Patrick Cockburn: Netanyahu's threats to bomb Iran have served Israel – and the US – very well

World View: With no one willing to call the belligerent PM's bluff, the fate of the Palestinians has dropped off the agenda

Share

There has always been something stagey and contrived about Israel's blood-curdling declarations that it is going to bomb Iran, but as a strategy it has worked astonishingly well, at home and abroad. Benjamin Netanyahu has been expert at manipulating Israelis' perception of threat. His popularity with voters enabled him last week to dumbfound the country's political observers by forming a coalition with the main opposition party, Kadima, which was desperate to join him to avoid near annihilation in a general election.

Israel's oft-repeated intention to start a war with Iran to prevent it gaining the capacity to build nuclear weapons has always seemed to me to be the bluff of the century. But Mr Netanyahu is a good poker player, and few have had the nerve to bet on him bluffing even when the deadline for his ever-imminent attack keeps on slipping.

Look at his gains so far. Much tougher sanctions have been imposed on Iran than Iranians had imagined could happen because so many countries prefer an economic blockade to seeing Israeli bombers streaking across the Gulf. Iran's leaders, whose belligerent rhetoric is usually matched by cautious policies, probably do not believe what Mr Netanyahu threatens to do to them, but they evidently underestimated the impact of that threat on the rest of the world.

There is another big advantage for Mr Netanyahu to his verbal confrontation with Iran. For the moment, it has sidelined as an international issue the fate of the Palestinians and Israeli settlements on the West Bank. Over the past two or three years, the rest of the world has been too busy pleading with Israel not to start a war with Iran to bother much about what is happening in Ramallah or Gaza.

Knowingly or unknowingly, Mr Netanyahu's many critics and enemies have been a great help to him. Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, and Yuval Diskin, until recently head of the Shin Bet internal security service, portray him as an irresponsible warmonger, thereby increasing his leverage in the rest of the world. They may be right. A distinguished historian of Israel told me last week that Mr Netanyahu is "reckless". But this is not quite his record. Extreme he may be in his rejection of any agreement with the Palestinians, but he is skilled in achieving his ends by political means. Unlike his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, and President Shimon Peres, he has never actually started a war, though he has justified those started by others.

His restraint is certainly wise. Israel has not conclusively won a war in almost 40 years. Its prolonged adventure in Lebanon, starting with the invasion of 1982, ended in humiliation and retreat almost 20 years later. In Lebanon in 2006, a month-long bombardment by the Israeli air force and artillery failed to dislodge Hezbollah fighters from their bunkers a few miles from the Israeli frontier. Would Israeli bombers be more successful against Iranian nuclear facilities deep under mountains? And what would be the purpose of such a bombardment? American intelligence says that Iran does not have a nuclear device and has not decided if it wants to make one, but Israeli action would most likely determine it to make a nuclear bomb come what may.

Israel has never gone to war without some sort of green light from America. It is unlikely to do so in future. Nothing matters as much to Israel as its close alliance with the US. Israeli voters know this and tend to react strongly against politicians who endanger it, as Mr Netanyahu discovered to his cost when he lost the general election in 1999.

Here, Iran plays an important role, from Israel's point of view, in cementing the US-Israeli alliance. Israel has always liked to present itself in the US has America's best ally against some evil opponent. Up to 1992, this was the Soviet Union, but, with the collapse of the Soviets, a replacement bogeyman was required. Paradoxically, when Iran was at its most militant, under Ayatollah Khomeini, the Israelis did not go out of their way to demonise his rule or present it as a danger to the world. They were notoriously willing to sell weapons to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war. It was the end of the Cold War with Moscow that led Israel to present itself as America's bulwark against the Iranian-Islamic threat.

There is a further reason why it is generally in Israel's interest to avoid an armed conflict. Its military and intelligence strength is less than the rest of the world imagines. Real combat tends to reveal this (the same is true of the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan). The 2006 war in Lebanon showed incompetence and incapacity at every level.

Israelis used to be very cynical about the leadership of their armed forces. I particularly like the saying, used at different times about different Israeli generals, that "he was so stupid that even the other generals noticed". An Israeli friend, who used to give talks to Israeli soldiers, once told me that he thought he had met most Israeli military units over the years, and "I've never encountered this heroic army of legend".

Mossad has enjoyed an equally inflated reputation, its history dotted with examples of comic ineptitude. When I was correspondent in Jerusalem in the 1990s, a retired Mossad officer was detained because it had finally been ascertained that Israel's main spy in Syria, whom the officer claimed to control, did not exist. There had once been a highly placed Syrian agent, but he had disappeared years earlier. Since this event would have adversely affected the career of his Mossad controller in Tel Aviv, he simply made up the agent's reports and claimed that the Syrian would meet with nobody else but himself. Acting on the spy's information, the Israeli army was once partially mobilised in expectation of a wholly fictitious Syrian attack.

How far is Washington complicit in Mr Netayahu's strategy of issuing horrendous threats, and how far does it believe them? Certainly, the belief that only an economic blockade of Iran, including a ban on the importation of Iranian oil, can restrain an Israeli onslaught has been useful to the US in isolating Iran. Keeping the Palestinians off the international agenda has also been useful to President Obama, who was not going to do anything about them anyway. Maybe Mr Netanyahu has been astute enough to keep the White House guessing, though the foreign media has guilelessly taken Israel's threats at face value.

The real threat to Israel is not Iran or any single state. It is rather the uncertainty engulfing the whole Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Israel's cosy relationship with dictators and monarchs has been disrupted and thrown into the air. Their successors are likely to be less accommodating. Meanwhile, the Iranian leadership, careful and devious as ever, appears to be moving towards a compromise on nuclear development that will enable it to retreat without losing face.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

BI Manager - £50,000

£49000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client is...

BI Project Manager - £48,000 - £54,000 - Midlands

£48000 - £54000 per annum + Benefits package: Progressive Recruitment: My clie...

VB.Net Developer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: If you're pa...

SAP Business Consultant (SD, MM and FICO), £55,000, Wakefield

£45000 - £55000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

The law is too hard on sexting teenagers

Memphis Barker
 

Obama must speak out – Americans are worried no one is listening to them

David Usborne
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game