x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 December 2017

Israel's hawks push a war for personal gain

Hardly anyone really wants an air strike against Iran's nuclear installations. But top Israeli politicians keep beating the drum, motivated it seems only by their own career ambitions.

Bluster on Iran is not just dangerous, it is also deceptive. There is growing evidence that a military strike would fail to achieve its strategic goals. That, however, has done little to deter Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak from their campaign of threats. For these two men, it seems, a regional war is an acceptable risk to promote their own political careers.

An attack on Iran would destabilise the region, and for what? It is abundantly clear that it would be an almost-inevitable military debacle as well. Leon Panetta, the US Secretary of Defense, delivered on Tuesday an unambiguous warning: Israel does not have the capability to destroy Tehran's nuclear programme by itself. Mr Panetta also reassured the world that Israel's government had yet to make a decision.

Israel's media are not so sure, with newspapers warning last week that an attack before the US elections in November was being considered. The timing, obviously, would be meant to pressure the Obama administration and affect the vote. It is no secret that Mr Netanyahu would prefer a scenario in which the US military shouldered most of the risk - indeed, Mr Panetta's remarks indicate that is the only scenario that might yield tactical military success.

Even a US air campaign might not decisively cripple Iran's nuclear programme. It would, in all likelihood, encourage Tehran to focus its programme on the production of nuclear weapons.

Rational military strategy is not driving this push towards war - Israel's own generals and security chiefs have lined up against Mr Netanyahu's dangerous plans. It is politics that Mr Netanyahu plays, both in the US elections and within his own electorate.

Even the Israeli public, despite its right-wards drift of recent years, is wary of such bellicosity, with a recent poll showing 46 per cent of respondents opposed to an attack, compared to 32 per cent in favour. The US electorate, despite an often ill-informed reflex to support Israel, will be even more opposed to an unnecessary war.

But there are signs that Mr Netanyahu might be willing to go it alone. The cabinet had been split on attacking Iran. But on Monday, Mr Netanyahu appointed Avi Dichter, a member of the opposition Kadima party who served in the same special forces unit as the prime minister, as Home Front Defense Minister. That might be an attempt to tip the balance.

Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak are playing a dangerous - potentially catastrophic - game. They may have talked themselves into a corner where a political logic dictates war. The rest of the world, especially the United States, must resist this two-man show that so clearly ignores the risks and the reality.