This mindset helps account for Goldberg’s fixation on whether Israel will launch an air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. That country’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has vowed to “wipe the Zionist entity off the map” and has referred to Israel as a “black and dirty microbe.”
“I see it as the foremost immediate American foreign-policy challenge,” Goldberg told me of the Iranian nuclear threat, “and I see it as the biggest challenge to Israel’s existence.”
That may be right on both counts. But in forecasting, on multiple occasions, a high degree of likelihood of an Israeli air strike (which he doesn’t necessarily consider a good idea), Goldberg has exhibited a degree of certainty that perhaps no outsider can possess.
In a much-debated Atlantic cover story in September 2010, the point of no return, he reported “a consensus” of Israeli decision makers and others who believe “that there is a better than 50-percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.” What Goldberg didn’t know was that at the time he was reporting the likelihood of an air strike, there was a top-secret US/Israeli initiative, known as Stuxnet, to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities by means of a cyberworm.
It’s conceivable that he was deliberately misled by Israeli policymakers. Or it might be that he placed too much confidence in his reporting. His most unforgiving critics suggest that he was willing to be used by Israel to present the bluff in the pages of the Atlantic. In any case, the story wasn’t quite on target, as conceded even by a Goldberg admirer, Dennis Ross, the veteran diplomat who at the time of publication was President Obama’s chief adviser on Middle East issues. “He drew a conclusion in terms of timing that I thought was overstated,” Ross says.
“He’s a journalist” who is “not privy” to state secrets in Israel, Israeli ambassador Oren says in defense of Goldberg, so he can only do his best to interpret the incomplete information he has.
But that seemingly chastening experience didn’t stop Goldberg from writing in his Bloomberg View column last March that “I’m highly confident that Netanyahu isn’t bluffing—that he is in fact counting down to the day when he will authorize a strike against a half-dozen or more Iranian nuclear sites” and still again to predict in his column in July that Israeli leaders “may very well decide” to launch a strike before the American election on November 6.
Nope and nope. It could be that the only thing off is his timing. But he risks sounding like a broken record.
• • •
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin famously divided humankind into hedgehogs, who know one big thing, and foxes, who know many little things. In these terms, Goldberg “is clearly a hedgehog,” says his friend Walter Isaacson, an author and the president of the Aspen Institute. (With his varied biographies of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, and Benjamin Franklin, Isaacson sees himself as all fox.)
Goldberg, though, pushes back against the hedgehog designation, and he has a good case. Years ago, he covered the Mafia for New York magazine. Last summer, he wrote a long article for the Atlantic, jersey boys, about New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s eternal love for Bruce Springsteen—and Goldberg’s own. “If the E Street Band at full throttle doesn’t fill you with joy, you’re probably dead,” he wrote. And one of his best pieces ever was a globetrotting 16,000-word opus for the New Yorker on a pair of American elephant conservationists gone amok. In a riveting narrative that shifted from Zambia to Idaho, Goldberg more or less solved a murder mystery.
Nor are his literary tastes as predictable as you might think. He’s fond of the poetry of T.S. Eliot, he says, even though “Eliot didn’t like Jews.”
It may be, Goldberg suggests, that he’s a hedgehog in having to meet an “expectations trap” of his own design for what he’s supposed to write about. He feels he has in a way led his core readers to expect him to focus tightly on Israel and the Middle East—and now feels bound to fulfill that self-imposed obligation.
“The only joy in journalism for me is the stories that have nothing to do with this,” he says of his specialty in Israel and the Middle East. “There’s no joy in writing about the Middle East. It’s not a joyful place.” The subject “is too fraught for me—it’s too serious, too consequential.”
Beneath the torrent of ready jests is angst that events in the bloody patch of the planet he covers could get a lot worse. The God of the Jews is a God who can perform miracles to alter the course of history—as in parting the Red Sea to let the Israelites escape from bondage in Egypt—but Goldberg, even though he’s a believer, isn’t expecting any such feats in today’s time.
“Do I believe in God? Yes, I believe in God,” he says. “I think he’s busy doing something else right now.”
This article appears in the February 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.