What if the Israeli doves are wrong?
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