Last week on one particular day the foreign policy and defense tollgate site Real Clear World featured two separate articles on Israel and Iran: one claiming that the former would attack the latter and the other the opposite. The case for attack consisted of reports of Israel Air Force aircraft practicing bombing attacks over Italy, statements by Israeli politicians, and the danger to Israel of Iran launching an out-of-the-blue nuclear missile attack on Israel. The case against consisted of the argument that Israel lacked sufficient aircraft to be able to thoroughly damage the extensive Iranian nuclear infrastructure--much of which is located underground--and thus any delay caused by bombing to the Iranian nuclear program would be temporary, the opposition of Washington to such attacks, and the likely blow-back damage that both Israel and the U.S. would suffer from Iranian revenge attacks. Will Netanyahu attack then? The truth is that I have no inside line into the psyche of the Israeli premier and even he probably does not know the final answer to that at the moment.
Bibi watchers are divided between those who see him merely as a shallow politician interested only in keeping his coalition together so that he can remain in power and those who see him as an ideologue interested in implementing neo-Revisionist Likud ideology. During his first term in office that meant stopping the Oslo process. During his second term that means keeping Israeli settlement activity going and weakening the peace process by destabilizing Israel's natural Palestinian partner, Mahmoud Abbas. When he ran for the premiership in January 2009 he made several statements about the dangers posed to Israel's future by Iran's nuclear project. The two politicians Netanyahu most admires surprisingly do not include Menahem Begin, the founder of the Likud's main component, Herut, or his successor Yitzhak Shamir. Instead he likes to quote Revisionist Zionism founder Ze'ev Jabotinsky and Winston Churchill. Jabotinsky warned in the interwar period of the dangers of a Holocaust among European Jewry even before Hitler had come to power in Germany. Churchill warned of the danger of Hitler to the international order and peace. For Netanyahu the Iranian leadership--personified by President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad--embodies both dangers. He is a personal threat to the survival of Jews living in Israel and a threat to the Middle East order.
Barack Obama has been content to try and stop the Iranian nuclear project through international nuclear sanctions. In this he has the support of Western Europe and the opposition of Russia and China--a more favorable situation than Bush faced vis a vis Iraq in 2002. Washington has also probably cooperated with covert Israeli efforts like the Stuxnet computer virus that reportedly destroyed several hundred Iranian centrifuges that were being used to enrich uranium. But Obama has resolutely opposed using force against Iran for good reason--the U.S. military is already overextended by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the international economy is very weak. With so much tinder and kindling lying around in the form of bad debt in Greece, Italy, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and the United States it does not do to play with matches.
So far Netanyahu has been content to warn Washington, support economic sanctions against Tehran, and support covert measures such as Stuxnet, possible sabotage or missile development sites, and assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. When Netanyahu contemplates Iran he should keep in mind that Churchill not only worried about the dangers of Bolshevism and supported Western intervention in the Russian Civil War in 1918-19, but he also came to support a balance of terror between the West and the Soviet Union in the 1950s. Part of growing up as a nation means learning to live with ambiguity and danger and knowing what one can change in one's environment and what one must learn to live with. Netanyahu's real role as a great Israeli politician might be to help Israel come to accept this as well.