s more, prices at the pump are an issue for Israeli voters, just as they are in the United States.

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. In fact, a strike on Iran is sometimes depicted as presenting a threat to the settlement enterprise, in as much as there is an expectation that part of the fallout would be enhanced pressure on Israel to tamp down resulting regional anger by displaying more give on the Palestinian front. With so many in the settler movement convinced that the irreversibility of 40-plus years of occupation is within touching distance, the last thing they want now is to rock the boat by creating new and unpredictable challenges to their cause. [Continue reading…]

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4 thoughts on “Netanyahu (probably) won’t attack Iran

  1. hquain

    There seems to be a couple of implications from Levy’s argument that he doesn’t quite emphasize sufficiently.

    (1) He cites military reluctance, but doesn’t dwell on the reason for it. It’s probably simple: an assessment that a strike will not work, is not actually feasible. If you rely on intimidation, the last thing you want to do is fail conspicuously. We can presume that any rational actor understands this.

    (2) He cites Netanyahu as being politically secure, but notes that N may want to call an election this year. Suppose that’s true. Then N is in Obama’s situation: he must make moves to appear strong to his public. For this, nothing is better than exaggeration of threat (the best kind being nonexistent) and belligerence in the face of it. Fiction is cheap and clean; action is risky, messy, and expensive.

    So we might hypothesize that both Obama and Netanyahu are largely driven by internal political goals, and constrained by them as well. The probability then, if this reasoning is more or less right, is that we’ll hear lots of strident, military-tinged rhetoric, but see little actual action beyond the attempt at economic strangulation. It will be interesting to see how O & N negotiate their respective needs to appear dominant when they meet face-to-face.

  2. delia ruhe

    If Bibi is at heart reluctant to start bombing, given the plethora of restraining voices in Israel, then maybe Obama should call his bluff. Think that will happen? Neither do I.

  3. DE Teodoru

    Netanyahu’s Israeli bluff-bullying at work. Levy’s sooo smart, one of the best and fairest to read!

  4. Christopher Hoare

    The article is relatively reassuring about Israel; that most actors there see the downsides to their own attempt to attack Iran. Which leaves the US as the loose cannon, where a voluble lunatic fringe (both religious and political), and the always sinister AIPAC, far outweigh the determination and inclination of a weak Obama and his even weaker political cohorts.

    The only safe eventuality for the world, both Western and non-Western, is to have the US disengaged from the Middle East entirely. Since the US has screwed up every venture it has tried in the region, it should be a no-brainer for the adult supervision—if there is such a phenomenon.

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