Dear President Obama: On Iran, Listen to the Israelis, not the Likud

It is often the case in democratic societies that reasonable people get saddled with extremist governments. Israel is in such a situation at the moment.

Shibley Telhami, the Sadat Chair at the University of Maryland, has released an [pdf] opinion poll of Israelis concerning the possibility of a strike on Iran’s civilian nuclear enrichment facilities. Professor Telhami discusses the poll here.

To make the findings clearer, I’ve reworked them as yes or no questions and amalgamated the positions on one side or another, concentrating on the positions of Israeli Jews (20% of Israelis are Palestinians, and though their views diverge only slightly from their Jewish compatriots on this issue, here I am interested in the latter). It should be underlined that this is a carefully weighted sample of 500, so the answers could be plus or minus as much as 4 points; but even that shift wouldn’t change these startling findings. Here are the results:

Poll of Israeli Public, 2012, on Iran Strike

The poll shows that the vast majority of Israelis does not think that their government should strike Iran without the support of the United States. It shows that only about half of Israelis think that the result of such a strike would be a delay in Iran’s nuclear program lasting more than a couple of years, and 12% believe it would accelerate the program. A fifth think it would have no effect at all.

Israeli Jews are for the most part convinced that if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak launched a unilateral air strike on Iran, they could not expect any practical military help from the US (only a little over a fourth believe Washington would send in the cavalry so to speak).

Moreover, half of Israeli Jews polled said they feared that the strike would set off a long-term conflict lasting months or (21%) even years! And, they are under no illusion that Lebanon’s Hizbullah would sit such a conflict out.

No wonder they don’t want to go it alone, since they are afraid such a strike will spark a regional conflict that will last for a very long time, and that they couldn’t hope for direct military support from the US if the defied Washington on the advisability of such an action.

They were also divided as to whether an Israeli attack might actually strengthen the Iranian state or at least leave it just as strong. Slightly more thought it would weaken Iran, but the spread isn’t that great.

As for their preference for a US president, Barack Obama has a slight lead among Israeli Jews over Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, and a big lead over Rick Santorum and Ron Paul. Given that all the GOP candidates but Paul have virtually joined the Likud Party and committed verbal genocide against the Palestinians, it is remarkable how little swayed Israeli Jews have been by these extravagant positions. Obama remains relatively popular with Israeli Jews, not despite his commitment to a peace process rejected by the Likud government but because of it.

Netanyahu is coming to Washington to be feted at the conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, among the more effective lobbies in Washington. He will meet with President Obama and press him to support military action against Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz near Isfahan.

Obama and his security officials have made it abundantly clear that the administration opposes military action against Iran, and that it believes economic and financial sanctions are hurting Iran so badly that they are likely to force Tehran back to the bargaining table.

Obama should take heart from this poll, that he is on firm ground in telling Netanyahu “no.” Israelis are afraid a strike will result in a long war, and will bring in regional actors like Hizbullah. Obama has a lot of support in Israel, and he should go to the Israeli people directly with an address, explaining to them his policy and why he thinks it will be better for Israel than another war. Since Netanyahu shamelessly lobbies the American public, turnabout should be fair play.

The Likud actually got fewer seats than its main rival, the center-right Kadima Party, and is only in power because it could cobble together a coalition of other parties more easily than could Kadima.

Obama should disregard the most right wing government in Israeli history, and should listen to the Israeli public instead.

29 Responses

  1. It is in a way good news. My problem, however, is that there seems to be a belief among Israelis that their country has any moral authority over Iran. Having waged more wars – Iran hasn’t waged any in centuries -, having illegal nuclear weapons and being responsible for daily violations of international law in the occupied territories, Israel has no moral arguments to give.

    • Joey: As I understand it, most/many Israeli Jews feel absolved of the need to be “moral” by fear (carefully kept “vibrant” by constant propaganda) of annihilation in “another Holocaust”. By this argument, “morality” is something for comfortable people, but not something which Israelis (so vulnerably vulnerable!) can afford to be concerned with.

      A lot of American Jews seem to feel the same way. Strangely, neither of these groups is even slightly comforted by the huge size and equipment of the Israeli military apparatus, often said to be the FOURTH LARGEST IN THE WORLD.

      On the other hand, many USA Jews (I am one) believe in morality and also international law. We don’t participate in the fear-induced-knee-jerk-warlike-ideations of those I described.

      However, they (and not we) seem to occupy the “seats of power” in the USA’s Jewish communities today.

    • Name my a nation that doesn’t feel that it has moral authority over those nations that are hostile to it. What you’ve done here is note that Israelis, like the rest of humanity, have nationalist or tribal sentiments.

      I hardly think that “the problem” is to be found there.

  2. If it were not Obama in the White House I would say you were right about him listening to polls like this, whatever, and doing the sensible thing and not starting another unjustified war.

    But Obama being the AIPAC mouthpiece he has proven to be over and over–like in the UN vetoes–you never know what a knee-jerk non-thinker can do.

    He probably could still let Israel start one and then ‘have’ to jump in and help. With the fig leaf of protecting an ally.

    • So, when you say “AIPAC moutpiece,” are you referring to him warning Israel not to carry out a strike? Or to making public statements, and more, in favor of the Arab Spring uprisings?

      Perhaps to the “leak” about the Mossad conducting a false-flag operation to recruit anti-Iranian forces?

      Oh, I know – you’re thinking about his condemnations of the assassination of Iran scientists.

      Oh, yeah, he’s quite the AIPAC mouthpiece. Anyone except him – say, John McCain or George Bush or Newt Gingrich or Dick Cheney of Joe Lieberman – would totally stand up to Likud more than Barack Obama.

  3. I can’t understand how any country can attack Iran legally (i.e. without authorization from the UNSC.) (use of force rules)

    • I can’t understand how a bar bully can attack a wimp legally, or how a FL Concealed Carry Citizen can shoot a father of three over neighborhood basketball court noise (all kinds of rules.) I guess the US invasion of Iraq and Grenada and Panama and all that had the nominal “sanction” of UN “law,” or some other fig leaf. And of course since the Bush II days, the Yoo Tooers have held that all that stuff is “antiquated” and “nugatory.” The purpose of power is power. The purpose of violence is violence.

    • “I can’t understand how any country can attack Iran legally (i.e. without authorization from the UNSC.) (use of force rules)”

      The same way the U.S. (under President Clinton) and the Europeans initiated and waged war against Serbia in 1999, without a UNSC Resolution. That was just as illegal, if one believes that the legal conduct of war requires a UNSC Resolution unless one is attacked.

      Serbia did not represent a threat to those who attacked it. The U.S. and NATO waged war against Serbia because of Serbian ethnic cleansing of Kosovars. Yet, One cannot pick and choose one’s reasons for conducting warfare (including humanitarian reasons) without a UNSC Resolution and maintain consistency. Once an exception is made, regardless of how much one might agree with the reason, then anyone’s exception is just as valid.

  4. With the Republicans still in search of their dream candidate….May I offer a suggestion. I propose they take a long hard look at the man who is already in control of our foreign policy. A man who can make both republican and democrats quake in their Gucci loafters. A man who makes John McCain look like Ghandi. That man is Bibi Netanyahu. Yes, Bibi for president of the United States of America.(I’m sure that thing about being a natural citizen can be waived.)

    Adding to Netanyahu’s foreign policy experience (She can see Russia from her home)should be the Grizzley mom…Sarah Palin. Their slogan…We have a military…why not use it!!! Instead of drill, dirll , drill…let’s kill, kill, kill!

    What a dream ticket for the neocons.For the rest of us…not so good.

  5. Might it not be that this isn’t primarily a matter of listening, but of political calculation? This could be one key:

    “The Likud actually got fewer seats than its main rival…”

    indicating that Netanyahu is himself not in a stable position and is posturing belligerently because he needs that posture. It’s hard to believe that on either the US or Israeli side, the military is really behind the folly of attack. Obama has to thread the election season, which requires appearing security-strong, a status best obtained by bluster and gangland-style hits rather than big, messy, ambiguous bombing assaults. He’s also can’t be seen playing geek (anymore) to Netanyahu’s Zed. So both “allies” — I almost wrote “sides” — are perhaps as interested in playing each other for local political advantage as they are in blowing up things in Iran, where the classic boa constrictor style of US-led economic warfare seems to be the actual order of the day.

    • My bet is that some part of “the military,” which believe it or not is made up of a very assorted bunch of critters, in various commands with various motivations, all part of that parasitic/cancerous infestation that eats so much of the bread off all our tables, is in fact very much in favor of “going to war” with Iran.

      Which, for them, will mean sitting in comfy chairs, looking at large-screen displays, twiddling their joysticks and tickling their keyboards and launching their avatars into the Networked Battlespace, jawing their way through meetings and briefings and conferences, and advancing the parts of “doctrine” that advance their careers or further, in the case of way too many crazy “Christianists,” the acceleration of Armageddon.

      Maybe you don’t know (or you do) about Gens. Douglas MacArthur and Curtis LeMay, or any of their current analogues. Worth a read, about people who think the “mission” is to “bomb those little Asian/Arab/Whatever critters who are the Enemy du Jour back into the stone age.” (For a quaint little side trip into how the military really works, read the section in the Wiki LeMay article headed “Japan-Washington Flight.”) link to

      There’s the comfortable myths, and then there’s the Crouching Idiots, Hidden Reality…

      • Part of the military always wants to fight, but you’d be surprised how much of the command wants the justification to create a powerful machine, without ever having to deal with the hassle of using it. Andrew Bacevich covered the attempts by post-Vietnam generals to limit the conditions under which force could be used by elected leaders in his book “The New American Militarism”. But they refused to question the need for such a vast military sitting around. Of course this backfired on them; new politicians campaigned their way into power by arguing that such a powerful, expensive military had to be bloodied every now and then to keep the wogs in line.

        After Iraq, the generals are again trying to protect their institution from cultural disintegration due to the effects of real war on the troops. Iran is a scary prospect.

        • Not surprised at all. The military machine is a parasite, and it only survives as long as the host does. It creates nothing, converts real wealth into hairtrigger weapon systems and incredibly clumsy bureaucracy (ICB) on an unimaginable scale. Of course, the loonies of the Christianist persuasion who are busily infiltrating and “taking over” (that same evil they accuse the Commies of) are busily pushing every button they can to bring us to the Gates of the New Jerusalem and that longed for Armageddon thingie.

  6. This just out: Obama says he is not “bluffing” on Iran. Today the Israeli PM meets with the president. There is a history of 30+ years of tough sanctions on Iran just made more draconian in the last couple of years. Meanwhile it is the all important parliamentary elections in Iran. What is the overall signal to the Iranians and the Israelis? With the ongoing sanctions and threats the Iranians will rally around the leaders and the nuclear solidarity factor will trump the sanctions hardship. The constant military strike threats are a welcome bonus for the Iranian right. The Israeli administrations of the past and present have carried progressively bigger and bigger sticks-I dare say with diminishing returns. Let us wish Obama courage today.

  7. Too bad one of the questions wasn’t: Do you think that attacking Iran is morally justified?

    For the US and Israel, every concern about violent action against an adversary is tactical – the resultant maiming, death and destruction are of little consequence. For both countries military violence, or the threat thereof, is the beginning and end of diplomacy.

    But wait, consider that through sanctions we might be able to destroy the Iranian economy that supports 75 million people. If we’re fortunate, like in Iraq, the sanctions could cause the premature deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians (primarily young children) due to malnutrition and the breakdown of health care. We never looked back at those consequences in Iraq, so “What, me worry?” about a repeat in Iran.

    Hmm, there is an alternative to military violence after all. And the State Department might be just as ghoulish as the Pentagon, but it just takes longer to see the results.

    • “And the State Department might be just as ghoulish as the Pentagon, but it just takes longer to see the results.”

      Your point is well taken. What has the state department offered the Iranians in exchange for their termination of enrichment activities? I see a thread of profoundly immoral acts regardless of the point of origin being the pentagon, the state department, etc.

  8. it is remarkable how little swayed Israeli Jews have been by these extravagant positions

    Or Americans Jews.

    I don’t find it remarkable, though, because these extravagant positions are not formulated to appeal to people who actually have to live in the Middle East, or who feel kinship with those who do. They are formulated to appeal to people who want a big ol’ war against the Muslims, whether for Biblical or geopolitical reasons, and who view the Jews of Israel merely as cannon fodder in that war.

    • For completeness, something like a quarter of the humans in Israel (not the “settled” territorial expansion) are Other Than Jewish. And of course many Israelis have notions that other nominally Jewish Israelis are not, in fact, Jewish, or Not Jewish Enough.

      Kind of like so many Americans, who believe that many of their fellows ought to go back where they came from, or if they think things in Commie Pinko Socialilst countries are so hot, then they should just get the hell out of the Real America.

      “and little fleas, and so on…”

  9. Reasonable people, you say? 94% of Israelis supported Operation Cast Lead–66% saying they believe the assault ended too early (57% want another strike).

    I was going include numbers from other polls, but I think that says it all.

    • “Cast Lead” was in late 2008, over 3 years ago. Was your poll taken at the beginning of the Cast Lead war, or at the end, or recently as a retrospective?

      Bonus question: can opinions change over time?

      • As Sherm was pointing out above, the American and Israeli peoples now judge operations by the question “Can we get away with it?” Israelis knew they could get away with demolishing Gaza. They’re not sure they can get away with poking Iran in the eye with a sharp stick but leaving it standing.

        And now, maybe Israelis are looking at the term “getting away with it” in a more holistic sense, as are Americans. They sense their worsening economic prospects are connected to the vast costs of their war machines and growing global hostility. But they still hardly dare to say it out loud when they protest in the streets against the symptoms.

  10. There is also the small matter, as one exceptionally perceptive Israeli points out, that Iran isn’t exactly helpless if attacked. All the Iranians have to do is point some anti-ship missiles at the Strait of Hormuz, and it will cut the world’s seaborne oil by a third. The Israel “Defense” Forces are surely aware of this.

    Great talking point on the campaign trail though, no matter which your country is!

  11. I have always felt that a people are responsible for their governement’s action, regardless of how they acquired the reigns to power.

  12. America is a low-voter turnout society. Israel is a political system balkanized by many special-interest parties. This means that in both systems, a hard core of single-issue fanatics could prevail over the will of a majority, with patience, cunning, and financial interest.

    The fanatics of each country could even present the fanatics of the other country as being the only true voice of their people, and thus claim legitimacy for their alliance, while the low-info peaceable majority are simply drowned out by their own indifference or uncertainty. I certainly had no idea of the economic discontent of Israeli Jews until they took to their own version of OWS. Our media had only presented Israeli Jews as prosperous and politically satisfied.

  13. If a substantial percentage of Israelis believe,assume the American government will support an attack on Iran-at least under the table, it would distort your cited statistical intent, would it not, Prof Cole?

  14. “Obama remains relatively popular with Israeli Jews, not despite his commitment to a peace process rejected by the Likud government but because of it.”

    This is just silly. Committed to what process, exactly? Obama is just as much a contributor to the co-dependency between American politics and Israel as anyone else. Name one action that he has taken to block settlements, for example.

    Why don’t you ask Palestinians and Arabs how much Obama is committed to the peace process?

  15. I had previously sent a reply on how Republican candidates have a history of conspiring with foreign leaders to start or prolong a war, specifically Nixon in 1968. This reply was not posted. If this was for reasons of length (I hope), then you can simply go to this link for veteran Iran-Contra journalist Robert Parry’s articles on the evidence that LBJ had collected on Nixon’s encouragement of Saigon dictator Thieu to sabotage the peace talks, which he correctly labeled treason.

    link to

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