9 February 2012 — The Weekly Worker
The threat of a military provocation by Tel Aviv against Iran is very real, warns Israeli Marxist Moshé Machover
One thing is beyond any doubt: a major aim of Israel’s foreign policy is the overthrow of the Iranian regime. What is not generally understood are the motives behind this aim, and the present Israeli government’s preferred means of achieving it. In this article I would like to say something about the motives, and then explain why prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s preferred means is war – one likely to ignite a major conflagration.
In my 2008 article ‘Zionism: propaganda and reality’, I quoted a recent Jerusalem Post report on a conference at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. That report deserves to be read very carefully, so here it is again:
“Iran’s success in obtaining a nuclear capability will deter Jews from immigrating to Israel, cause many Israelis to leave and will be the end of the ‘Zionist dream’, former deputy defence minister Ephraim Sneh said Tuesday.
“‘A nuclear weapon in Iranian hands will be an intolerable reality for Israel,’ Sneh said during a conference on Iran’s nuclear programme at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv. ‘The decision-making process in Israel will be under constant [Iranian] influence – this will be the end of the Zionist dream.’
“Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy slammed Israeli political leaders for calling Iran’s nuclear threat ‘an existential threat’. ‘There is something wrong with informing our enemy that they can bring about our demise,’ Halevy said. ‘It is also wrong that we inform the world that the moment the Iranians have a nuclear capability there is a countdown to the destruction of the state of Israel. We are the superpower in the Middle East and it is time that we began behaving like [a] superpower,’ he said.
“Iran’s real goal, Halevy said, was to turn itself into a regional superpower and reach a ‘state of equality’ with the United States in their diplomatic dealings.
“Sneh said that, while the military option was not preferred, Israel needed to keep it on the table, since such a possibility was the motivation for the international community’s efforts to use diplomacy to stop Iran. Sneh added that he was confident that the [Israeli Defence Force] was capable of successfully carrying out a military strike against Iran. ‘We grew up in a place that when the political echelon wanted something, the professional echelon knew how to do it,’ he said. ‘I believe this has not changed in 2008.’”
Two points in this report are particularly noteworthy. First, one of the experts, a former chief of the Mossad (Israel’s counterpart of MI6 and the CIA) is talking here about the prospect of Iranian nuclear capability rather than actual production and possession of a nuclear weapon. As all experts are well aware, there is no evidence that Iran has a programme for producing such a weapon. This is as true today as it was in 2008. Indeed, the US defence secretary, Leon Panetta, confirmed this quite recently. (Nuclear capability is the ability to produce a usable nuclear weapon at fairly short notice. It is a policy pursued by several other governments, and is not prohibited by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, of which Iran – but not Israel! – is a signatory.)
Second, contrary to Israeli and western hype, neither expert claims that Iran is actually planning to attack Israel, let alone subject it to a nuclear holocaust. The former Mossad chief is dismissive of the scaremongering propaganda alleging that Iran poses a credible military threat to Israel. Ephraim Sneh, a former brigadier general and senior Labour Party politician, does mention the (purely hypothetical) prospect of Iran producing a nuclear weapon, but even he believes that the threat it would pose to Israel is political rather than a direct military one.
Indeed, Israel’s worry regarding Iran is the real political threat it poses to Israel’s regional hegemony, not the imaginary threat of being attacked by the Islamic Republic. Possession of nuclear capability is certainly a component of this political threat, inasmuch as it would contribute to Iran’s diplomatic muscle in its dealings with other Middle Eastern states and with the US. But it is only a component. Even without the nuclear issue, the Zionist state has a clear interest in replacing the present Iranian regime by one compliant with global US hegemony.
As far as this aim is concerned, the interests of US and Israel are in complete agreement. But, as regards the means, there appears to be a divergence between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government.
The US, smarting from the wounds of its adventurous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, would like to avoid an outright open military conflict with Iran, a state that can inflict serious damage to its attackers. Moreover, in the present economic climate a sharp rise in the price of oil – an inevitable concomitant of war in the Middle East – may have catastrophic consequences for the global capitalist economy. True, the scary game of ‘chicken’ the Obama administration is playing against Iran can inadvertently get out of hand and lead to disastrous unintended consequences. (Recall the classic James Dean film, Rebel without a cause …). But the administration is hoping to keep this danger under control and avoid outright war – at least for the time being.
Not so the Israeli government: there are increasing signs that Netanyahu and his defence minister, Ehud Barak, are considering – against the advice of some of their military and intelligence experts – a provocation that would lead to a major war. This causes the Obama administration serious worry: they do not wish to be dragged into such a war by their Israeli junior partner.
On January 20, while on an unadvertised and little noticed visit to Israel (no press conference, no public statement), general Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, “told Israeli leaders … that the United States would not participate in a war against Iran begun by Israel without prior agreement from Washington … Dempsey’s warning, conveyed to both prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak, represents the strongest move yet by president Barack Obama to deter an Israeli attack and ensure that the United States is not caught up in a regional conflagration with Iran.”
His warning seems to have fallen on deaf ears. On February 2, Associated Press reported:
“US defence secretary Leon Panetta won’t dispute a report that he believes Israel may attack Iran this spring in an attempt to set back the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme.
“Panetta was asked by reporters to comment on a Washington Post opinion column by David Ignatius that said Panetta believes there is a ‘strong likelihood’ that Israel will attack in April, May or June. Ignatius did not say who told him this.
“Asked whether he disputes the report, Panetta said, ‘No, I’m just not commenting’ …
“He noted that Israel has stated publicly that it is considering military action against Iran. He said the US has ‘indicated our concerns’.”
In my opinion this is not just sabre-rattling on Israel’s part. There is reason to believe that Netanyahu is seriously considering a provocation designed to trigger off a major Middle East conflagration, despite the enormous risks, that include Iranian retaliation causing loss of many Israeli lives.
To explain Netanyahu’s reckless calculation we need to turn our attention to Zionism’s nightmare: the Palestinian ‘demographic peril’.
One state, Zionist style
By now most people are aware that the present Israeli government has done all in its power to torpedo a so-called ‘two-state solution’. What is less well known is that opposition to a sovereign Palestinian state in any part of Eretz Yisrael is not a mere quirk of a rightwing Israeli government, but a deep-seated and fundamental principle shared by all mainstream Zionist parties.
In 1975, General Moshe Dayan put it like this: “Fundamentally, a Palestinian state is an antithesis of the state of Israel … The basic and naked truth is that there is no fundamental difference between the relation of the Arabs of Nablus to Nablus [in the West Bank] and that of the Arabs of Jaffa to Jaffa [in Israel] … And if today we set out on this road and say that the Palestinians are entitled to their own state because they are natives of the same country and have the same rights, then it will not end with the West Bank. The West Bank together with the Gaza Strip do not amount to a state … The establishment of such a Palestinian state would lay a cornerstone to something else … Either the state of Israel – or a Palestinian state.”
Thus, for mainstream Zionism any admission that “the Palestinians are entitled to their own state because they are natives of the same country and have the same rights” would undermine the legitimacy of the Zionist state, and eventually its very existence.
This has remained a cornerstone of Israel’s political strategy. For this reason, no Israeli government has ever signed a legally binding commitment to accepting a Palestinian Arab state. This applies, in particular, to the Oslo accords of 1993, which the second government of Yitzhak Rabin co-signed with the Palestinian leadership under Yasser Arafat. In this treaty there is no mention of a Palestinian state. This was not an accidental omission: when presenting the Oslo accords to the Knesset for ratification – on October 5 1995, a month before he was assassinated – Rabin pointedly stressed that what Israel was going to insist on was a Palestinian “entity which is less than a state”.
Many observers have been puzzled by Israel’s adamant rejection of any Palestinian sovereign state, however small, west of the Jordan River. This seems terribly short-sighted. For, if the whole of pre-1948 Palestine is to remain under Israeli sovereignty, that would mean that Israel would have to rule over a hostile Palestinian Arab people. In effect, the whole of that territory will be one state. Right now there is a rough numerical parity between the two national groups. Since no large-scale Jewish immigration is expected, and since the natural rate of increase of the Palestinian population is higher that that of the Hebrew population, the former will considerably outnumber the latter within a few decades. Surely, the Palestinian majority cannot indefinitely be denied equal rights; but equal rights would lead to the demise of the Jewish state. For Zionism this ‘demographic peril’ is worse even than a sovereign Palestinian mini-state. So it would seem that by sabotaging the creation of such a state, Israel is heading for what its own ruling ideology regards as the abyss.
This apparent contradiction disregards a third option: neither a two-state solution, nor a single state with an Arab majority, but ‘population transfer’. Large-scale ethnic cleansing of Palestinian Arabs would result in a single state in the entire territory, with a large Jewish majority, which is the ultimate aim of all mainstream Zionist parties.
But implementing ethnic cleansing on a sufficiently large scale – while technically quite easy, as explained by the Israeli military theorist, Martin van Creveld – is politically very tricky. It cannot be done in normal, politically tranquil circumstances. It requires what in Zionist parlance is called she’at kosher: an opportune moment of major political, and preferably military, crisis.
Interestingly, quite a long time ago, on November 16 1989, a junior minister in the Shamir government made precisely this point in a speech delivered at Bar-Ilan University, a hotbed of clerical ultra-chauvinist Zionism.
The Jerusalem Post of November 19 1989, quoting a tape recording of the speech, reported that the deputy foreign minister (roughly equivalent to parliamentary under-secretary of state in Westminster) “has called for Israel to exploit political opportunities in order to expel large numbers of Palestinians from the [occupied] territories”. He told students in a speech at Bar-Ilan University that “the government had failed to exploit politically favourable situations in order to carry out ‘large-scale’ expulsions at times when ‘the damage would have been relatively small. I still believe that there are opportunities to expel many people’.”
Oh, the name of that junior minister: Binyamin Netanyahu.
A sacrifice worth making
A war with Iran would present a golden opportunity for large-scale expulsion of Palestinians, precisely because (unlike the Iraq invasion of 2003) fighting would not be over too soon, and major protests and disturbances are likely to occur among the masses throughout the region, including the Palestinian Arabs under Israeli rule. What better way to pacify such disturbances than to “expel many people”.
Of course, a decision to ignite a war against Iran is not one that any Israeli leader would take lightly. There is a non-negligible risk that Israel would suffer many casualties. This is not a price that even the most adventurous prime minister would consider paying, unless the expected prize is extremely high. But in this case the prize is the highest possible one from a Zionist point of view: eliminating the demographic threat to the future of Israel as a Jewish ethnocracy. So Netanyahu will be sorely tempted to make a sacrifice of his own people for the greater national good.
I assume that American policy-makers are aware of Israel’s special interest in a military denouement of the conflict with Iran, an interest not quite shared by the US. This is why they are worried, and issue stern warnings to Netanyahu and Barak – discreetly and behind the scenes, of course, because especially in this election year, when he will face Republican crazies, Obama cannot afford to appear pusillanimous.
However, Netanyahu cannot flagrantly go ahead and start a war without US approval. Therefore the most likely scenario is a series of provocations instigated by Israel, mostly by devious and covert means, in order to escalate the conflict and drag the US by degrees into mission creep.
I do not wish to sound too alarmist, but the coming few months may well be ‘interesting’ in the Chinese sense l
4. IPS report, February 1 2012: http://ipsnews.net/news.asp?idnews=106621.
7. Martin van Creveld, ‘Sharon’s plan is to drive Palestinians across the Jordan’ The Sunday Telegraph April 28 2002: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/israel/1392485/Sharons-plan-is-to-drive-Palestinians-across-the-Jordan.html.