Blinded by the right

By Simon Tisdall (THE GUARDIAN, 13/03/07):

The prospect of a "pre-emptive" Israeli attack on Iran depends to a large degree on the political fortunes of two inadequate and deeply challenged rightwing leaders: Ehud Olmert and Binyamin Netanyahu.

Olmert's prime ministership has not recovered from last summer's misconceived, poorly executed, and strategically disastrous war against Hizbullah in Lebanon.

The fact that Olmert has now confirmed that the Israeli action was planned several months in advance makes the subsequent murderous bungling even more inexcusable.

Olmert's military chief, Dan Halutz, has already resigned in disgrace. And Olmert may be next if the Winograd Commission's inquiry into the conduct of the war criticises him personally.

Such a denouement would at least put him out of his misery. Latest opinion polls put his approval rating in single digits.

But Olmert's departure could create an even bigger problem: prime ministerial retread and raging neocon Binyamin Netanyahu is favourite to regain the top slot, according to the same polls.

If Olmert hangs on, weakened but unvanquished, the temptation to try to restore his credibility by lashing out at Iran may be strong.

If Netanyahu clambers back to the top of the pile, the clear and present danger is that he will try to turn his aggressive anti-Iran rhetoric into policy.

Netanyahu has spent the past year grossly exaggerating the Iranian threat for political purposes. According to him, the year is 1938 and Iran is Nazi Germany.

If his object is to terrify Israelis, he may be succeeding. After all, he learned the politics of fear at the feet of masters: George Bush and Dick Cheney.

And come the autumn, that same Bush may be running out of excuses for his failures in Iraq. What better scapegoat than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's poorly defended, deeply unpopular, self-defeating Iranian regime?

A Bush-Bibi combo is a truly apocalyptic prospect.

Yet this is surely the point when wise men and women pause for reflection.

Poorly defended though it be, compared with US-Israel's infinitely superior military technology, Iran has plenty of capacity for conventional and asymmetrical retaliation, as a report published today by the British thinktank, Chatham House, makes clear.

Faced by an Israeli aerial bombardment of its nuclear and military sites, Iran could - in theory - fire missiles at Israeli cities, block oil routes through the Straits of Hormuz (40% of global oil supply passes that way), destabilise Iraq and Saudi Arabia, inspire a renewed Hizbullah and/or Palestinian onslaught, or undertake acts of international terrorism, the report says.

All of this would be harmful to Israel's security and deeply inimical to its national interest and international standing, it warns. But Israelis are not thinking about consequences, only about threats.

"The likelihood of military action by Israel against Iran's nuclear installations is increasing daily," said Yossi Mekelberg, the report's author.

"The lack of internal public debate and critical discussion of military action makes a strike more likely and is a deeply worrying trend within Israeli democracy. Israelis are focused on the potential danger from Iran but are indifferent to the potential fallout from military action."

This is the sort of collective political blindness that allows irresponsible men like Olmert and Netanyahu to take and abuse power.

Perhaps Israelis of the right (and their hyperventilating disapora supporters) should all be invited again to read David Grossman's speech, Looking At Ourselves, delivered last November at the annual memorial to Yitzhak Rabin.

It would be a good, post-Zionist point from which to start afresh in dealing prudently and rationally with Iran - and with many other pressing issues.