What if the Israeli doves are wrong?

February 16, 2012

Those who know Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, say he likes to test his opinions against robust argument, often at length. This column is an account of one such — imagined — conversation.

Netanyahu tends to see issues through the prism of the Holocaust, and the deep well of anti-Semitism it plumbed. On the part of the Nazis, of course, but also elsewhere in Europe — in Poland, Ukraine, the Baltic States, Hungary, Romania and France. After the war was over and the facts of the Holocaust became known, returning Jews were attacked and killed in the Polish countryside, and Stalin embarked on a murderous anti-Semitic program which — had it not been for his death in 1953 — seemed set to result in at least some major pogroms, if not another mass killing on the scale of the Nazis’. This realization, for anyone Decent, is at least sobering. For a Jew, it raises the specter of an eternal horror that can rarely be wholly dismissed.

Just as Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, viewed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser as an Arab Hitler when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, so Netanyahu tends to see Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as the same reincarnation. That means that the Iranian president is, in the Israeli’s mind, not just a fanatical anti-Semite, but one who will pursue his fanaticism at all costs — including causing great damage to his own people.

Fanaticism trumps rationality. Rational people wish to stay alive; fanatics commit suicidal murder for a cause. Rational leaders weigh the costs and benefits of aggression; fanatical leaders pursue their aims to the point of killing their state. Netanyahu believes that Ahmadinejad is the latter sort of leader. And thus he is inclined to think that Israel has no choice but to launch a pre-emptive strike while Iranian nuclear facilities are still vulnerable and before Iran moves them deep underground to complete the final stages of producing nuclear weapons.

However, he knows that the Israeli political and military establishment, and society, is deeply torn on the issue. There is, as yet, no decision, no one line. The complexities of making such a decision are formidable, even by Middle Eastern standards. Thus, as one who likes to test his views, earlier this week he invited a distinguished political scientist, well versed in the threats and opportunities of Israeli security but known to be opposed to a pre-emptive strike, to argue with him one evening in his office.

The distinguished scholar begins by making a mistake. He mentions that Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, the Israeli secret service, believed that the Iranians were some years away from producing a serviceable weapon, that the Iranian leadership was consumed with anxiety about its own society and the internal opposition it faced, and that the declaration by Ahmadinejad this week that scientists had built faster uranium enrichment centrifuges and had loaded homemade fuel plates into a reactor was bluff to cover serious problems in the nuclear program.

That is a mistake because Netanyahu sees Dagan not just as one who disagrees with him, but as a serious political threat. Dagan’s rhetoric on the issue was scornful: An attack on Iran, he said, “was the stupidest idea I had ever heard,” one that would spark regional war and unite the disparate allies against Israel. There have been hints that he was part of a group seeking the prime minister’s resignation. No advantage in that route.

The scholar thus begins to play what he believes is his best hand. Ahmadinejad, he says, may well wish for the destruction of Israel — but he is no absolute dictator on the Hitler-Stalin model. He is embedded in a regime that, whatever the rhetoric of its leaders, has a history of military caution. Not only is it not Nazi Germany, it is not Saddam’s Iraq, which was prepared to launch disastrous attacks on its neighbors — on Iran itself, in 1980, a war that lasted eight years and resulted in an estimated 1.5 million casualties, and on Kuwait a decade later, sparking Western retaliation and the rapid defeat of Iraq’s armed forces. Iran talks big, says the scholar, but acts cautiously.

This means, he continues, encouraged by the prime minister’s thoughtful silences, that even if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, it will not use it. It will be enough to possess it and to have a balance of terror. See, he says, warming to his theme, the example of India and Pakistan. Much has been said about the fact that these two hostile neighbors are nuclear powers, much rhetoric about Pakistan being the most dangerous place on earth. And…nothing.

Sanctions, he says, are biting hard, and they will bite harder. The U.S. is leaning toward seeking the expulsion of Iran from the SWIFT system — the network for processing financial transactions — a move that would greatly limit, or even render impossible, the country’s sales of oil and purchase of foreign goods, and cause instant damage to the economy. That move would come at a cost: SWIFT is an independent institution, and would have to be leaned on hard, and the disruption would be bad for fragile Western economies. But if the threat is thought to be large enough, it could be done.

The costs of aggression, says the political scientist, are inherently unknowable. The Arab Spring seems to favor Islamist parties, which may seek to bolster their new positions in government in Tunisia and in the future in Egypt with inflamed rhetoric against Israel and perhaps something more substantial. But they are divided: The civil war in Syria has weakened the militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, and divided the Arab world. Now is not the time to give it a unifying cause.

It is 2 o’clock in the morning. The prime minister calls a halt. Thank you, he says, for your opinion, it was well put, and may be right. You are an acute reader of our neighborhood. I have benefited from this talk.

But, he says, as the weary scholar rises to go — what if you are wrong?

It’s a question with which any Israeli prime minister — including those less hawkish than the present incumbent –must be tormented. The slender strip of land that the Israelis occupy depends for its security on the technological and military prowess of the country’s armed forces, and on the continued support of the U.S. The latter has been wary of pre-emption. But close observers, like the distinguished political scientist, detect a growing mood in Washington that reluctantly concedes it may be the only option — though an option the U.S., not Israel, should exercise.

That’s in part because of the existential dimension to this — Iran might acquire the capacity to threaten Israel’s very existence — but it’s also because of the problems that would likely emerge even if Iran proves to be a rational actor. As Professor Shai Feldman of the Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis University wrote this month, Iran’s possession of a nuclear threat would both embolden its allies — Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas — and prompt “countries like Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia … to acquire nuclear weapons of their own, thus triggering a proliferation cascade.”

Ahmadinejad’s boast this week — that he will continue to develop the nuclear program, still claiming it to be peaceful, and that “the era of bullying nations has passed” — ramps up the tension, as it was bound, and designed, to do.

The posture of the Western nations, seeking to halt Iran by sanctions and pressure, is that their soft-power approach will work.

But what if they are wrong?

PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference with Cypriot President Dimitris Christofias (not pictured) at the presidential palace in Nicosia, February 16, 2012 .  REUTERS/Andreas Manolis


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If Iran was rational about this, and if they only wanted nuclear power; they would have called a longer halt to their nuclear program in order to overcome any lingering concerns at the IAEA and in foreign countries.

When Ahmadinejad suggests that Iran’s nuclear work is for “peaceful” purposes… it appears he means this equivocally…
“the era of bullying nations has passed” – this is basically the same language as Khrushchev used when hinting to Stewart Udall about Soviet missiles in Cuba:
“”It’s been a long time since you could spank us like a little boy. Now we can swat your ass.” This was a prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis.”
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stewart_Uda ll#Secretary_of_the_Interior
i.e., “…peaceful purposes…” as in,
“[We perceive the West as a threat to us – as a source of conflict. So in order to ensure ‘peace’ in our neighborhood, we’re going to develop nuclear weapons both as a symmetrical and as an asymmetrical counter-threat. Purely, for ‘peaceful’ purposes mind: i.e., to accomplish the KIND of ‘peace’ settlement that we envisage for the broader Middle East.]” – I don’t see any other way to interpret Ahmadinejad’s words+actions.

Strategically, for Israel, this situation is almost a perfect example of what the word “dilemma” means. It appears that only the United States can reliably break this nuclear geopolitical deadlock in the near-term, and only then with the acquiescence of Russia… But why would the Americans break the tension, when they can milk Iranian & Syrian belligerence for weapons sales across the Middle East that will pay down the U.S. national debt and employ many Americans? I think that we should therefore expect the bluffing, brinkmanship and outright tension to continue for some time to come.


The “distinguished scholar” appears to be correct about many things. Christians should take a closer look at Isaiah 49:26 in the Holy Bible (in a context that is clearly about the latter-day gathering of Israel)…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

On the other hand, perhaps Arabs across the Middle East would privately welcome a successful Israeli mission to destroy, damage or delay Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program…

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

Suppose for a moment that the US had, in the 1950s assassinated Sakharov and others, and had successfully prevented the Soviet Union from ever developing viable nuclear weapons. Would the US, perhaps, to this day have regarded the Soviet Union as run by irrational fanatics? Would the US, perhaps, still be in the grip of McCarthyism?

Mutually assured destruction at least forced the US to accept that Soviet leaders were every bit as rational and responsible as they themselves were, because the proof was there every day that an attack wasn’t launched. Eventually, they came to trust each other enough for detente and arms limitation talks. We’re all better off for that.

Maybe a nuclear Iran would at least force Israeli politicians to in turn accept that Iranians are also more than mere bogeymen. That, too, might be no bad thing.

After all, nobody in half a century who’s predicted that the nuclear enemy are fanatics who are about to launch an attack has ever been proved right. You’ll need more evidence than simply the colour of the enemy’s skin….

Posted by Ian_Kemmish | Report as abusive


It is all well and good for those of us sitting in comfortable and safe homes far away from the realities of the tinderbox that is today’s middle east, to play “what if”. I, too, prefer that Israel “sit on it” and not act at present.

But had I to “deal with” the immediate choices before the Israeli prime minister, there is no “safe bet”. He must literally gamble the future of Israel whether a “pre-emptive first strike” is flown or not. I do not envy him.

Perhaps worse, I would fly the strike if there were not credible reasons (not mere hopes) NOT to do so. This is a game with no re-plays, win or lose; and the ultimate “winner” may not be obvious for many years.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@OneofTheSheep: the credible reason is that there is no evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, as confirmed by the latest NIE.

To ‘rational’ actors, that would be enough… Says a lot about Israel that it clearly isn’t.

The whole logic behind provoking an unprovoked enemy is also very very flawed. It only seems to make sense in the minds of people like Bibi… War for peace is the biggest lie of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Posted by Life1 | Report as abusive

In this current provocation with Iran – Israel holds the keys for peace.

They must give up their nuclear weapons to give strength to the argument for a nuclear free middle east.

Nothing short of that will stop scared nations from running fast to even the playing field with nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately – we will soon see a dirty bomb set off in the USA – to draw them into military aggression with Iran.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive

On the other hand…. what if western hawks are wrong and the real threat to stability in the middle east is not Iran, but Israel.

After all, since its formation, Israel has started more wars than Iran. It has invaded its neighbours. It has oppressed the Palestinians far more than the Iranians have oppressed their (very sizable) Jewish minority.

For a Westerner to call an Iranian an anti semite really does sound a bit stupid. Ahmadi-Nejad opposes Israel, the Zionist state. Defending a state as an ethnic entity (such as and Anglo Saxon or Jewish state) is racist. Opposing Zionism is not racist.

We in the west support Israel, because us Europeans oppressed our Jews so badly they had to leave.

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

John Lloyd is right. Extremists and fanatics are blind sided and no doubt that Iran operates towards that spectrum. But assumed warlike actions like the killing of Iran scientists only lead, as we see, to retaliation: for now the assaults on the diplomatic corps of Israel. So warlike actions are by no way a solution for a safe Israel. And Iran is absolutely to powerful to be stopped long term. It is a huge country, with unlimited resources and mind you even India still buys its oil!

The only structural creation of safety for Israel is to share its current land with the Palestinians and to rule this and the Palestian territories in community with the Palestinians on a fifty-fifty authority base. Probably not always easy but it would have a huge de-escalating effect.

First: the Arab and North African countries would massively support it at government level as well as at street level.
Second: the Palestinians including Hamas would totally embrace it because they are honored while the Israelian people for their part get the desired structural peace and much more land, although shared. Convincing the Israelian will be more difficult. But they have to be brought to the understanding that on the long term they will definitely loose the war. Netanyahu has at this moment still the ability and power to achieve it.
Third: The Hezbollah cause is rooted out and therefore their anti-Israel movement is eliminated. They cannot fight against equal shared authority and Libanon can develop to a normalized country. Al Quaida has also no Palestinian cause anymore and will be further marginalized.
Fifth: Iran is totally isolated by it, because the whole Middle-East and I am convinced Afghanistan and Pakistan too are going to team up totally with a new Israel-Palestinian country. Furthermore it would strengthen the internal Irian power struggle towards a more balanced leadership and power sharing.

The above described downright realism will certainly be unacceptable for all the blindsided Jewish and Arabic fanatics. That’s for sure. But you know they are a minority, albeit screaming loudly all the time.

Posted by agj | Report as abusive

Whilst I agree with your scribe, there are matters of public discourse that should be noted.
When you have two wolves and a sheep discussing whats for dinner, your discussion is for naught,
Next, I would urge that public rhetoric be turned down a notch or ten. There is such verbal and print clutter, It seems the I’s have it. Israel, Iran. Iraq, India, Italy, Ireland and Islamabad, yes we are people of passion, but please stop egging these two schoolboy’ into a schoolyard brawl.
Wars are easy to trigger, difficult to stop.
Ben-Zion, Netanya, ISRAEL.

Posted by Toosoonold | Report as abusive

Good idea, but can Israel really make a dent in Iran’s march to go nuclear unless it deploys doomsday weapon grade?
In the event that Israel could flawlessly deliver several perfect hits, unless it is prepared to use some kind of radioactive material, there is now way it could render the facilities a no go areas…I doubt if Israel has such variety of weaponry, that it could make a non- suicidal mission work and be supported in secrecy until its completion, this is not a quickie like Ozirak or the NoKo op in Syria, this is the biggest operation ever undertaken by the IAF, I am not sure they are up to it considering the terrain they need to cross, refueling, pay load, etc….

Posted by redwood509 | Report as abusive

It appears that Israel figures that it only lives by the absolute domination of the ME through its nuclear weapons.

They can’t be expected to be very rational, given their constant replaying of the Holocaust. I’m much more fearful of them, and the US Congress and Administration sycophants, than of Iran.

For those who take the “bomb them just in case”-position, try reading Ahmadinejad’s speech, and try understanding their position. Iran seems much more rational to me than we are (dominated as it is by psychologically sick Holocaust-fear purveyors). [http://www.juancole.com/2012/02/ahmadin ejad-speech-on-nuclear-energy-advances-f ull-text.html#more-15798]

“What if”, “what if”, etc.: The only way for perfect safety is to kill everybody and everything, even yourself. (Actually, killing yourself would do it.) Life has risks. That’s just the way it is. I think the tone of this opinion piece is simply ridiculous.

Israel needs to live within its boundaries, learn to live with its neighbors, get rid of its nuclear weapons and probably drop the Zionist enterprise. Elsewise, it will never feel safe.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive


Israel is as “muscle bound” when it comes to the actual use of atomic weapons as any other country. It does not “absolutely dominate” other than through it’s continuation to exist surrounded by avowed enemies.

Israel’s survival is owed solely to a brave, literate and capable military. It has mostly prevailed even when others strike unexpectedly and without provocation. While it’s enemies can and have failed again and gain, it is rather obvious that if and when Israel fails ONCE it will, once and forever, cease to exist.

The ostrich with it’s head in the sand may “feel safe” and yet not be. “Feeling safe” is probably overrated in today’s world.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

What exactly does “Israel fails ONCE it will, once and forever, cease to exist” mean? This is apocryphal sounding language, but what exactly does “cease to exist” mean. To me, it means nothing more than what has to happen: “Israel needs to live within its boundaries, learn to live with its neighbors, get rid of its nuclear weapons and … drop the Zionist enterprise.” It doesn’t mean the lie (see Wikipedia) concerning Ahmadinejad said: “Wipe Israel off the face of the map”, or anything like this. This is just the usual, getting very dog-eared, Zionist propaganda. Cease to exist means, END OF ZIONISM. Nothing more, or less. It will be a great step forward for Jews, and for the rest of the world.

Zionism, taking over another peoples country for your personal gain, is just a crazy religious stunt, and it is headed for the rubbish heap, where it should have stayed in the first place. The sooner it is abandoned by the Jews and Zionist Christians, the better for the world. Sentient people will recognize this truth.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive


The only territory Israel has “taken over” is that previously under the control of countries that attacked Israel without warning or provocation. That territory is to provide a “buffer”, like the “demilitarized zone” between North and South Korea, against further such attacks.

Israel’s illusion of nuclear weapons has been necessary in order to be allowed to live “within it’s boundaries” surrounded by those who would wipe it out in an instant had they they means to do so. They have long demonstrated they have the will.

Israel pulled out of Gaza, and was rewarded with resumed attacks by suicide bombers and terror rockets. They have acted with admirable restraint as “Palestinians” dig tunnels into Egypt to circumvent border restrictions on materials and weapons of war.

What does Gaza and the rest of “Palestine” export? Only hate and hostility without end or compromise. And no, I’m not a Jew by blood or belief. I just believe they have the same right to live as you, no more.

Intelligent people already recognize these truths.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive


It sounds like you believe that there were no Palestinians in Palestine before the Zionists arrived en masse and took over? I suppose that once they were displaced, they have no right to try to recover their land?

I suppose Gaza Palestinians should be thankful for the the beneficence of the Israelis? Hail Sharon!

Question authority!

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive


You know the land belonged to Israel a couple of thousand years before the Palestinians were there. It is like the Crusades. The Crusades were originally launched in response to a call from the leaders of the Byzantine Empire for help to fight the expansion into Anatolia of Muslim Seljuk Turks who had cut off access to Jerusalem. Had the arabs not decided to back Hitler in his quest to kill all Jews, perhaps Israel/Palestine issues would have been resolved back then. They lost, and that is what they get for backing Hitler. There constant attacks into Israel will keep them forever in their situation. Isreal shows much restraint, this is a situation where total anhilation seems to be the only path to peace.

Posted by UnPartisan | Report as abusive


Not only was that thousands of years ago, and this is now.

But, as you undoubtedly know, the strong majority of Jews who have moved into Israel in the last 100 year are not Semites, and therefore your point holds not a drop of water. They are Europeans. Actually, the minority Semitic Jews are treated as second rate citizens in Israel. Many of them came from North Africa, and got along quite well with Muslim Semites for hundreds of years, since the time of the 1491 expulsion from Spain, up to the time of the Israel problem. Moreover, the Ottomans welcomed them into their area, after 1491. They still have a substantial presence in Istanbul, for example. Jewish memorabilia is well represented in Moroccan museums, some still live there, and some are returning and being welcomed back. It was Zionism that queered the works for Jews in Arab countries.

By the way, “total annihilation” sounds rather like Hitler. At worst, it appears that Arabs and Persians are suggesting that the Europeans go back to where they came from, or at least somewhere else. You have also probably read that the demographics of Israel are such that wholesale emigration scenario looks increasing likely. And, that certainly is another route to peace!

Give it a thought. It is a lot better than a Hitler-type solution.

Posted by xcanada2 | Report as abusive


Guess you flunked History. Google the British Mandate of Palestine and the League of Nations support for the creation of a Jewish state there. Much of the land was purchased from Arabs. Yes, many who moved there came from Europe and were secular. So what?

Was there adequate Arab compensation? I wasn’t there. There wasn’t fair compensation to “Native Americans” as the United States expanded across the continent. The Arabs supported the Axis in WW II. They lost!

The “Palestinians” who suffered most in the process and displacement of Israel’s creation are long dead and gone. They aren’t coming back. It’s a “done deal”. Get used to it.

International agitators care nothing for those who would have the burden of creating and structuring an economically viable “Palestinian State”. The Israelis have made swamps and desert bloom. What of merit or export value is the principle export of the West Bank and/or Gaza?

Why do these people just sit, breed, eat and hate forever with no land, no education, no skills, and no future? Because it has become their “job”. They literally subsist solely on terrorist “support money” from rich Arab regimes. If that money ever ceases to flow, these people will starve.

Only they can build a viable future for themselves. The “accomplishments” of five plus generations the world sees is kidnappings, suicide bombers and rockets launched into Israel too inaccurate to destroy a specific target like the Nazi terror campaign of rockets into England as WW II ended.

Germany had more resources, and achieved NOTHING strategically or militarily with their random rockets. If the Palestineans expect anything different, no one can “fix” stupid.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive