To Israel, an Iranian Bomb Is a Hegemonic as Well as “Existential” Threat (Part One)

In politics, a “gaffe” is a politically inconvenient truth. The first George Bush committed a gaffe when he said that the idea that cutting taxes would increase government revenue was “voodoo economics.” Similarly, it was a gaffe when Barack Obama said that insecure right-wingers “cling” to religion and guns.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak gaffed big-time last November. This gaffe is even more colossal than what he said back in 1999 that if he were a stateless young Palestinian, he would “have joined one of the terror organizations.”

Barak’s November 2011 remark is breathtaking in both its honesty and in its deviation from the Israeli government line (Iran being an existential threat to Israel, Europe and the rest of the world) that has not only been sold to the Israeli people, but also to the United States government — especially to Congress, where anything from Netanyahu’s office is treated as gospel.

Appearing on PBS’ Charlie Rose, Barak was asked if he would want nuclear weapons if he were an Iranian government minister. He said he probably would.

BARAK: Probably, probably. I know it’s not — I mean I don’t delude myself that they are doing it just because of Israel. They look around, they see the Indians are nuclear, the Chinese are nuclear, Pakistan is nuclear, not to mention the Russians.

Barak did not “delude” himself with the belief that Iran’s nuclear weapon program is “just because of Israel.” Well, it’s always nice to be true to yourself. After the Israeli right went ballistic over Barak’s remarks, he qualified them, but in such a half-hearted way that it is clear what he said on PBS is what he believes.

Barak is not the only leading Israeli leader that has spoken the truth.

Meir Dagan, the recently retired Mossad chief, called bombing Iran a “stupid idea.” He said: “A military attack will give the Iranians the best excuse to pursue the nuclear race. Khamenei will say ‘I was attacked by a country with nuclear capabilities; my nuclear program was peaceful, but I must protect my country.’”

Of course, Barak and Netanyahu and a host of officials in successive Israeli governments for the past 15 years have sold the entire world on the idea that Iran seeks nuclear weapons for the purpose of destroying Israel. Repeatedly, Israeli officials have said that the Iranian government is insane with anti-Semitism, so insane that it would joyfully nuke Israel without any regard for the fact that Israel has 200 land, air and sea-based missiles that could kill millions.

Among the leading advocates for “crippling sanctions” against Iran and for keeping the “bomb Iran” option “on the table” are the right-wing “pro-Israel” organizations led by AIPAC, its congressional cutouts, and, in the blogosphere, Commentary, which is central command headquarters for the “Bomb Iran” movement.

With one honest comment, Barak demonstrated that the hysteria surrounding an Iranian bomb is, in fact, not about an “existential threat” to Israel, but about the fact that: Israelis don’t want Iran to have a nuclear weapon because, if it does, Israel will not be free to continue its role as regional hegemon and to do whatever it wants in the Middle East. It will change the balance of power in the region.

Disregarding the Israelis publically stated reasons for attacking Iran, one needs to ask the question: why the saber-rattling? We believe that part of the answer lies in the unstated circumstantial factors.

In about nine months, the US will hold a presidential election. All the noise about striking Iran could have more to do with American domestic politics than any real or perceived threat to the Israelis.

It is no secret that the right-wing government in Israel in general, and Netanyahu in particular, would prefer a new US president in January 2013. This is not simply because Netanyahu had some tense moments with Obama, but also because in a second term Obama would not face the type of electoral constraints he faces in his first term.

It is no secret that US presidents who have engaged in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking have been most active in their second terms as Bill Clinton was at Camp David and George W. Bush was in Annapolis. Those that were particularly active in their first terms — Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush — were defeated in their re-election bids. Netanyahu does not want an unrestrained Obama demanding that he halt settlement expansion in 2013. Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich is more likely to be more susceptible to the pro-Israel pressures AIPAC is apt to apply.

Netanyahu also knows that if Israel went ahead and attacked Iran on its own before the election, he would put Obama in an extremely compromising position. Obama does not want to get into a war with Iran as it is against American interests. But Obama also knows that should Israel go it alone, he’d be pressured to participate lest he appear weak before the electorate.

The specter of an Israeli strike on Iran will have Obama asking Netanyahu what he can do to change Netanyahu’s mind and put off the strike to say, at least after November. (Remember Golda Meir’s threat of bombing Cairo with nuclear weapons in October 1973 war?) Netanyahu’s government has a great deal to gain from hanging the possibility of a unilateral strike ominously over the head of President Obama before an election.

Israel is hedging its bets for November in the hopes that they will either get a first-term Republican facing domestic constraints that prevent him from pressuring Israel, or a docile Obama, who has already given away the house on Jerusalem and settlements.

Did Netanyahu ask for specific guarantees, similar to the ones George W Bush made, which Obama does not recognize, about Israel’s retention of major settlement blocs in any deal with the Palestinians? Did he ask for guarantees about the future of Jerusalem, which he wants to keep in violation of international law, and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank, over which he seeks to maintain a long-term military presence, rendering a would-be Palestinian state dead on arrival?

Ibrahim Kazerooni is finishing a joint Ph.D. program at the Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies in Denver. More of his work can be found at the Imam Ibrahim Kazerooni Blog. Rob Prince is a Lecturer of International Studies at the University of Denver’s Korbel School of International Studies and publisher of the Colorado Progressive Jewish News.