April 12th, 2009
David Samuels in Slate has a very interesting argument as to Why Israel Will Bomb Iran. In an odd way, it is refreshingly realistic in discussing the issue totally within the context of the national interests of the various actors. In particular, an Israeli attack on Iran is seen as a way that Israel has of extending its usefulness to the US as its main client state in the Middle East:
The key fact of the American-Israeli alliance that most commentators seem eager to elide is that Israel is America’s leading ally in the Middle East because it is the most powerful country in the Middle East….
By shattering the old balance of power in the Middle East with its spectacular military victory in the Six Day War, Israel announced itself to America as the reigning military power in the region and as a profoundly destabilizing influence that needed to be contained. The parallels between Israel’s rise to superpower-client status in the 1950s and 1960s and the Iranian march toward regional hegemony over the past decade are quite striking. Both Israel circa 1967 and modern-day Iran are non-Arab states that utilized innovative military tactics to panic the Arabs. Yet where Iran is a non-Arab country with a population of more than 70 million, Israel was and is a tiny non-Arab, non-Muslim country whose small population and seat-of-the-pants style of leadership made even the country’s modest colonial ambitions seem like a stretch. In the absence of any fixed plan of expansion, or any long-term plan for dealing with its neighbors, Israel decided to use its excess military power and captured lands as a chit that it could exchange for resources provided from outside the region by its wealthy American patron.
This logic leads Israel to take actions to counter its declining importance to the US:
[T]he weaker and more dependent Israel becomes, the more Israeli interests and American interests are likely to diverge. Stripped of its ability to take independent military action, Israel’s value to the United States can be seen to reside in its ability to give the Golan Heights back to Syria and to carve out a Palestinian state from the remaining territories it captured in 1967—after which it would be left with only the territories of the pre-1967 state to barter for a declining store of U.S. military credits, which Washington might prefer to spend on wooing Iran.The untenable nature of this strategic calculus gives a cold-eyed academic analyst all the explanation she needs to explain Israel’s recent wars against Hezbollah and Hamas, its assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers, and its 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor. Israel’s attempts to restore its perceived capacity for game-changing independent military action are directed as much to its American patron as to its neighbors.
This logic will lead, Samuels argues, to an attack on Iran:
An attack on Iran might be risky in dozens of ways, but it would certainly do wonders for restoring Israel’s capacity for game-changing military action….
Short of an Iranian-hostage-rescue-mission-type debacle in which a small Israeli tactical force crashes in the Iranian desert, or a presidential order from Obama to shoot down Israeli planes on their way to Natanz, any Israeli air raid on Iran is likely to succeed in destroying masses of delicate equipment that the Iranians have spent a decade building at enormous cost in time and treasure. It is hard to believe that Iran could quickly or easily replace what it lost. Whether it resulted in delaying Iran’s march toward a nuclear bomb by two years, five years, or somewhere in between, the most important result of an Israeli bombing raid would be to puncture the myth of inevitability that has come to surround the Iranian nuclear project and that has fueled Iran’s rise as a regional hegemon.
For Israel fears that the US will eventually surrender Israel as its primary Middle East client for Iran:
The parallels between Israel’s rise to superpower client status after 1967 and Iran’s recent rise offer another strong reason for Israel to act—and act fast. The current bidding for Iran’s favor is alarming to Israel not only because of the unfriendly proclamations of Iranian leaders but because of what an American rapprochement with Iran signals for the future of Israel’s status as an American client. While America would probably benefit by playing Israel and Iran against each other for a while to extract the maximum benefit from both relationships, it is hard to see how America would manage to please both clients simultaneously and quite easy to imagine a world in which Iran—with its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, its control over Hezbollah and Hamas, and easy access to leading members of al-Qaida—would be the partner worth pleasing.
In a surprising conclusion, Samuels argues that a Palestinian state will be the price that Israel will have to pay for its attack on Iran, and that this is a price they are quite willing to pay:
The only real downside for Israel of an attack on Iran is Washington’s likely response to the anger of the Arab street and the European street, both of which are likely to express their fierce outrage against Israel and the United States. The price of an Israeli attack on Iran is therefore clear to anyone who reads Al Ahram or the Guardian: a Palestinian state. It seems fair to say that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak see the establishment of some kind of Palestinian state as inevitable and also as posing real security risks to Israel.
Yet, in a perverse way, the idea that the price of an attack on Iran will be the establishment of a Palestinian state makes the logic of such an attack even clearer. Israel’s leaders know that the security threats inherent in giving up most of the West Bank will be greatly augmented or diminished depending on how a Palestinian state is born. A Palestinian state born as the result of Israeli weakness is a much greater danger to Israel than a state born out of Israeli strength….
The inevitability of a future Palestinian state is the most powerful argument for the inevitability of an Israeli attack on Iran—unless the Iranian nuclear program is stopped by other means. Taking out the Iranian nuclear program is the one obvious avenue by which Israel can turn the debilitating drip-drip-drip of territorial giveaways and international condemnation into a convincing appearance of strength. Destroying a respectable number of Iranian centrifuges will end Iran’s march to regional hegemony and eliminate Israel’s chief rival for America’s affections while also allowing Israel to gain the legal and demographic benefits of a Palestinian state with a minimum of long-term risk.
While I’ve extracted the central argument here, the entire article is well worth reading. I do not know if the argument is correct. But it certainly is plausible.
UPDATE: For an alternate view, that Isreal may be tempted to attack, but simply cannot do so without US permission, see Roane Carey’s Don’t Flash the Yellow Light.