Reading between the lines: Israel's double-bluff over Iran's nuclear threat

Two weeks ago The Atlantic, one of America's more serious news magazines, published a heavily reported look at the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Was it a secret call for the US to do the job instead?

Two weeks ago The Atlantic, one of America's more serious news magazines, published "The Point of No Return", a heavily reported look at the possibility of an Israeli military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. The conclusion of the piece, by reporter Jeffrey Goldberg, was that if efforts to discourage the Iranian nuclear programme fail, Israel intends to take matters into its own hands before the end of 2011.

A careful reading of the story, however, suggests that Israel's intentions are more ambiguous - and that Israeli officials believe the best way to convince Washington to take military action against Iran is to threaten to do it themselves first. That the Israelis believe their American allies - essentially their only allies - are leaving them with no choice but to bomb Iran is a theme than runs throughout the 10,000-word piece, alongside subtle-but-clear hints that Israel would much prefer the American military do the job instead. The other theme might best be conveyed in numbers: the words Auschwitz, Holocaust and shoah are mentioned 17 times.

The many senior Israeli officials interviewed by Goldberg "were not part of some public-relations campaign", he insists early in the piece. But neither is it a coincidence that all of them are suddenly speaking their minds. Their message is a clear one: the Jewish state wants the world - and particularly the United States and its leaders - to put threats of F-16s and laser-guided bombs alongside (if not in front of) talk of diplomacy and peaceful resolutions. Whether Israel truly intends to attack Iran, its leaders very much want Washington to believe they will.

Goldberg's story - and its bold claim that "there is a better than 50 per cent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July" - has sparked a firestorm of debate, much of it focused on Goldberg himself. As a former military policeman in the Israel Defence Forces, who prominently supported the US invasion of Iraq, Goldberg, many argued, cannot be seen as a reliable guide to topics concerning military intervention in the Middle East.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald, characterising the piece as "dishonest propaganda," wrote that "Jeffrey Goldberg is no more of an objective reporter on such matters than Benjamin Netanyahu is." Jacob Heilbrunn, writing in The National Interest, said "the Atlantic piece itself could indeed be part of a campaign of intimidation against Iran". An editorial by George Will, one of America's most prominent conservative commentators, published this week in The Washington Post, said: "If Israel strikes Iran, the world will not be able to say it was not warned." Israel now faces a global push to "delegitimise it in order to extinguish its capacity for self-defence," he added.

The piece, with a Jerusalem byline, drew heavily from an interview with Benjamin Netanyahu, who told Will that the Iranian nuclear programme is part of a global effort to reverse the creation of the Jewish state. Goldberg's deeply researched piece has all the hallmarks of real journalism: an abundance of sources, some questioning of its main premises, and what those in the industry call a "scoop of insight" that leads to wider debate. These features, alas, were lacking in much of what followed - whether Will's fear-mongering stenography or the attacks on Goldberg's own background.

So let us set aside the temptation to shoot the messenger, and focus on the message: Goldberg's reporting may look like an attempt to shift the goalposts - to make an Israeli attack on Iran into a fait accompli, or to convince the Americans to take over the job. But that effort is the real news here: Israeli officials, who kept rather quiet prior to bombing nuclear facilities in Iraq (in 1981) and Syria (in 2007), have suddenly decided to announce, loud and clear, that they plan to drop bombs on Iran unless somebody else does it first. The question now is whether Barack Obama takes the bait.