Question of Iran Pits Israeli Intelligence Against Meshuggeneh Fringe

Cross-posted from Colorado Progressive Jewish News.

An open clash between Israelis at a major meeting in New York City gives ample evidence of a growing divide in Israel over attacking Iran.

The tensions have been brewing under the surface for some time now, with hints of the depth of the antagonism surfacing from time to time. But just a few days ago, on April 29, 2012, in New York City, before a mostly Jewish, and mostly pro-Netanyahu audience of 1,000 attendees, the political boil was publicly lanced, and nothing Alan Dershowitz had in his bag of articulate tricks could paste over the bitter polarization that has erupted. The meeting was sponsored by the generally conservative and right wing Jerusalem Post.

The issue: Iran.

Just how nasty and deep is the split can be seen from a detailed article published in May 2 edition of the New York City-based Forward — one of America’s longest running and most prestigious Jewish newspapers. In an article entitled Explosive Dust Up Over Iran Policy, Forward journalist J.J. Goldberg exposed the Israeli internal riff over Iran in which it seemed that high-level Israeli officials ripped into one another over claims of “an Iranian threat.”

Sounded like quite the ideological slugfest that ripped the veil off of any semblance of Israeli unity concerning Iran. On the one hand, representatives of Prime Minister Netanyahu openly attacked President Obama’s Middle East policies, with, according to the Forward, “widespread cheering” from the audience. On the other hand, former Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and former Mossad Director Meir Dagan attacked Netanyahu’s Iran saber rattling. Last year Dagan had publicly called Netanyahu’s war talk “stupid.” In one exchange on April 29, Dagan called Giliad Erdan, Israel’s Environmental Minister and a Netanyahu man, “a liar.” Ergan responded in kind, claiming Dagan was “threatening Israeli security.”

The Meshuggeneh Fringe vs. the Intelligence Apparatus

In one corner, the ample meshuggeneh fringe of Israeli politics — Prime Minister Netanyahu and his increasingly right-wing and religious followers, including West Bank settlers whose rhetoric has long ago approached “foaming at the mouth” levels concerning “the existential Iranian threat” to Israel. Netanyahu and company have been warning the world of the development of an imminent Iranian nuclear weapon since the early 1980s.

In the other corner, strange as it seems at first — but not so strange for those who know anything about the sober (if reactionary) assessments of the Israeli intelligence — security and military communities. Joining them is a growing element of Israeli public opinion so hammered with anti-Iranian vitriol that is something approaching a miracle that they could see through the swamp of lies and exaggerations, and actually speak out for peace. Going against the position of the Israeli prime minister, this element in Israel has been openly contradicting Netanyahu. They argue that Iran isn’t building a nuclear weapon, doesn’t have plans to build one and even it did, wouldn’t represent a threat to Israel.

The breach is nothing new in Israel where it has been discussed for months in the Israeli press; but to see controversy spill over so openly in the United States and then to be picked up by the mainstream media (the New York Times) and a publication like The Forward — this is striking.

The struggle over Iran at top of the Israeli political pyramid only reflects the tension at the grass roots. In a related development and unprecedented gesture, an Israeli posted a message on Facebook — a teacher made a public appeal — both to the people of Israel and the people of Iran — against war. The appeal struck a chord in Iran where it was read, viewed positively and widely circulated; it is circulating heavily in Israel and now around the world.

For the Israeli intelligence and security establishment, it is not Iran which poses a danger to Israeli security but Netanyahu’s rhetoric which has not only increased regional tensions but has in recent months undermined U.S.-Israeli relations, so much so, that at this year’s March 2012 AIPAC annual meeting, U.S. President Barack Obama publicly called on AIPAC — and Israel — to tone down the war talk.

In classic style, Netanyahu responded to Obama’s request by announcing more Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories and ratcheting up his anti-Iran rhetoric in an effort to reconstruct the anti-Iranian alliance (the U.S., Israel, Saudis and other conservative Arab Regimes). This alliance had been strained to the breaking point by the eruption of the Arab Spring which temporarily found Israel more isolated and confused in the region than it had ever been.

Looking for an Election Issue, U.S. Republicans Egg on Netanyahu

Egged on by Republicans, right-wing Zionists and neoconservatives here in the United States, Netanyahu’s anti-Iranian hysteria had reached such subjective heights, that even important elements of Israel’s own circles of power have found it necessary to call their prime minister on the carpet. Besides trying to push the United States into a war with Iran that Israel cannot in any way shape or form fight on its own, Netanyahu’s goal is to make the non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons program an election issue here in the USA. At the very least, Netanyahu reasoned, the saber rattling would force Obama to make concessions to Israel . I call it “rage management” — yell and scream enough and you might not get everything you want, but some juicy consolation prize — which did come forth in the form of bunker buster bombs to Israel and silence on the Palestinian issue.

But that wasn’t enough for Netanyahu for whom political moderation is something approaching a cardinal sin. And, with the support of the usual suspects (AIPAC, neoconservative nuts like John Bolton, and that Christian fundamentalist nut case John Hagee), Netanyahu kept up the anti-Iranian drumbeat for war. Of course he’d crossed the line of decency — and outright interfered in U.S. politics so often — and gotten away with it…that why stop now! Having let Israel off the lease for so long, it has proven to be difficult now to rein it in. Can’t blame all that on Netanyahu either.

The Republicans here in the United States whose primary campaign, pushed to the right by the likes of the Tea Party and neoconservatives, had something else in mind. As Netanyahu’s saber rattling grew louder and louder, the price of oil, always subject to political insecurity, began to rise. The bet was racheting up oil prices through fear of war would cut into the weak U.S. (and global) recovery which the Republicans and Netanyahu would help engineer. The Republican candidate — now apparently Romney — could blame the failed recovery on Obama.

Obama — Tactical Retreat From Military Confrontation

Obama understood the Republican-Likud game for the danger it is both to world peace and his re-election possibilities, given American sensitivities to rising oil prices. He acted to help defuse the situation — making it clear in his own pronouncements and those of U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, that there will be no military strike against Iran (at least until after the elections). All this challenges — at least in part — that in terms of U.S.-Israeli relations that “it is the tail wagging the dog.” The dog can wag the tail too — when it finds it necessary. While the connections/coordination between Obama and the Israeli military-intelligence community on this issue have not been openly spelled out, the fact that this is the sector that receives gobs of U.S. financial aid since 1979 and is closely coordinated with NATO plans and operations in the Middle East, might just have something to do with it.

It is not so much that the Obama Administration has changed its goal of regime change in Iran — the moral implications are of course brushed aside (again). But with the situation in Afghanistan melting daily before the world’s eyes, with tensions in Pakistan over drone strikes, Iraq in an increasingly explosive mood and Syria in a state approaching civil war, the U.S. is in no position to open up another front militarily, even if it so desired.

Of course, inching back from the brink even if it is for short-sighted election purposes — is a relief. Is it simply a breather from a policy that in the long run inextricably will lead to a military conflict, or the first step away from a policy of arrogance and lunacy that threatens to take us all down with it?