My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel
XIV Existential Challenge, 2013
Iran is clearly the key security threat to Israel at the moment. Ari has been writing about Iran for over a decade so he presumably knows the issue. On the one hand, he is at a disadvantage since the breakthrough on the Iran negotiations came through after the book went to press. On the other hand, it is helpful to compare what he said in 2013 before the negotiations happened with what is happening now and what he has said or written since. What we find is that he has been saying mostly the same thing – with some reversals – for the past decade. Further, he continues to say the same thing as if no negotiations were underway, or, more correctly, in spite of the negotiations underway. He has been prophesying gloom and doom for years, In the rare case when he refers to detailed expert written analysis, he gets it right.
Let’s first deal with what he says in the book, then what he said subsequently, and then what he previously said. He has mostly been wrong. He has also mostly been hysterical.
Ari says the case must be studied within three contexts, the global, the American and the Israeli. “Since 1945, the international community has managed to control the proliferation of nuclear weapons in an impressive way.” (366) If, ignoring Israel for the moment, allowing Pakistan, India and North Korean is considered part of that impressive accomplishment, this is a very questionable assertion. If one looks at who have been excluded and the reality that only four states have been added to the nuclear club since China, Ari’s praise may be justified.
The second context is the American one. According to Ari, America is a declining power and America’s influence in the Arab world is waning. The third context is Israel which possesses nuclear weapons but has never used them even to pose a threat and has never threatened to wipe out its enemies. Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map. That is why Iran with its technical know how and the advances made by Iranian scientists brought Iran to the brink of having a nuclear weapon.
There is a fourth meta-context, that of the prophets and seers who saw and forewarned about what was happening versus those in America and Israel who refused to see, who wore cognitive blinkers. What would have been easy and not required force in the early stages has become increasingly more difficult to resolve except by the use of force. Further, the challenge, even to respond by the use of force, has not been technical but conceptual, presumably not only for America but for Israel. But was it not also political? While bombing the Iranian nuclear complexes are now very difficult, in the early stages of Iran pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, the international and regional political difficulties would have been enormous. But Ari shunts such considerations aside.
Israel took out the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981. Much more recently, Israeli jets destroyed the Syrian reactor. Ari grants that the destruction of the Iranian reactors will be much more difficult, not only technically but politically, not because of the international response but given the sophistication and cunning of the Iranians. For their goal was not just to build a bomb, but to build one safely. (372)
However, when Netanyahu came to office in 2009, he threw off those blinkers and not only saw Iran for what it had become and was becoming, but in refusing to be silent about what he saw. First, he said Iran must not possess a bomb. Second, bombing the Iranian nuclear facilities was politically and ethically justified. Third, and most important, Israel could do it, alone if necessary. Finally, when Israel had deemed that the rest of the world had run out of time to get the deed done, Israel would carry out the deed, again, alone if necessary. Further, Netanyahu’s red line speech in the UN in September 2012, by explicitly and unequivocally making this known on the international stage, is said by Ari to be singularly responsible for the election of President Hassan Rouhani. Further, along with previous threats, that threat brought about the increased world pressures and strong sanctions that forced Iran to at least hesitate. But Israel’s moment of decision was near. Amos Yadlin, former head of military intelligence and currently head of the Institute for National Security Studies, insisted that moment for choosing the bomb or bombing was in late 2013 or the first quarter of 2014. Yadlin has since said that Iran has succeeded in becoming a nuclear threshold state.
If, for both Barak and Netanyahu, 2012 was the decisive year, the year when Iran left the zone of immunity, why did Israel not react with force then? Because Netanyahu was not Churchill who could communicate, share his vision and get his fellow Israelis committed to what he saw and what needed to be done. He allowed Israel to be perceived as the threat to peace. Since Ari has believed for years that Iran posed an existential threat to Israel, Ari is distressed that the confrontation with Iran kept being postponed and remains unresolved. In the 2013 elections, the Iranian threat was virtually ignored. And so Ari ended the chapter with a question: “Will Obama’s United States have the resolve… (to) stop Iran or let Israel stop Iran?” (381)
If this is the false dichotomy of anti-Iranian hawks, it is faced with the anti-Israeli false dichotomy of the doves. For example, Barry Lando in The Huffington Post on 22 November 2012 wrote that the elephant in the room was the Israeli lobby. “The major force driving U.S. policy on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program is not cool, rational logic, but the pro-Israel lobby.” If Lando is correct, why isn’t Israel bombing the smithereens out of Iran. If the hawkish Israeli school is correct, the exact same question can be asked: why isn’t Israel bombing the smithereens out of Iran, For on this, if either opposite analysis is correct, the same result will follow. That alone should suggest that neither extreme is correct.
I have written extensively on Iran in the past. My position has been:
a) Not only would Iran’s possessing a nuclear capability pose a threat to Israel, but Iran becoming a threshold nuclear power would as well.
b) The time became immanent in 2013.
c) The danger was not so much Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon but getting to the edge of a strategic breakout capacity that would enable Iran to acquire nuclear weapons within six weeks of making such a decision.
d) Iran now is at that point, and that is one reason why, in spite of the heavy impact of the economic sanctions, Iran is in the best position to negotiate to, as much as possible, secure that strategic breakout capacity.
e) Nevertheless, I welcomed negotiations as the better option to bombing and supported Obama’s initiatives on the diplomatic front.
e) The goal of the Obama-led talks will be to get a deal that both pushes Iran much further back from the brink of a breakout capacity, but also ensures that, through monitoring and an insistence on full transparency, Iran can be prevented from coming near that edge ever again.
What has Ari said since the negotiations have opened?
1. Ari believes that negotiations are a strategic mistake. He published an OpEd in the New York Times on 20 November 2013 where he began: “If such an agreement were signed, it would represent an Iranian victory – and an American defeat.” Why? Because the economic sanctions would be lifted, providing renewed strength to the Ayatollah regime, and Iran would be able to enrich more uranium and maintain its nuclear program. Iran’s progress might be slowed, but Iran would still be able to cross the finish line. Not only that, but an accord would guarantee that it [Iran] would guarantee that outcome.
2. How does Ari justify this conclusion? Because the Geneva accord is a replica of the mindset of Munich providing the illusion of peace-in-our-time while, in fact, bringing us closer to war. Ari, of course, was not the only one to adopt this posture. Jonathan Tobin of The Economist, for one, agrees with Ari. “Iran is certain to get a nuclear weapon sometime before the midterm elections next year. At that point, apologies to Netanyahu from his detractors in both the U.S. and Israel will be both too late and of no use to a Jewish state confronted by a nuclear Iran that wants to wipe it off the map.” (27 June 2013)
3. What was the alternative? Make Iran give up its nuclear ambitions.
Ari then recapitulates the historical argument that he provided in the book. “In short, Ari has remained a prophet crying in the wilderness. You cannot trust the Iranians. Iran must either give up its nuclear program entirely or force must be used to stop Iran. and it is Obama’s fault that massive force must be used now. For by the time Obama, as leader of a world-weary and declining power, decided to impose heavy sanctions in 2010 and 2011, it was too little and too late.”
What is wrong with Ari’s analysis? First, it posits an absolute – either an Iran on the threshold of acquiring nuclear weapons or Iran with absolutely no capacity to produce nuclear weapons at all. Either/Or. The focus is not on moving Iran as far back as possible and as necessary so that Iran is no longer a threshold nuclear state. Second, Ari considers either full retreat or full scale bombing to be both effective and achievable strategies. Third, Ari uses an analogical argument and through such an analogy and labelling of Iran, presumes he has made his case rather than examining the historical record to assess the degree to which Iran, in its actions, has established itself as a reckless polity bent on at least regional hegemony. Further, the accord is simply trashed but not analyzed for its weaknesses and strengths. For Ari, allowing Iran to become a threshold nuclear power was prima facie a repetition of Munich.
The fact that the best and most acute observers of Iran’s growing capacity to produce nuclear weapons, observers who have been warning the world community over the last decade, but in a far less shrill voice and an accumulation of empirical evidence, have had a different interpretation doesn’t seem to phase Ari. In fact, he generally pays it no mind with two exceptions I found. Though he writes in the afterword that he has “read hundreds of books and thousands of documents,” one cannot tell from reading or listening to Shavit whether he has ever read David Albright and Paulina Izewicz, the two most acute observers and reporters on Iran’s progress towards a nuclear capacity. Neither are cited in the index. Instead, Ari repeats his mantra and prophecies like a broken record. (Other than sentences in italics to provide for context and transition, everything else is a direct quote; for a much fuller coverage of all of Ari’s past articles and prophecies, see the False Prophet blog.)
1. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 11 May 2006 – 8 years ago
If you concentrate and make an effort, it is still possible to hear the hum of the centrifuges. They are turning on their axes – once cascade after the other, one and then another percentage point worth of enrichment – the clock quietly ticking toward a global crisis…We are at the threshold of a genuinely historic moment…There are two choices:. The West cannot accept Iran’s nuclear project. Therefore, the confrontation is inevitable. In the best case scenario, it will end the way the Cuban missile crisis did; in the worst case scenario, it will turn ugly and irradiate the Middle East. The timetable is also more or less known. At the diplomatic level, the crisis may peak as early as this summer. From a military standpoint, the crisis may reach its zenith in the winter, after the U.S. congressional elections. Either way, 2007 will be a critical year. It poses a challenge to the West of a kind that it has not faced since the Cold War. For Israel, it is a date with destiny. The world was faced with four alternatives: acquiescence, diplomatic action, American military action, or a situation in which Israeli is forced to act.
America and Israel both chose acquiescence. I think, as Ari did, that both were wrong. However, the sky did not fall.
2. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 17 May 2007 – one year later
Whatever the number of centrifuges – 1,300 or 3,000 [Iran now has 19,000, many much more powerful and sophisticated than anything in 2007] – Ari was certain that the critical time had arrived even as moderate economic pressures were being applied and a small coalition of western states was applying more substantive sanctions.
There is no doubt about the main issue: This year is a critical one… When it comes to Iran, this year is a year of decision. If Iran is not stopped this year, then in the summer of 2008 it will be on its way to nuclear hegemony, which means a different Middle East. It also means a different State of Israel. It means a different era… this year Israel will have to make the most important decision in its history: to prepare for the fact that Iran will strike at it in response to any strike at its nuclear project, or to prepare to face a nuclear Iran.
Was Netanyahu the alternate champion to Olmert?
For Ari at the time, only Barak was capable of leading Israel when it confronts the most important decision in its history. The decision of its life.
3. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 13 March 2008 – ten months later
Israel’s effort to stymie President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s nuclear program in an elegant manner hit the skids. The likelihood of diplomatic and economic pressure stopping the Shi’ite centrifuges is pretty slim. The likelihood of the United States attacking Iran is low. If John McCain does not make it to the White House, Israel is likely to be faced with a cruel decision at the end of the decade: to attack a nuclearizing Iran or accept a nuclear-capable Iran. Either option will pose a test to Israel unlike any it has faced since 1948.
Needless to say, John McCain did not make it to the White House.
4. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 5 June 2008 – three months later – Ari’s wishful & wild thinking
Contemplate, if you will, this wild scenario: In November, after Senator Barack Obama becomes president-elect of the United States, outgoing president George W. Bush inflicts a severe blow on Iran. That could take the form of a naval siege, the flexing of American military muscle, or even an all-out air strike targeting Iran’s nuclear program…A military move, even a semi-military one, carried out by an outgoing president would be unprecedented and illegitimate; it would be perceived as the final insane trumpet call of a thoroughly off-the-wall administration with a committed religious outlook. But these are not ordinary times, and the protagonists involved are not ordinary people. The logic that guides Bush and Dick Cheney is not always readily understood by public opinion in the West or even by the molders of that public opinion. This logic could lead the U.S. president and vice president to conclude that, if they do not act, neither will Obama. If Obama does not act, Iran will go nuclear, and, if that happens, evil will triumph.
5. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 30 April 2009 – ten months later – an imagined 2012 retrospective
Washington was astounded when, in the summer of 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that he was expelling international inspectors and galloping full-tilt toward the production of nuclear weapons. The shock turned to horror on the eve of Christmas 2010, when Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, stated that his country had its first three nuclear warheads – aimed at Riyadh, Cairo and Tel Aviv.
The rest of the retrospective prophecy grew even more absurd, with Obama deciding not to run for a second term given the international chaos, especially in the Middle East.
6. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 22 April 2010 – one year later
If next year U.S. President Barack Obama acts toward Iran the way George W. Bush acted toward North Korea, Iran will go nuclear. If Obama prevents Israel from acting against Iran and does not act itself, Iran will become a leading power in the Middle East. The outcome will be a loss of respect in the Sunni world for the United States and a loss of inhibitions in the Shi’ite and radical world vis-a-vis Israel. A serious conflict could then break out between Israel and Hamas, Israel and Hezbollah and perhaps even Israel and Syria. A violent deterioration could also occur between Israel and other neighbors. A loss of U.S. strategic hegemony would mean that opponents of the West will shake up the Middle East. A loss of Israel’s strategic monopoly would result in attacks on it by old and new enemies. The age of relative quiet that has typified Israeli-Arab relations for the past 35 years will be over forever.
The 180 degree Reversal
7. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 9 June 2011 – thirteen and a half months later
There is no real proof that a nuclear attack by Iran is imminent.
8. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 16 June 2011 – one week later, Ari finally gets his facts straight
First fact: Neither the West nor Israel can accept a nuclear Iran. A nuclear Iran would make the Middle East nuclear, threaten Western sources of energy, paralyze Israel with fear, cause Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to go nuclear and the world order to collapse. A nuclear Iran would make our lives hell.
Second fact: Neither the West nor Israel has to act militarily at present against Iranian nuclearization. A military attack against Iran would incite a disastrous regional war, which would cost the lives of thousands of Israelis. A military attack against Iran would turn it into a great vengeful power that would sanctify eternal war against the Jewish State. A military attack against Iran would cause a world financial crisis and isolate Israel from the family of nations.
Third fact: Out of a profound understanding of these two basic facts, the West and Israel have developed a joint strategy that can best be described as the third way. The third way has two dimensions: (covert ) activities and economic sanctions. Surprising even to those who have formulated this strategy, the third way is achieving results. It is not eliminating the Iranian threat, but it is postponing and weakening it. Britain, France and Israel, working in close alliance, are spearheading the effort. The United States is also doing its part. Germany and Italy are trailing behind. But the bottom line is that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is under pressure. The still waters of the West and Israel run deep.
Fourth fact: A key element of the third way is the threat of a military attack against Iran. This threat is crucial for scaring the Iranians and for goading on the Americans and the Europeans. It is also crucial for spurring on the Chinese and the Russians. Israel must not behave like an insane country. Rather, it must create the fear that if it is pushed into a corner it will behave insanely. To ensure that Israel is not forced to bomb Iran, it must maintain the impression that it is about to bomb Iran.
9. Ari Shavit Haaretz, 10 November 2011 – six months later, wrong again
The prime minister and defense minister claimed that with regard to Iran, there was no time to spare. The former Mossad chief claimed that we had time. Now comes the International Atomic Energy Agency and proves that indeed, there is no time to spare… So the decisive year…will be 2012. Israel is getting closer to having to decide between bombing or allowing a bomb.
But also right, except on the immediacy!
The report published this week in Vienna shatters that illusion. It proves that Iran has not only uranium enrichment and missile programs, but that it has a plan to manufacture nuclear weapons. It proves that Iran has covert facilities and secret delivery routes, and that it is working stealthily to develop a nuclear bomb. With a stock of five tons of uranium enriched to a low level and 70 kilograms of it enriched to a moderate level, Iran is on the brink. With Iran developing nuclear detonators and nuclear warheads, Iran is a real and immediate threat.
10. Ari Shavit Haaretz, February and March 2012 – three months later
Is there any limit to the number of times one can cry wolf?
February 23 – Press the Panic Button;- a time at which urging bombing exhausts itself
Iranian scientists were assassinated and Iranian centrifuges exploded, but at any given moment Iran had more fissionable material than the previous moment. One red line was crossed, and then another, and another. Thus, our prime minister’s primary preoccupation over the past few years has been sharpening the Israeli sword. He has made the whole world truly worried that the sword might be unsheathed… As of now, the military option is proving to be a diplomatic success. It managed to shake the international community out of its apathy and made a definitive contribution to the tightening of the diplomatic and economic siege on Iran. But the time for playing diplomatic games with the military option is drawing to a close. There’s a limit to how many times one can cry wolf. There’s a point at which a “hold-me-back” policy exhausts itself. And that’s a very dangerous point, because suddenly the military option turns into a real option. The Netanyahu-Obama meeting in two weeks will be definitive. If the U.S. president wants to prevent a disaster, he must give Netanyahu iron-clad guarantees that the United States will stop Iran in any way necessary and at any price, after the 2012 elections. If Obama doesn’t do this, he will obligate Netanyahu to act before the 2012 elections.
March 15: To attack or not to attack?
Israel’s policy of prevention has gained some time, but has failed. The international policy of appeasement created an illusion and collapsed. The sanctions imposed were too little, too late, and won’t likely stop Iran in time… in March 2012 the feeling in Jerusalem is that Israel is utterly alone. And we are getting closer to the moment of truth.
March 22: Now or Never
By 2013, Iran will be deep inside the zone of immunity. Iran’s ongoing fortification and dispersal of its strategic facilities means that by then, even if Israel does strike, Tehran’s nuclear program will survive. Once that happens, all those in Israel who oppose a strike will go from arguing “not yet” to throwing up their hands and saying “it’s too late.” That’s why it’s totally clear that for Israel, 2012 is a critical year. It’s either now or never… right now, the knife is at its throat, the official said: As far as Israel is concerned, 2012 is the year of decision.
Now never came.