Warning From the Holding Company

Martin Dempsey is not a popular man in the halls of the Israeli Prime Minister’s office these days. The Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff incurred the wrath of Benjamin Netanyahu by pointing out the obvious: an Israeli attack on Iran would have dire consequences.

Dempsey said “I don’t think a wise thing at this moment is for Israel to launch a military attack on Iran…” and such a strike “would be destabilizing” and “not prudent.”

Well, Bibi can’t have any of that. Imagine a US military leader talking sense about the potential of a military operation that would have global consequences. How dare he? Israel must respond to such an outrage, lest it fail in its effort to have the United States carry out this foolish attack on Israel’s behalf.

Israeli officials rushed to the visiting US National Security Adviser, Tom Donilon with their complaints about Dempsey’s statements. According to Ha’aretz, a senior Israeli official told Donilon that “The Iranians see there’s controversy between the United States and Israel, and that the Americans object to a military act. That reduces the pressure on them.”

The objection is overstated by a wide margin, and there’s a lot more going on here than the Israelis are talking openly about.

The “pressure” reduction Israeli officials are concerned about is only significant if the US is clearly opposed to an attack. This is not the case, either in the White House or in Congress. It is true the President sees an immediate attack as premature, but the threat of attack remains, even if the US and Israel are debating the timing.

Iran may see that the US doesn’t interpret the situation exactly as Israel does. However, the pressure remains high despite this because the threat of force from both countries is unchanged. The Israeli response is another example of what has become typical hysteria from the Netanyahu government.

In his four months in office, Dempsey has not been inclined to make a great many public statements about strategy and tactics with regard to Iran. That he did so now was not an accident.

We’re all well aware of the intense amount of debate going on in both the US and Israel over the question of an attack on Iran. Lines have been drawn on this issue, and many different pieces have come into play.

One of those pieces, in Washington, is the concern that if the US doesn’t strike Iran, Israel will, and that an Israeli strike would have even greater consequences for regional stability than an American one. This is certainly the case made to Donilon, and it is one that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has reinforced again recently.

There is also a bill, introduced in the Senate last week, S.Res.380, which is intended to greatly increase the pressure on President Barack Obama to take military action.

These are coordinated actions, with Israel not only using the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as a go-between, but with Bibi and Barak also directly mobilizing their friends on Capitol Hill.

S.Res.380 is being pushed hard by AIPAC,  and it is a bill that is much more dramatic than it might seem at first blush.

The official description of the bill is telling: A resolution to express the sense of the Senate regarding the importance of preventing the Government of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability.

The idea here is to move the red line for US military action from imminent Iranian acquisition of a nuclear device to Iran’s capability to build such a device, a level of nuclear technology that has other uses and that nations are entitled to pursue under the Non-Proliferation Treaty. From reports about Iranian capabilities, that could well be a threshold that it has already passed.

Here is how the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) put it, in an excellent critique of the bill:

“The Secretary of Defense stated in January 2012 that an Iranian attempt to actually build a nuclear weapon  is the United States’ “red line” that Iran must not cross.  But this resolution does not reflect or reinforce the “red line” articulated by the United States – it further confuses them.  As currently drafted, the resolution blurs the critical distinction between nuclear weapons capability and nuclear weapons acquisition.  Nuclear capable is an imprecise term with no clear definition. By some accounts, Iran could already be described as “nuclear capable,” as Iran already has the capability and expertise to build a nuclear weapon. It should continue to be the goal of the U.S and international community to use all non-military means at our disposal to put concrete constraints on Iran’s nuclear capabilities, with the ultimate objective of ensuring Iran does not actually acquire a nuclear weapon.”

This, just as much as an independent Israeli strike, is what Dempsey was trying to counter.

Within the Israeli leadership as well, there is considerable opposition to an attack on Iran. Some reports indicate that a majority of the military leadership is opposed to an attack, and there are signals that even Netanyahu is not convinced.

There had been speculation that Iran hawk Yohanan Locker would be appointed the head of the Israeli Air Forces. But Netanyahu chose Amir Eshel, who is considered to be more cautious about an attack on Iran, leading to speculation that Bibi is not yet convinced that Israel should take this initiative.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak is seen as leading the charge toward war,. However, both he and Netanyahu seem to be of one mind that the Obama Administration can and should be pushed toward a more aggressive stance against Iran.

The two-pronged attack, with Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, publicly attacking Dempsey while their friends on the Hill lead a charge toward making war harder to avoid, abetted by AIPAC pushing hard on potentially vulnerable senators in an election year, will not be an easy one for rationality and sober analysis to withstand.

These are considerable political pressure being brought to bear. Virtually none of it is based on US strategic interests (which do include preventing Iran from building a nuclear weapon, yes, but also include maintaining some stability in the Gulf region.) It is also not coincidental that the rhetoric and political jockeying are swelling noticeably just before the annual AIPAC convention, when Netanyahu will again be meeting with Obama and which will be a stage show for the push to war with Iran.

And, as is too often the case, Iran does opponents of war no favors with yet another episode just yesterday of refusing to cooperate with inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and giving a double-talking excuse as to why.

Though I have never subscribed to the notion that the Israel Lobby was not a significant factor in policy formation, neither do I believe it is as decisive as some make it out to be. I found merit in the arguments of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, but absolutely and frequently disagreed with their charge that the invasion of Iraq was largely the work of the Lobby and was, in essence, a war for Israel.

I still disagree with them on that score. But if the US goes to war with Iran, that will indeed be a war for Israel, and one that Israel, and its Lobby here engineered, not through some nefarious means, but by playing the political game in Washington and the diplomatic game on the global stage very well.

And, folks, we’re just letting it happen.

As a Jew, as an American, as someone who cares deeply for Israel and who also cares about a better future for my child, I have to call this out. I hope you’ll join me.

Photograph courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces. Published under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Americans better hope that China is up for buying a lot more US debt. Because if Israel starts a war against Iran and botches it because of insufficient capacity, there will be a huge mess that the US will be obliged to clean up because of its “rock solid” support for Israel’s security. And that will be a long, expensive clean up.

    Indeed, if this situation does come to pass we in the West can all kiss our economies goodbye.

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