Fool Me Once: Israel’s Moment

Published December 07, 2007, issue of December 07, 2007.
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Aftershocks will reverberate for months, if not years, from this week’s bombshell American intelligence report on Iranian nuclear ambitions. Whenever the dust finally settles, though, the news won’t be good.

In the short run, the report effectively rules out a military strike against Iran. That’s a good thing, given the terrifying fallout — waves of terrorism, oil shortages, economic chaos — that would follow an attack. But in the long run, trouble looms. America’s international credibility, or what’s left of it, will crumble. The post-Iraq rehabilitation of the Western democratic alliance will stall, and the Iranian mullahs and their terrorist confederates will find their credit rising. None of that is welcome news to friends of liberal democracy and human rights.

However things shake out, it must be remembered that the fault isn’t in the new information disclosed this week. The problem is the bad policies that the new information upends. The policies must be changed, not the facts.

In finding that Iran halted its nuclear weapons program four years ago, the spy agencies have seemingly discredited a central item on the Bush administration’s agenda. Our government has been insisting that Iran’s nuclear program represents an imminent threat to global security. We’ve pressured other powers, notably Russia and China, to sacrifice their perceived interests and follow our lead. Despite all their sour experiences with this president — Iraq, Kyoto, missile treaties, the international criminal court — they’ve begun to heed. Now comes America’s own intelligence brass — all 16 major spy agencies — with a unanimous finding that the threat isn’t so imminent. It’s hard to remember another occasion when key government agencies so thoroughly repudiated such an urgent item on a president’s agenda.

President Bush and his top aides were working this week to put a happy spin on the findings, but the effort rang hollow. The intelligence indicates that Iran abandoned its weapons program because of international pressure. That proves, Bush said, that America’s efforts to isolate Iran are working and should be continued. But the facts say otherwise.

In the fall of 2003, when Iran is said to have halted its arms research, world pressure consisted of a European carrot-and-stick campaign. Washington was preoccupied with post-invasion Iraq and contemptuous of the Europeans’ effort. Only in 2005, long after Iran shut down the bomb shop, did America sign on. It’s hard to see which American efforts stand vindicated.

Importantly, the intelligence report directly repudiates one of the main thrusts of Washington’s stop-Iran campaign. The administration has argued that Iran can’t be trusted with nuclear technology because it is an irresponsible, irrational actor, capable of incinerating the globe without a second thought. Not so, say our spooks: “Tehran’s decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach,” not some mad “rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs.”

After all our lecturing about the imminent threat, our partners are understandably peeved to learn that our own spymasters downgrade the urgency.

The insult is compounded by the report’s timing. Just two days before its release, our partners — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — met in Paris and accepted Washington’s demand for new sanctions. Barely 48 hours later they learned that the threat was overstated, and that the White House knew it.

Fool me once. For the second time in less than a decade, Washington was caught peddling a showdown in the Middle East, based on false weaponry reports. The last time, in Iraq, the administration claimed it hadn’t known the intelligence was flawed. This time it can’t make that claim. There won’t be a third chance.

The pity is that Iran represents a genuine threat. It is ruled by crusading fanatics with a long record of terrorism. It should be cut down to size. At the moment, it’s hard to see how that might happen.

No one fared worse this week than Israel. Whatever others might make of Iran’s swaggering, Israel has indisputable cause for fear. Tehran has repeatedly vowed to destroy the Jewish state. Other Muslim regimes may be cynical enough to hedge such vows. Iran seems utterly, devoutly sincere.

For more than a decade Israeli strategists have considered Iran their most dangerous enemy. The threat used to be kept in check by Iran’s archenemy, Saddam Hussein. That counterweight is now gone, thanks to the Bush administration.

Since the Iraq invasion, Israelis have watched, terrified, as Tehran has built its strength and hurled its curses. Jerusalem’s hope has been that Iranian recklessness would so alarm other nations that a coalition might emerge, under American leadership, to hold the mullahs back. Until this week that hope seemed realistic. Now Israel has entered a new phase that may be best described as alone and petrified.

Israeli intelligence continues to believe that Iran is working on nuclear weapons. Some Israelis concluded this week that the new American estimate represents a deliberate administration decision to cut its losses and abandon Israel. Most responsible Israelis believe the differing assessments are simply an honest disagreement. Both nations’ intelligence communities are staffed by sober, dedicated professionals. Both are competent but fallible. Both are subject to political and psychological pressures. Both have the same basic information on Iran.

Each admits the other may be right. If there is a major difference between them, it is this: the Americans tend to believe, post-Iraq, that they cannot afford to err on the side of alarmism. Israelis believe they cannot afford complacency.

After the report’s release this week, Israel’s top leaders quickly fanned out to major capitals, hoping to convince other nations that Iran remains a threat and sanctions are still needed.

Few expect them to succeed. China and Russia have already concluded that the American intelligence lets them off the hook. Without those two, sanctions will be meaningless — if, indeed, friendlier nations can be kept on board. More likely, Israel will be left to its own devices.

Oddly enough, Israel’s best hope for ensuring its safety in the months ahead is the same as it was last month: cutting a deal with the Palestinians. A Palestinian deal will allow Israel to activate the Saudi initiative and press for treaties with its Arab neighbors. If Israel is surrounded by a ring of friendly neighbors — even in an Egyptian-style cold peace — then Iran will be left alone in its murderous schemes. If this opportunity is missed, Israel will find itself alone.

The Arab states’ incentive for reconciling with Israel is lower this week than it was last week. But the future bodes only worse. Now is Israel’s opportunity. It may not return.

As sticky as Israel’s situation is right now, that of its American Jewish advocates is doubly so. Though they hate to hear it, the big Jewish agencies are in the hot seat. Their judgment is doubted, their loyalty under a microscope, their credibility paper-thin even within their own community. Now is not the time to go to war against the world’s opinions.

Their first instinct will be to pooh-pooh the intelligence findings. They will want to stand alongside the floundering president, to redouble their calls for fortress America to hunker down, isolated, alone with Israel. Who, they will ask, echoing Groucho Marx, are you going to believe — me, or your own two eyes?

They should resist the temptation. The first order of the day, both for Israel and for American Jewry, is serious reexamination of strategies. Step one is to listen to the facts.






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