Rhetorically filling the fuel tanks of warplanes is all the rage. Benjamin Netanyahu did it at the AIPAC parley last week, dismissing diplomacy, sanctions and deterrence for dealing with Iran, and equating sorties over Qom with bombing Auschwitz. Rick Santorum used that venue to promise to "tear down" Iranian nuclear facilities. Mitt Romney was slightly more restrained, but his intent was the same: Bomb, baby, bomb. When Barack Obama tried to shush "loose talk of war," he got as much traction as a vicar giving a sermon during a soccer riot.
Put aside Santorum, who compulsively froths, and Romney who (to reverse a Hebrew saying) is always a weathervane, never a compass. The real question is what the Israeli prime minister has in mind. Were he competently planning for war, I'd expect stepped-up home front preparations and political changes such as widening his coalition. So far, that's not happening.
The alternative is that Netanyahu wants the threat of war to produce the gains of war, without Israel having to fight. He's either trying to push America to attack, or trying to convince other countries that tighter sanctions on Iran are the best way to keep Israel from acting.
But talk has a price. Since Netanyahu likes citing history, I'd suggest he study a fairly recent example of the risks of saber-rattling: the crisis that led to the Six-Day War. "Of all the Arab-Israeli wars," historian Avi Shlaim has written, the conflagration in June 1967 "was the only one that neither side wanted." So why'd they fight?
Locating when the slide toward war began in '67 is hard. You could go back to the Arab League resolution of January 1964, which said that Israel's use of Jordan River water "multiplies the dangers to Arab existence" and called for the "final liquidation of Israel." This was the first time the Arab states collectively, officially called for Israel's destruction, Shlaim notes. The declaration wildly exaggerated the water issue and Arab military capability. But it gave Israel a frame for judging events. By early 1967, the events included Palestinian raids from Jordan and Syria into Israel, and border clashes between Syrian and Israeli troops.
A top-secret U.S. National Security Council history, on the other hand, locates the "immediate starting points" of the 1967 crisis in the second week of that May. Israeli leaders were "aroused to especially strong rhetoric by Israel's approaching Independence Day," and the rhetoric was aimed at Syria. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said there'd be "no immunity" for a country "that encourages sabotage operations." Military Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin asserted that because Syria sponsored terrorism, limited measures were unlikely to work. "The essence of the response… must be different," he warned. Reason, he implied, wouldn't convince unreasoning enemies.
The rhetoric was followed by mistaken Soviet warnings to Egypt that Israel was about to invade Syria. Bound by a defense pact with Syria, afraid of looking weak, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser marched his underprepared army into the Sinai Peninsula.
In Israeli accounts, that's the start of the avalanche. But Nasser's move should have been mere posturing; U.N. peacekeepers were deployed in the Sinai. Nasser demanded they leave. Had the U.N. refused, Nasser would have safely reaped the political fruit of the threat. Instead, Secretary-General U Thant removed the troops. From there, the concatenation of escalation led to Israel's preemptive attack. Wherever you mark the start of the crisis, brinkmanship led to war.
So what, some Israelis might say. Israel won. It gained East Jerusalem, the West Bank and more. Jews stood again at the Western Wall. Even if the war inspired a wave of ultra-nationalism in Israel, even if you accept (as I do) that Israeli rule over the Palestinians has been corrosive for Israel itself—well, none of us know how an alternative universe without war in 1967 would look. But this we certainly know: In six days, Israel lost 800 men, roughly proportionate to American losses in the entire Vietnam War. Arab losses in 1967 were much higher. Speaking of a fallen friend, the young novelist Amos Oz said after the war, "If you could blow up the Western Wall with dynamite and it would bring Micha back to life, I'd say, 'Blow it up!" Beware the glory of unneeded wars.
Back to today: Israel is responding not only to Iran's actions but also to its rhetoric, its statements of intent. At the same time, whether Netanyahu is bluffing or not, he must take into account that Iran is listening to his language. Iran presumably also pays attention to the Republican candidates, each of whom (heaven help us) could be be America's commander-in-chief next January.
The threats may be goading Iran to pour greater effort into its nuclear program, to rush toward creating a weapon more quickly. War rhetoric encourages Iran to strengthen its defenses, to hurry to hide its facilities deeper underground. Are these results that Netanyahu seeks?
And there are less predictable possibilities. A threatened Iran may push its allies in Hamas, Islami Jihad or Hezbollah to step up rocket fire against Israel or launch border raids. The clashes this weekend underline the danger. Incidents could easily escalate to battles that would cost Israel lives and international support and divert diplomatic attention from Iran's reactors.
Decrying war bluster, Obama warned that it drove up oil prices, giving Iran more money for its nuclear program. The president understated his case. Loose lips launch wars. For heaven's sake, Netanyahu and his Republican friends should shut up.