Jacob Heilbrunn

The War Over Israel

Former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert. Israel is at war—with itself. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been upping the rhetorical ante for several months, threatening Iran and, implicitly, President Obama if he doesn't go along with the idea of unilaterally attacking Iran. Netanyahu and his followers are wont to portray sanctions against Iran as though it were somehow the equivalent of appeasement during the 1930s, when Nazi Germany swallowed up much of Europe. But Netanyahu's bombast is creating a backlash not just in Europe but also in Israel itself.

The latest Israeli leader to speak out against the prospect of attacking Iran for its nuclear efforts is former prime minister Ehud Olmert, whose remarks on Israeli television could not be clearer: "There is no reason at this time not to talk about a military effort, but definitely not to initiate an Israeli military strike." Previously, the former head of internal security, Yuval Diskin, and Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, stated that the government is providing misleading information about the efficacy of a potential strike.

Meanwhile, negotiations in Istanbul produced a more conciliatory stance from Iran—not necessarily because of the threat of an attack but because the sanctions that Obama imposed may be working. Could it be that Iran's major domos are looking for a way to climb down from their triumphalist rhetoric about building a bomb—a weapon that would do little for Iran's security—in exchange for full recognition from America and a pledge not to attack it? As the Washington Post's David Ignatius has pointed out, the basic framework exists for a deal, and it looks increasingly as though the Iranians are receptive to one. Indeed, if Obama is fortunate, he may be able to close a deal with Iran that would remove the issue from the 2012 election campaign and allow him to present himself as the new, great peacemaker. Nothing would come as a greater shock to Netanyahu and his noisy claque of supporters in the GOP.

All along, the contention of the Iran hawks has been that the Tehran regime is immune to external pressure. But this makes little sense. Its leaders are craven, bellicose, nasty. But they are also opportunistic, intent on self-preservation. Around the world, ugly regimes that were once seen as impervious to reform have indeed changed from within. Again and again, the mistake that Western hawks have made has been to overestimate the longevity of authoritarian and totalitarian dictatorships. The late Jeane Kirkpatrick even made a distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, arguing that the latter were far less likely to alter their political complexion. But as she herself acknowledged, this turned out to be wrong. The Soviet Union, viewed as a kind of implacable tyranny that could not be significantly undermined, was. Fast forward to today and you have Burma, one of the world's leading reprobate countries, reaching out to the West. Who would have dreamed a few years ago that it would hold free elections? The blunt fact is that standards continue to change, that the costs of remaining in not-so-splendid isolation are rising, both for leaders and their countries, as Basher al-Assad and his wife, who may not be able to enjoy her luxurious Parisian shopping trips any longer, are discovering.

So it would be mistaken to assume—as some are assumingthat the sole way to deal with Iran is to bomb it back to the stone, or at least the Safavid, age. Not so. But perhaps it is also a mistake to reckon that Netanyahu is really intent on going mano-a-mano with the Islamic republic. A credible threat, after all, is required to prod the Mr. Khamenei & Co. into deviating from the nuclear path. The good news, however, is that a debate, or, to put it more precisely, a very public battle is taking place in Israel over whether Iran is determined not simply to research but also to build and test a bomband whether a strike on Iran, which might lead to a wider war in the Middle East, would really be merited.