by Ali Gharib
Last week, Israel’s top military official made some staggering comments during the course of a security conference in Tel Aviv. Here’s how The Forward‘s JJ Goldberg reported the comments of Lieutenant General Gadi Eisenkot, Israel’s chief of staff, which seem as of yet to be unavailable in a full English translation from the original Hebrew:
Eisenkot said there were two “existential threats” to Israel, and both are currently “declining.” One was the threat of nonconventional weaponry, including both Iran’s nuclear program and Syrian chemical weapons…
First, he said Israel faces no existential threats right now, because Obama’s Iran nuclear deal has removed the greatest threat to Israel’s existence…
As for the Iranian nuclear agreement, he said it is “a strategic turning point” that includes “many risks but also opportunities.”
These comments should be unremarkable, since Israel’s security establishment has long given support, if cautious support, to diplomacy with Iran and the accord reached as a result. But Eisenkot’s remarks are still worth pointing out because of the sad state of affairs in the American discourse about Iran.
The Silence of the Hawks
Take, for example, the many adherents of a right-wing pro-Israel worldview—including Washington’s neoconservatives. They now dominate the Republican Party and make up a large, pro-Israel circle of hawks in the Democratic Party as well—both on Capitol Hill and beyond. What are the chances that this esteemed class of commentators, pundits, and politicians will even begin to address the remarks that Eisenkot just made? Allow me this bold prediction: few if any will deign to address them at all. I’m guessing, for example, that this news item won’t be linked in newsletters from neocon groups like the Israel Project and the Foreign Policy Initiative, which focus heavily on Iran and Israel matters. And I certainly can’t imagine they’ll appear in the neoconservative publications—Commentary, The Weekly Standard, and so on—that supply hawkish and Republican Washington with its talking points.
These groups, pundits, and politicians have all roundly opposed the Iran nuclear deal, sometimes on the very grounds that it makes Israel less safe. Take, for example, Lindsey Graham, the trigger-happy South Carolina Republican Senator, who said immediately after the Iran deal that it was “akin to declaring war on Sunni Arabs and Israel by the P5+1.” That’s right: he’s saying that the deal was so bad for Israel’s security that it was tantamount to America, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and German all declaring war against Israel! What will Graham have to say about Eisenkot’s remarks? I’m guessing we’ll never find out—he and his hawkish friends are unlikely ever to address it.
One might be able to forgive this hawkish constellation for taking the view they did: they were merely taking cues from Israel’s right-wing government and its American lobbyists. “This agreement is not just bad for Israel, it’s dangerous for the entire free world,” said the right-wing Israeli official Danny Danon. “Giving the world’s largest supporter of terrorism a free pass in developing nuclear weapons is like providing a pyromaniac with matches.” (Of course, precisely zero nuclear experts think that this deal gives Iran a “free pass” to develop nuclear weapons, but never mind.)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was just as blunt: “This is a very dangerous deal and it threatens all of us. My solemn responsibility as prime minister is to make sure Israel’s concerns are heard,” he said, appealing to American Jews to oppose the accord. Israeli Ambassador to Washington Ron Dermer, who looks out for Israel’s interests first, lobbied hard on Capitol Hill against the deal. Accordingly, pro-Israel activists the country over took the cues and ran with them. One group of Jewish activists in Pittsburgh even warned that the deal would hasten a “Second Holocaust in Israel.” Will Danon, Netanyahu, Dermer, and these Pittsburgh activists acknowledge Eisenkot’s remarks this week? Count me doubtful.
The Ottolenghi Intervention
One neoconservative pundit did address the concerns of Israel’s security establishment. When an Israeli strike against Iran was still considered a live issue, Emanuele Ottolenghi of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies made the point that Israel could definitely still attack Iran (there’s more than a hint of hopefulness in his analysis). His argument, made in the Israel Project’s publication, The Tower, came before the deal had been struck, but was nonetheless headlined, “How A Weak Iran Deal Makes Us All Less Safe and War More Likely.” When he finally got around to responding to those members of the security establishment—at this time, mostly former officials who had come out against the prospect of an Israeli attack—he simply dismissed them:
Retired Mossad and Military Intelligence officials voicing views in public that they could not express while in service hold the same value as similar opinions, authored by former U.S. Secretaries of State or National Security Advisers, about where the Obama Administration’s foreign policy can or cannot go. Though they’re often well known, some with political stars in their eyes, or scores to settle, rarely are these voices considered evidence of policy.
Ah, you see these former officials, with their political ambitions or “scores to settle” are soooooooo unreliable. Ironically, Ottolenghi cites “some of their peers opining in the opposite direction,” both understating the prevalence of the anti-attack view among the security establishment and ignoring the possibility that these officials, too, could be motivated by other factors. What makes Ottolenghi of Eisenkot’s position—that is, the current head of Israel’s military? I’m not holding my breath to find out.
Neoconservatives and other right-wing pro-Israel hawks have ignored the fact that some (current) officials from Israel’s security establishment never viewed Iran—even armed with a nuclear bomb—as an existential threat. They have instead taken whatever Netanyahu says as articles of faith, faithfully repeating his talking points across any number of media and platforms. Of course, everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. But that these right-wing activists and agitators who rely so heavily on whining about Israel’s security don’t dare to take on Eisenkot’s positions speaks volumes about how seriously—and to what ends—they consider these issues. I hope they think of this as a challenge: Will any of them soberly remark on what the head of Israel’s military has to say about how the Iran nuclear deal has made Israel safer?
Photo: Gadi Eisenkot (center)