An Israeli October Surprise on Obama?

President Obama is walking a political tightrope between constraining Iran’s nuclear program and restraining Israel’s war threats, while political critics are shaking the supports. But ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar says Obama’s predicament may be even trickier, with Israeli hardliners possibly eyeing an October surprise.

By Paul R. Pillar

The celebration and display of political muscle known as the AIPAC policy conference this year rode a crescendo of alarm and bellicosity about Iran’s nuclear program. The connection between the lobbying power assembled in the convention hall and the wave of saber-rattling rhetoric about Iran was strong and profound.

The AIPAC meeting merely underscored what has been obvious for some time: that the primary reason the Iranian nuclear program has become such a high-profile issue in the United States is that the government of Israel has chosen to make it so.

President Obama talks with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office on March 5. (White House photo by Pete Souza)

In the absence of the Israeli agitation, the nuclear activities of Iran, which does not have a nuclear weapon and probably has not to date made a decision to make one, would percolate along with many other national-security matters worth watching and addressing but not worth beating a war drum about.

Certainly it would not rate more alarm than, say, the nuclear weapons owned by the desperadoes in Pyongyang known as the government of North Korea. If the saber rattling and even more destructive actions such as terrorist attacks were not interfering with the handling of relations with Iran, the next step in that relationship would be acceptance of Tehran’s offer of negotiations and concentration on the kind of long, deep and broad diplomacy with Iran that has never been tried.

Nothing that Iran has been doing lately accounts for the Iranian nuclear issue having reached what appears to be almost a crisis point. In the long history of Iran’s program, which has been the subject of repeated overestimates of progress, what is happening this year is not fundamentally different from what was happening in many previous years.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak talks about a “zone of immunity,” but the zones of immunity or vulnerability that matter most to the Israeli government have to do with the U.S. electoral calendar.

The greatest danger the United States (and any peace-loving person in the Middle East) currently faces is that Barak and Prime Minister Netanyahu will spring an October surprise (or a surprise in any month between now and the first Tuesday of November) in the form of an armed attack on Iran. [For more on a historical precedent, see’s “The CIA/Likud Sinking of Jimmy Carter.”]

A key consideration for them is the possibly different reactions of a U.S. president facing a fight for reelection (while also facing that political muscle represented at the convention center) and a newly reelected president who knows he never would be running for anything again.

Because Netanyahu and his government probably prefer that President Obama not be reelected, any of the aftereffects of their surprise, such as a big spike in gasoline prices and maybe even a slide of the U.S. economy back into recession, that would hurt Mr. Obama’s reelection chances would be a bonus for them. The welfare of American consumers and workers is not high on their list of decision-making criteria.

What is billed as an Iran problem is thus mainly an Israel problem. If the United States were to be sucked, or pushed, into a new war in the Middle East, the Israel dimension would be significantly greater than it was even with the Iraq War, despite the many disturbing similarities between the run-up to that conflict and the current situation regarding Iran.

Shared perspectives of the Israeli Right and some American neocons did figure into promotion of the war against Iraq, but Israel was only a contributing factor to a desire for a war that was based on an ideology that had a life of its own. If there is a war with Iran, Israel will be not just a contributing factor but instead the prime mover.

President Obama’s attempt to handle this problem was reflected in his speech on Sunday to the AIPAC conference. He and his speechwriters pushed back as much as it was politically safe to do. In addition to recounting the ample evidence that “when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back” and recalling how his administration has mustered far more international pressure on Iran than his predecessor did, Mr. Obama spoke favorably and optimistically about diplomacy, rightly observed that there is “too much loose talk of war,” and talked about nuclear weapons as distinct from mere nuclear-weapons capability.

But staying with what is politically safe still leaves an unsquared circle. The president said more than enough about the unacceptability of an Iranian nuclear weapon to set the stage for Netanyahu to demand later that the United States do whatever it takes to prevent such a weapon.

In the nearer term, the president’s comments about how “no Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of” Iran and reference to “Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs” sound almost like an invitation to Netanyahu to launch a war.

An episode of the past that comes to mind is how Germany in 1914 allowed itself to be sucked into a large war through unflinching support for its Austrian ally, which was determined to start what it thought would be a small war to show who was boss in the Balkans. Before I get in trouble with the analogy police: no, I am not predicting another World War I.

And yes, there are innumerable differences between the European crisis of 1914 and what we face now. One of those differences is that Germany’s leaders regarded support for Austria-Hungary as strategically essential because without that ally Germany would have been surrounded by adversaries and almost bereft of friends.

By contrast, the automatic U.S. backing of Israeli behavior is rooted in emotions, tribal sentiments and domestic politics, not strategic considerations, which if heeded would imply a much different U.S. policy. But the analogy does provide something to think about regarding how unquestioning backing of a truculent lesser ally can lead to highly damaging consequences for a greater one.

Anyone who considers himself or herself a patriotic American as well as a friend of Israel should think about some other things as well when considering Netanyahu address to the AIPAC conference on Monday. Despite the smoothness with which he operates in U.S. political circles, he does not have U.S. interests at heart.

That observation by itself is unremarkable; we should not expect any leader of a foreign government to have U.S. interests at heart. But of course the U.S.-Israeli relationship has been not just another bilateral relationship.

Despite the enormous, exceptional and automatic support that the United States bestows on Israel, Netanyahu has not hesitated to slam the door in the face of Israel’s patron and protector. He has done it repeatedly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most notably concerning the continued Israeli colonization of captured and disputed land, and now he is doing it again regarding Iran.

Notwithstanding the huge effort the Obama administration has put into constructing an unprecedented international-sanctions regime that supposedly is intended to get Tehran to change its nuclear policies, Netanyahu’s government has been undermining any chance of negotiations that would be the forum for registering and confirming such a change.

It has done so by stoking hostility and distrust through terrorist attacks inside Iran and by insisting on conditions (involving an end to uranium enrichment) that clearly are nonstarters for Iran. In remarks in Ottawa before coming to Washington, Netanyahu flatly denounced any negotiations with Iran as unwise.

Netanyahu and his government do not represent the views of Israelis in general. At least some of the objectives that drive that government’s posture toward Iran, including maintaining Israel’s regional nuclear-weapons monopoly and diverting attention from the situation on the West Bank, do not represent U.S. interests either.

Then there is the emotional side of the Israeli attitude toward this issue, which does extend beyond the Israeli government to much of the population. Given history and the awful anti-Israeli rhetoric of Iranian leaders and especially Iran’s president, this side is understandable.

Netanyahu clearly feels this side, in ways that, as Jeffrey Goldberg has described, involve a legacy from Netanyahu’s father. At a personal level, this is all not only understandable but maybe even laudatory. President Obama seemed to be saying so when he noted in his AIPAC speech “the profound historical obligation that weighs on the shoulders of” Netanyahu, Barak and other Israeli leaders.

But actions that flow from viscera and emotions are not to be equated with what is in the interests of Israel. And they certainly are not in the interests of the United States.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

24 comments for “An Israeli October Surprise on Obama?

  1. Judah The Lion
    March 10, 2012 at 16:28

    You and your neo nazi far left thugs would make Hitler, Goebbels et al, proud.

    God forbid you sickos should criticize the arabs for 9/11, homicide bombings,antisemitic literature in their schools, child abuse (human shields),abuse of women (“honor” killings), no civil rights, and more.
    Criticism of Israel is certainly OK if you also criticize the arabs.

    There are many Jews and non Jews like myself who are Liberal, and also love Israel. You are delusional with your vicious hatred.

    • photon's feather
      March 11, 2012 at 00:16

      Neo-Nazis on the left? You know nothing.

      This article is not about the Arabs.

      • Judah The Lion
        March 11, 2012 at 11:39

        Equating Jews with Nazis certainly merits the tag. You know less than nothing.

  2. Hillary
    March 9, 2012 at 10:13

    Roger Thomas on March 9, 2012 at 1:27 am

    “The major threat to the World is Israel’s huge nuclear arsenal which it clearly intends to use, in extremis. (Kennedy’s refusal to condone Israel’s nuclear ambitions led to his assassination)”

    Roger — thank you for your excellent observations.

    Isn’t it amazing in the history of crime how the US (“administrations” ? ) could name the perpetrators of JKF’s assassination and 9/11 within a few hours or less of those monster crimes being committed.

    Also interesting is how no motive was ever openly investigated for either crime. (Cui bono ?)

    In a June 1963 letter to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, U.S.President J.F. Kennedy insisted on proof “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Israel was not developing nuclear weapons at its Dimona reactor facility. Though his letter was cabled to the U.S. embassy, Ben-Gurion resigned (citing undisclosed personal reasons) before the message could be physically delivered.

    A manoeuvre that bought time for Israel as JFK was assassinated soon after.

    After the JFK assassination Israel got their Bomb and a lot lot more.

    After 9/11 a “war on Islam” was made possible benefiting only Israel.

    Cui Bono ?

  3. Judah the Lion
    March 9, 2012 at 08:57

    as usual neo nazi theocractic arab state lovers like Herr Hillary, Herr Rosemary, and David Duke award winner Roger Thomas spout their antisemitic drek under the guise of criticism of Israel, which they bearly recognize as a country.

  4. Igor Slamoff
    March 8, 2012 at 19:04

    Much as I detest the obscurantist and reactionary GOP, I would welcome an Israeli October surprise such as you envisage. I admit that Obama is a few shades to the left of such prominent dorks as Sanctum Sanctorum. On the other hand his aggressive promotion of Islam is disquieting. How come this murky and sinister Middle Eastern cult is being so coddled and spoiled? Why is Obama surrounded by Moslem advisers belonging to the most brutal and retrograde Moslem sect, the Wahhabis, who are little better than Nazis? They are conniving at the genocide that the Egyptian military junta is perpetrating against the Egyptian Coptic population. Copts in the US have been prevented by the Wahhabi Mafia from talking with Obama about their genocide. The US gives the Egyptian army 1.3 billion dollars a year. We are subsidizing genocide.

    • rosemerry
      March 9, 2012 at 03:11

      This is nothing to do with religion, just as so-called christians in the USA,and of course, followers of Judaism, pretend their god told them to do it. It’s all about control-political, military, resources. God is not there, only “huamitarians”.

  5. Judah the Lion
    March 8, 2012 at 11:35

    Typical response from iranian apologists. Just today evidence of a nuclear trigger was revealed. The UN says that more than 650 people were executed last year up from 100 in 2003, and the abuse of the rights of students, women, journalists, and religious minorities,have also increased dramatically.

    • Jay
      March 8, 2012 at 12:15

      Judah the Lion:

      So no execution is reason for war?

      • Jay
        March 8, 2012 at 12:29

        read “now” where “no”.

    • rosemerry
      March 9, 2012 at 03:09

      How can Israel or the USA criticise Iran or anyone else for human rights abuses, incarcerations or executions? No country comes near to the USA’s abuses, especially those called “democracies”.

  6. F. G. Sanford
    March 8, 2012 at 06:02

    The historical analogy may not be the same, but the mood certainly is. And the casus belli was a manufactured threat: hand over 16 year old Gavrilo Princip, Archduke Ferdinand’s assassin. The Balkans were “Balkanized”, just as the Middle East is today. We are in the calm before the storm. Netanyahu’s ultimatum is also a manufactured threat: Iran has no self-interest that involves nuclear war with Israel. But France had its eye on Lorraine, Germany had its eye on Belgium and France, Russia had its eye on East Prussia, New Zealand had its eye on Samoa, and Netanyahu has is eye on more Palestinian territory. What a perfect excuse to solidify an even bigger land-grab. Personally, I’d say a better analogy is WWII and using Sudetenland Germans to justify annexation of Czechoslovakia. After all, if war broke out, those innocent, defenseless pioneers (you know, the “settlers”) on the Palestine Prairie would require protection from the Cavalry.

    The passage of NDAA and H.R. 347 are, in my opinion, confirmation of the forgone conclusion that we’re headed for war. I read another story today indicating that people who question “official” versions of historical events should be considered potential domestic terrorists. Our willfully ignorant and misinformed public is not soon to have an epiphany regarding our vital interests vis a vis Israel. Our politicians are in AIPAC’s pocket, but they may be just bright enough to realize what the domestic and international “blow-back” will be like. Nothing breeds paranoia like actually having something to hide. We live in interesting times, do we not?

    • Hillary
      March 8, 2012 at 08:21

      “Our politicians are in AIPAC’s pocket, but they may be just bright enough to realize what the domestic and international “blow-back” will be like.”

      “Domestic blow back” — dream on Mr. Stanford.

      American Idol has more interest for the “average American”.

      Otherwise I agree with all that you excellently wrote.

      • F. G. Sanford
        March 8, 2012 at 14:43

        Of course, you are right about the American public seeing no further than the next episode of American Idol. But if there is war, gasoline goes to nine dollars a gallon, and that will get their attention. There won’t be much sympathy to increase oil production in order to haul America’s ashes. The Saudis, Bahrainis, Yemenis, etc. all have populations that are fed up with being ruled by corrupt potentates propped up by American foreign policy. The absurdity of concern with human rights in Syria and Iran when we are in bed with the Saudis and Bahrainis is hypocrisy beyond belief. And all the while, our government is playing Neville Chamberlain to Israel’s Hitler. Some analogies just beg to be made, and this is one of them.

        • Hillary
          March 8, 2012 at 16:13

          “Neville Chamberlain to Israel’s Hitler”.
          F. G. Sanford.


          Neville Chamberlain was the guy who tried to not have WWII.

          Churchill was the alcoholic warmonger who bankrupted the UK and declared WWII to save Poland.

          8,000,000 Polish dead and decades of Communist rule ensued.

          Today Germany rules and WWII was “worth it” ?

          • F. G. Sanford
            March 8, 2012 at 18:04

            My point exactly. We should be telling Bibby, Viggy and Zippy (Netanyahu, Lieberman and Livni) that they can have at it, but they’re on their own. WWII wasn’t worth it, and yes, Germany (Norway and Sweden notwithstanding) is the only western economy that is healthy today. It wasn’t worth it, and America has squandered whatever “moral high ground” we garnered at Neuremberg.

          • Hillary
            March 8, 2012 at 22:00

            F. G. Sanford.

            Sorry but perhaps you forget the “Samson option”

            Israel can’t loose as if that ever came close the 350 Israeli nuclear missiles targetted at Islamic capitals & European capitals will be threatened by Israel.

            In the 1973 war Israeli Ambassador to the United States Simha Dintz warned President Richard Nixon that “very serious repercussions” would occur if the U.S did not immediately begin an airlift of military equipment & personnel to Israel ( which was carried out immediately.


            The Israeli (Samson Option) threat of blackmail continues to control the US –Israeli relationship. It also encourages Israel to ignore & defy the rest of the world and even USA.

  7. Joe Deagle
    March 8, 2012 at 04:32

    Are you serious?
    “Iran’s offer of negotiations and concentration on the kind of long, deep and broad diplomacy with Iran that has never been tried”

    Every American President since Carter has attempted a dialogue with Iran and nothing has altered their plans to build a nuclear weapon.

    Obama in particular offered to “extend an open hand if Iran would just unclench their fist”
    Three years later no progress has been made on negotiations but lots of progress had been made by Iran on refining Uranium

    • Jay
      March 8, 2012 at 10:04

      Joe Deagle:

      If Iran had any overarching desire for nuclear weapons, Iran would have had them years ago.

      Who cares if Iran has a the atom bomb, it’s not as if Iran has threatened to use such weapons, unlike..

    • rosemerry
      March 9, 2012 at 03:04

      What dialogue? The USA decides on an enemy, and that is it. Israel tells them if they do not know, since Israel’s interests and those of the USA are of course, identical. Iran has done nothing illegal, and its “help for terrorists” means aid to resistance groups against the zionist entity. The UA invades all over the world, for dominance and greed. iran is a sovereign country which would be much better as a friend than vilified as an enemy endangering the USI.

  8. incontinent reader
    March 8, 2012 at 00:08

    Please note the following correction to the above. The last sentence to paragraph 2 should have read:

    After all, not long ago, a Likud supporter in the U.S. advocated the same for our President. [That was shockingly advocated as an option by the editor of the Atlanta Jewish Times.]

  9. incontinent reader
    March 7, 2012 at 18:29

    Thank you Mr.Pillar for an outstanding article, and also for the courageous public stand that you and the Generals have taken in your recent ad in the Washington Post.

    It is a tragedy that our government has so misunderstood and/or underestimated Netanyahu’s motivation and political skills for so long. One need only look at his history during the many years of failed negotiations with the Palestinians, especially his affirmative efforts to sabotage negotiations, not only now, but also when he was Prime Minister the first time. Nor should one ignore his loyalty to his father’s work with Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the major inspiration for, and mentor to the Irgun and Stern gang (including Begin and Shamir), a figure that the Likud has never failed to honor. Examining all of this years ago would have made clear that Netanyahu was not a leader that could be trusted, except in pursuing an expansionist and destructive path for his country and the region, and bringing us down in the process. (Looking back at the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing extremist/terrorist who opposed a territorial accommodation, one might wonder whether, given Netanyahu’s loyalty to his father and the same agenda, he himself could have inspired the deed. After all, not long ago, we a Likud supporter in the U.S. advocated the same for our President.)

    Certainly Jeffrey Goldberg’s apologia on behalf of Netanyahu’s personal family ties, while touching as a family matter, is irrelevant in evaluating the soundness of his policies- especially with the risk of such significant negative consequences to so many millions of people in the region and elsewhere.

    Furthermore, his most recent performance before AIPAC was shameful, whether it was in how he slammed FDR for failing to bomb the concentration camps in FDR’s conduct of the war, or his audacious insistence that Israel would do whatever he, Netanyahu, felt was in its interest, (knowing that the U.S. would cover for any tragic mistake on his part) or his disingenuousness in asserting the vibrancy of Israel’s democracy, which he has done his best to erode through some of the most draconian civil rights and civil liberties legislation that that country has ever witnessed. It was also an insult to the American people to see Sen McConnell and Rep. Pelosi kowtow and pander to AIPAC in the obsequious way that they did, parroting codewords and conclusions about Iran and the Palestinians that they well know to be false.

    If this Administration, and the next- whether Democrat or Republican- does not put this man and his policies to rest, but instead lets him bully us into yet another war, it should expect to face an American public that this time will be more willing to display acts of conscience and resistance, regardless of the strictures of the NDAA, or HR 347, or other similar legislation that Congress passed to chill dissent.

    The real tragedy is that at some point there could be a massive shift of sentiment against Israel itself- rather than just against its present policies- and the best way to avoid it is to make no exceptions to exercising a sensible policy in the Middle East.

    My sense is that the President should go further, and not merely counsel caution against war, as he has done, but lay down the law more clearly and definitively, and do so in a way that also educates the public about the dangers that Netanyahu and the Likud pose to peace in the region and to our national interests. Furthermore, he should have a serious talk with his wealthy and influential supporters in the Jewish community- such as the Crown family in Chicago, and the Goldman Sachs leadership, both of whom benefit greatly from their relationship with the government, and make clear that now is the time for a change of leadership in Israel, if one is to be serious about pursuing peace.

    Finally, he should make clear that he is ready to pull the plug on loans, grants and military aid, if things get out of hand. We should not be willing to support any ally who will recklessly draw us into another war.

    The survival of Israel is a straw argument. It is agreed-upon goal for liberals as well as hawks. Moreover, all parties in the Middle East, including Hamas, have acknowledged in some forum that the existence of Israel is a fact, and not to be questions. Furthermore, illegitimate policies cannot and will not delegitimize the Israel’s nationhood, but they are delegitimizing its present leadership. The war policies advanced by Netanyahu, and his destruction of democratic institutions in Israel, will never able to achieve peace. However, they will guarantee that we as a nation will have to remain on a war track for another generation.

    In the end, it would be best for Israel, as well as its neighbors and the United States, if the Administration and Congress were to finally push for regime change in Israel, in order that the country might have a pragmatic and rational leadership to help it face its challenges.

    • Hillary
      March 8, 2012 at 08:42

      incontinent reader on March 7, 2012 at 6:29 pm

      “it would be best for Israel, as well as its neighbors and the United States, if the Administration and Congress were to finally push for regime change in Israel, in order that the country might have a pragmatic and rational leadership to help it face its challenges.”

      excellent stuff .

      Indeed Ahamadinejad and many others have been calling for that ,for years.

      Not the “Destruction of Israel” as the MSM has constantly mistranslated .

      After all Israel constantly via AIPAC and Jewish Billionaires seem to direct “regime change” in the US.

  10. Hillary
    March 7, 2012 at 15:22

    “Shared perspectives of the Israeli Right and some American neocons did figure into promotion of the war against Iraq”

    What balderdash above.

    No US Politician or Journalist or Main Stream Media person dared question or expose PNAC , Israeli Right and American neocon lies put out by Wolfowitz , Rupert Murdoch et al which led to the illegal destruction of what was once the cradle of civilization resulting in over 2,000,000 dead , crippled , diseased, orphaned , displaced human beings.

    The Iraq “war” is correctly called “Murdoch’s War” by many.

    Pointing out their lies would have been deemed “hateful” , un-patriotic and Antisemitic and ended any Patriot’s career in the MSM.

    History will look back at a time when the only Super Power the USA was shamelessly controlled by a foreign country.

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