Iran Isn’t Germany; Today Isn’t 1938

And reports of Israeli panic are believable only from a distance

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

Scrolling through news, especially news posted in America, I could think that it’s time for me to stock up on canned food and check that my family’s Israeli government-issue gas masks are working. The news suggests that Israel’s air force is sure to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities this year, perhaps this spring, possibly sparking a rain of retaliatory missiles from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Syria, despite or because of its current turmoil, might join in.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned earlier this month that Iran would soon reach an “immunity zone” in which its nuclear program would be impregnable—implying that Israel must strike first. The news site Ha’aretz’s military commentator Amir Oren has bitterly expressed concern that the always-cocky ex-general Barak and his “assistant for prime ministerial affairs, Benjamin Netanyahu,” might give the orders on their own, even though the law requires approval of the full cabinet to go to war.

The Washington Post‘s David Ignatius reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta thinks that Israel is likely to attack in April, May, or June. President Barack Obama, typecast as the last responsible adult in the room, has stated publicly that “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision,” a comment that could arguably be read as, “We told Israel not to make a decision.” But according to Newsweek, the head of Israel’s Mossad espionage agency visited Washington to check whether this meant “uh, no, maybe” or “NO!” A New York Times Magazine article said, “A kind of panic has begun to overtake Israeli society,” adding that “gas masks have been distributed to the population.”

But the people around me in Israeli society don’t seem to be panicking. Perhaps it’s because no one I know has received official notice that it’s time to get gas masks from the Home Front Command—in contrast to the nationwide distribution effort during the period of real tension before the 1991 Gulf War. In fact, the low level of public preparedness suggests two possible conclusions: Netanyahu, Barak, and other top officials could be confident, or terribly overconfident, that Iran and its allies will not retaliate in a serious way. Alternatively, the bellicose public comments and sundry leaks are designed for political purposes, foreign or domestic.

Netanyahu and Barak presumably know which of those alternatives is correct. Analysts, ex-diplomats, bloggers, and even the best-connected reporters have no idea. Lacking information about what’s being discussed in closed meetings today, they continue to draw on historical examples as they argue about whether it’s necessary or sensible for Israel—or the United States—to ready a military option. But history is a terribly enigmatic and sometimes deceptive teacher.

Among those who advocate Israeli military action, the obvious appeal to history is “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany.” Those are Netanyahu’s words from five years ago, but some Israeli moderates, critical of the prime minister on every other issue, agree with this view of Iran. Like Hitler, Iran’s leaders prefer killing Jews to self-preservation, says this logic, so even Israel’s presumed second-strike capability would not deter them from using a nuclear bomb against Israel.

But thinking in 1938 terms risks an even more hard-line implication: Any diplomatic engagement with Iran will lead to Chamberlain-style appeasement. So military action is not just the final option; it’s the only option. Despite their emotional appeal, history’s extreme examples can close off rather than aid analysis.

Read the rest here.

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