Just days after the New York Times Magazine's lurid cover story, "Israel vs. Iran," the Washington Post struck back with a two-fisted effort to win the "most dire prediction" contest. The Post's foreign policy pundit David Ignatius wrote a widely-circulated column claiming inside information: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta "believes there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June." The next day the Post's front page headline warned ominously, "Israel: Iran Must Be Stopped Soon."
Both stories reported that the Obama administration opposes any Israeli action, just like the Bush administration before it. The risks to U.S. interests are incalculable, as the Pentagon and State Department have been telling us for years.
Yet both stories added a new note: Israel might strike without U.S. support or permission. "The administration appears to favor staying out of the conflict unless Iran hits U.S. assets," Ignatius wrote. Of course the U.S. is already in the conflict, as the Iranians know perfectly well. Israel's ability to strike depends largely on its high-tech weaponry, paid for by the $3 billion a year coming from Washington. With that kind of money flowing -- plus U.S. diplomatic support, which many in Israel see as their last barrier against international isolation -- the Obama administration has powerful leverage to stop any Israeli action that threatens U.S. interests.
When the administration tells the Washington Post that the U.S. is unhappy but helpless, it's obviously looking for deniability if the attack occurs. But it's also a clear signal to the Israelis: Though we could stop you, so far we have not decided that we will. This is a major shift in the message coming from Washington.
Why now? Ignatius put it delicately: "Complicating matters is the 2012 presidential campaign, which has Republicans candidates clamoring for stronger U.S. support of Israel." Obama, the Republicans, and the mass media all assume that a red light from the White House to the Israelis would hurt the president on Election Day.
Why should the voters punish a president for insisting that U.S. interests must come first and for preventing an attack that would probably cause a spike in gas prices?
The two WaPo articles offered an important clue. One mentioned Israeli warnings about "an existential threat to Israel." The other called this "a time when their security is undermined by the Arab Spring."
For decades, American voters have been inundated with news stories reporting supposed threats to Israel's security as if they were objective fact. Rarely do our mass media allow any questions about, much less objections to, the myth of Israel's insecurity. At least two questions are urgent now:
Even if the Iranians did manage to make a handful of nuclear weapons, why should we believe they would ever use them against Israel? They know that Israel already has 100 to 200 nukes of its own, enough to destroy every major city in Iran, and is perfectly prepared to use them. Iranian leaders have not given any evidence that they're interested in committing national suicide.
And why should we believe Israel was better off before the Arab Spring, when its neighbors were all dictatorships, breeding grounds for popular anger that could easily turn (or be manipulated) against outside enemies? Governments that better reflect public sentiment are more stable and reliable for their neighbors to deal with. In fact, the Arab Spring movement is having a moderating effect on Islamist politics, as both the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are now demonstrating.
Read the references to Israel's insecurity in the two WaPo articles more closely, and a third question arises: Do Israelis leaders seriously believe that their national existence is threatened?
The front-pager says:
Israeli officials warn that beyond posing an existential threat to Israel, Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon could trigger a regional nuclear arms race in the volatile Middle East and alter Israel's strategic position in the region.
Since Israel brought nukes into the Middle East decades ago, its concern about a "regional nuclear arms race" is code for other Mideast nations getting nuclear capability. "Strategic position" is code for Israel's current absolute military domination of the greater Middle East, symbolized by its sole possession of nukes. It's that symbolic as well as very real domination, not its national existence, that Israel is at risk of losing.
"Symbolic" is the right word when it comes to nuclear weapons because Israel's nukes don't have any practical value. Israel doesn't need to use its nukes; it has shown itself more than capable of winning any conventional war against its neighbors. And the U.S. has guaranteed that Israel will stay far ahead in the high-tech conventional arms race.
If Israel did use even one nuke against a conventional attack it would probably lose the last shred of its dwindling support around the world, including most of its support in the U.S., and end up isolated, a pariah in the international community. That's the greatest nightmare for most Israelis.
The Israelis are considering an attack on Iran, fraught with immense dangers, so the Jewish state can keep its symbolic status as the region's only superpower.
David Ignatius confirms this view in his reference to Israel's supposed insecurity: "Israeli leaders are said to accept, and even welcome, the prospect of going it alone and demonstrating their resolve at a time when their security is undermined by the Arab Spring."
Resolve to do what? To do whatever it takes to maintain military superiority. But superiority is useful only if it's publicly demonstrated from time to time. Symbolism is the key to a sense of national power.
If these WaPo journalists are right -- and my forty years of studying the issue tells me they are -- what really makes Israeli leaders feel insecure is their fear of not having their power respected. To gain that respect, they'll talk endlessly about their planning to attack Iran. Perhaps one day they'll do it, as long as Obama doesn't raise the red light.
The main thing holding him back is election-year anxiety of his own, fueled by the millions of voters who honestly believe that Israel's existence is constantly in peril. Why shouldn't they believe it, when the journalists they depend on for their information repeat that myth endlessly, while they hint at the full truth only in rare sentences that get lost amid the flood of words that evoke fear.
But how tragic that a president has to worry about voters punishing him if he puts U.S. interests above Israel's desire to symbolize its military strength and resolve.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.