After a summer of stoking media speculation that Israel would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities before US elections in November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been forced to back down. Netanyahu's new message, this week, was that he'll hold off on starting a war if the U.S. is willing to publicly a clear "red line" that, if crossed by Iran, would trigger a U.S. military response. But President Barack Obama already did so, in March, warning that he'd order military action if Iran moved to build a nuclear weapon. The demand that he restate it suggests Netanyahu is looking for a face-saving exit strategy. The reason he'd need one, of course, is that their Iran saber-rattling has left Netanyahu and Barak publicly isolated, not least among Israel's own defense and security establishment.
Netanyahu and Barak's bellicosity has ignited a remarkable degree of opposition among Israel's military and intelligence chiefs, who are reportedly unanimous in opposing an attack on Iran at this stage. Not only that, the public outpouring of opposition to a military strike among recently retired senior Israeli military men and security chiefs has included an unprecedented barrage of attacks on the judgement, strategic competence and even the mental stability of Netanyahu and Barak. Former leaders and senior officers of the Mossad, the Shin Bet and the IDF have publicly questioned whether Netanyahu and Barak can be trusted make decisions of such heavy consequence.
These unflattering portrayals by respected security men hardly help Netanayahu and Barak convince the public of the case for war, and opinion polls continue to find a majority of Israelis opposed to attacking Iran without U.S. backing. On Wednesday, a furious Netanyahu stopped his security cabinet meeting, because the contents of an intelligence briefing received by the forum had been leaked to the Israeli media. Its contents: Iran's nuclear progress is not nearly as alarming as Netanyahu and Barak have made out.
Even President Shimon Peres recently publicly opposed a strike without U.S. backing. It was clear, Peres said, that Israel lacked the military capacity to destroy Iran's nuclear program, and needed to coordinate its actions with Washington. The White House, of course, has left no doubt of its opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike. And last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey warned that an Israeli strike could, at best, briefly delay Iran's nuclear progress, but at a cost of unraveling the international sanctions coalition, and of spurring Iran to actually build a nuclear deterrent an option it has not yet decided to pursue despite steadily acquiring the capacity to do so. "I don't want to be accused of trying to influence," Dempsey said in London last week, "but I don't want to be complicit if they choose to do it." Those comments came as the U.S. military scaled back participation in a joint military exercise in Israel next month.
Bashing the war drums on Iran appears to have cost Netanyahu and Barak the confidence of their own security chiefs, their president and public, and of Israel's most important strategic ally. That's not a comfortable position for any Israeli political leader, and Barak appears to have backtracked even before any new "red line" statement Obama. Not known for the consistency of his statements, the Israeli Defense Minister who just weeks ago was painting himself as "the decision maker" on the verge of scrambling the jets, is now reportedly opposed to bombing Iran before the U.S. election. Netanyahu wants the face-saving path of a U.S. declaration, that he can claim as a victory for his saber-rattling. Netanyahu's problem, though, is that Obama's red line preventing the Iranians acquiring a nuclear weapon is not the same as the Israeli red line, which insists that Iran can't be allowed to maintain the nuclear infrastructure that it already has, even though that infrastructure falls within the limits of what is permissible for NPT signatories, because it can be repurposed to weapons-grade materiel. And as last week's IAEA report confirmed, Iran is gliding past Israeli red lines while carefully avoiding approaching U.S. limits.
For now, the U.S. looks likely to persuade Israel to sit on its hands while sanctions and other pressures on Iran mount. Indications thus far, however, are that even if those measures succeed in pressing Iran to compromise, such compromise as are offered are unlikely to involve the capitulation on the issue of uranium enrichment that the Israelis demand. So, even if a war before November is looking increasingly unlikely, it's probably a safe bet that war talk will be revved up again come spring.