At one time, a mantra of American politics was that politics stops at the water's edge.
Then there was Vietnam.
Long before Vietnam there was considerable dispute about entering World War I. Irish immigrants were prominent among those not wanting to risk themselves for Great Britain. When the next European war was already underway in 1941, with growing implications for the United States, the United States House of Representatives approved the extension of the draft by only one vote. Three and one-half months later, the response to Pearl Harbor was widespread, but later were claims about Roosevelt overlooking clear signs of a Japanese attack, and letting it proceed in order to give him a good excuse for joining Britain's war.
Post-Vietnam controversies about Iraq and Afghanistan, the "war on terror," Guantanamo, and extraordinary renditions ought to snuff out any life remaining in the American notion about politics stopping at the water's edge.
So why the surprise that Israeli politicians are quarreling in public about attacking Iran?
Prominently against an attack are former heads of Mossad and Shin Bet, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Notice the label of "former." The most outspoken opponents are out of power.
Prominently not against an attack are Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, the Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, who is a former commander of the IDF, and another former commander of the IDF, Moshe Ya'alon, who is also a minister in Netanyahu's government.
The most recent commander of the IDF, Gabi Ashkenazi, has commented in public, but it is difficult to determine if he supports or opposes an Israeli attack. He has said that sanctions against Iran are "less costly than all the other options" while advocating "keeping all the options on the table."
The present commander of the IDF, Benny Galtz, has said that he does not expect Iran to be intent on developing nuclear weapons, but is not on record as firmly oppoised to an Israeli attack.
The issue is difficult and well as sensitive. There is no assurance that the international community or the United States is serious about taking the steps necessary to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. There is no assurance that a nuclear armed Iran can be kept from using its weapons by the capacity of Israel to respond with its own nuclear weapons according the epigram that worked in the Cold War and so far in the case of India and Pakistan--i.e., MAD, or mutually assured destruction.
There is no assurance that an Israeli attack can do more than destroy part of Iran's nuclear facilities. Opponents claim that Iran can recover from such an attack in a matter of months, and then be even more assiduous about using nuclear weapons against Israel.
On the other hand, advocates claim that other countries may participate in an attack begun by Israel and that the damage to Iran can be severe enough to tip the balance of argument within Iran against continuing its nuclear program.
There is no firm evidence in support or opposition to these competing scarios.
We should not be surprised that individuals with serious credentials in the field of security disagree about the likelihood of one scenario or another. And once arguments go beyond the inner rooms of government and out into the public, we should not be surprised to hear participants accusing one another of political motives.
What are prominent are only the most general scenarios. Individuals with technical expertise are arguing about the probabilities of one or another kind of munitions available to Israel or the United States being able to destroy one or another element of Iranian nuclear, missile, and air defense capacities.
Israelis high and low do not lack for other imponderables. Chief among them is the willingness of President Barack Obama to maintain sanctions severe enough to curtail Iranian nuclear ambitions, or to use his own military options at an appropriate time if sanctions do not deter the Iranians.
The lack of success in restraining North Korea and the waffling of Europeans and Americans in the face of platitudes from Iranian negotiators do not encourage Israelis who are themselves waffling about military options.
Americans have their own problems, beside being unsure of Iranian intentions or capacities. Not the least of their worries is an inability to determine what Israel is likely to do, how far Israel can be pressed, or what "red line" crossed by Iran will trigger an independent Israeli attack.
Israelis with weighty reputations do not readily dismiss other Israelis with weighty reputations who express opposing views. Prime Minister Netanyahu speaks forcefully, but has not acted.
Soon after Yuval Diskin criticized the Prime Minister and Defense Minister for their "messianic" and indefensible postures with respect to Iran, Israeli politicians began discussing dates for an election.
Does this mean that postures about attacking Iran will be the stuff of a political campaign from now until whenever the election occurs, perhaps in September and October?
Other issues likely to figure in the campaign are the military exemptions and other benefits granted to the ultra-Orthodox; the government's posture with respect to settlements defined as illegal by activists or the Supreme Court; demands for greater social equity, economic regulation, and lower prices that were subjects of last summer's demonstrations; and the perennial issue of Palestine.
Anyone expecting clarity and simplicity about attacking Iran should not be in this game.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Posted by Ira Sharkansky at May 01, 2012 12:30 AM