In political science, we talk a lot about rational versus irrational actors. Recently, the policy elite have put a lot of time into analyzing the Israel-Iran situation, and their attempts to deduce whether or not Iran is a rational actor have only produced even more confusion. But what about Israel? And what about Netanyahu? This is a question that many have answered in columns, analytical articles, and Twitter rants, but no one has looked at it from a purely theoretical standpoint. I contend that Netanyahu is an extraordinarily irrational actor.
Graham T. Allison, a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, is the authority on decision-making theory. In Essence of Decision, he outlined three decision-making models, but I’m going to focus on the bureaucratic or governmental politics model, which best applies to Israel’s domestic political reality. Instead of defining the state as a cohesive actor, this model focuses on what happens inside the government. Actors, in this case, are either individuals or organizations that have positions of power within the government. Their goals and motivations are to maximize their power and influence, as well as to promote strategic national interests, but their objectives and values may conflict. There’s bargaining based on actors’ relative power and the availability of information and resources, but all of that may be distorted by misperceptions, time pressure, and personality. Sound familiar?
Netanyahu is our actor, and we know that as the prime minister he has a whole lot of power and influence. In order to attack Iran, he does need the support of his cabinet, but that cabinet is led by fear-mongering hawks Ehud Barak and Avigdor Lieberman. Technically, Netanyahu the individual does not have absolute power over this decision, but judging from his personality and previous actions, he will convince his cabinet if he needs to. I don’t think the principle of bargaining matters much here except for determining the extent of an attack.
First, we have the prime minister’s goal of maximizing his power and influence. Israeli elections will happen soon, and while Netanyahu and his Likud Party are more popular than ever, that support could always use some additional shoring up. He can’t maximize his international influence so long as Iran is capable of producing nuclear weapons, and Bibi most certainly desires to continue his role as an important international player. Second, there are the strategic national interests, which is where his irrationality stems from. According to the prime minister, Israel must not allow Iran to develop nuclear capabilities for fear of another Holocaust. He’s said as much in more diplomatic language, but preventing a second Holocaust is the crux of what he thinks are strategic national interests.
Unfortunately for Bibi, even a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities isn’t in Israel’s strategic interest, and I’m not saying anything revolutionary. A unilateral strike would harm Israel’s special relationship with the US, a wound that could potentially last for years depending on who we elect in America in 2012. The chances for an American-supported strike are slim to none, given President Obama’s preference for consensus building, diplomacy, and negotiations. There’s also a good reason why most Israelis in public opinion polls are against conflict with Iran. What happens to the 7 million Israelis the day after, or hours after, the surgical strike? Are the borders safe? Who joins Iran in the counterattack? Hamas has announced that they wish to take no part should that situation arise, but they’re not the only non-state players that matter in this equation. In addition, there’s also evidence that attacking a state’s nuclear facilities actually speeds up its production timeline. This would not be a just war, and I don’t think Iran would react with anything less than its maximum capacity, since surgical strikes almost always result in the killing of innocent noncombatants.
Netanyahu is not working in either the strategic or popular interests of Israel. He has a personal vendetta based on a “second Holocaust” narrative that is sure to make Israel more enemies than friends and endanger Israeli citizens. I’m not saying he’s crazy; on the contrary, Netanyahu is extremely calculating and intelligent. But facts are facts, and there is no personal influence and power or national strategic advancement to be gained from attacking Iran.