PostScript: When the public gets taken for a ride

Iran media storm is not the way serious issues are discussed in serious democracies, as whispers in the night, and as big, thick and simplistic headlines in the morning.

Ahmadinejad 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahmadinejad 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Sometimes I get to think that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with all his idiosyncrasies, is more responsible than some of the people in positions of tremendous authority in this country.
Take the media storm this week over the issue of whether Israel should attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or not.
It all started with a front-page story by columnist Nahum Barnea in Yediot Aharonot last Friday intimating that despite wall-to-wall opposition in the defense establishment, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are hell-bent on attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Since then the story has developed into a public debate over whether or not there should be a public debate on the subject, with the media tripping over each other to bring new angles and headlines to a story that has, in one way or another, dominated the news this past week. It culminated with a poll in Haaretz on Thursday that found 41 percent of Israelis supported an attack on Iran, 39% opposed it and 20% were undecided, a stunning statistic in a country where everyone considers himself a prime minister or, at the very least, a chief of staff.
There can’t be a public debate on the issue, because the public is in no way able to judge the costs or benefits of the operation.
They don’t know what targets are involved, how many civilians will be killed, what Iran’s response will be. The public being invited to debate the pros and cons of an attack on Iran are not privy to information about Iranian second-strike capability, assessments as to how the Americans and the Europeans will react, or the Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks for that matter.
The public does not have a clue about intelligence information, if there is any, of other potential consequences of such an attack, like the possibility of Iran lashing out against the West with a campaign of nuclear terror, or even conventional attacks on subways and other sensitive infrastructure, that would heap hatred and blame on Israel’s head, and turn friends of the Jewish state into sworn enemies. The public knows little, if nothing, about the operational aspects of such an attack, of the real risks involved, of the limitations and the consequences of either success or failure.
To poll the public on the question is ridiculous, if not ludicrous, almost like asking someone if they want to give up the Golan, without making any mention of the conditions involved. If you hit the Iranian nuclear sites, something the experts tell us will take days to do efficiently, what about attacking the Iranian air force and army, and Iran’s missile sites and military headquarters and all those surprises the Revolutionary Guards have for doomsday, including 50,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon and ditto in Gaza? The Haaretz poll is a journalistic curiosity.
The story that started the ball rolling, however, Nahum Barnea’s front-page piece in Yediot, is a cause for concern, not because of who wrote it or the paper that published it, but because of who wanted it out and why.
Barnea, the first-ever recipient of an Israel Prize for journalism, is a highly credible reporter with extraordinary access, and whose editorial judgment carries enormous weight at Yediot, as indeed it should. He did not wake up one morning, and while in the shower concoct a story about a deep rift on a critical issue in inner-inner sanctum of the government. Someone made sure that he heard about it.
For Barnea to believe him, or her, and for Yediot to splash it over its entire front page, that source had to be entirely credible; someone from deep inside the inner sanctums of the defense policy-making community and close enough to both the prime and defense ministers to know their thoughts on the most sensitive and secret of issues. There are not many people like that, and when it comes to an attack on Iran, the numbers are small indeed.
At first, some pundits attributed the reports that Israel’s two top ministers want to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities as being linked to the publication of the IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear program due out any day now, and their wanting to focus international attention on it. Then some said the story was deliberately leaked to add to Israel’s deterrence by telling the Iranians that Israel’s top leaders are looking for an excuse to attack them, and as a warning to the Americans and Europeans not to be complacent about Iran’s ongoing nuclear efforts. This began to make a little more sense when we read that Israel’s ambassadors had been instructed to promote international awareness on the issue and, somewhat miraculously, Israel “happened” to test a ballistic missile over the Mediterranean on Wednesday.
Alas, if only this were true. What we have here is an attempt by someone who either serves, or has very recently served, in a very central position, to portray the country’s top leadership as irresponsible, populist and willing to do anything for their own advancement. It does not enhance Israel’s security to say its leaders are prepared to fly in the face of the country’s defense experts, and imply that they are irresponsible. It does not enhance Israel’s deterrence to have Haaretz launch a poll on the issue, or to have the topic as the centerpiece of a debate in the Knesset and on every talk show, much of it blah blah, but some of it immensely informative to Israel’s enemies.
What this has all been about is not a public debate on an immensely complicated issue. What it boils down to, at least in part, is malicious gossip from an informed and well-connected insider, with a deep understanding of the foibles and power of the media, and who used both to further his or her agenda.
It is too easy to use the guise of “in the public interest” to further one’s own interests, and one has the sense that this is what may have happened here.
This is not the way serious issues are discussed in serious democracies, as whispers in the night, and as big, thick and simplistic headlines in the morning.
This is, after all, an existential issue we are talking about, not politics.
The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, was published by PublicAffairs, New York, this fall.