Israel: Its Fantasies and Its Realities

Commentary No. 323, Feb. 15, 2012

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel visited the United States in the beginning of March 2012. He came to say, once again, that a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel, and that Israel reserved the right to take timely action to counter this. President Obama asserted just as vigorously that, yes, a nuclear Iran would pose an existential threat to Israel, and that the United States could not countenance this, but that the timing of Netanyahu was off. Non-military action against Iran should be exhausted first before thinking of other action.

Let us examine the premises. Why would Iran, with nuclear weapons, pose an existential threat to Israel? That is, who believes that, if Iran had nuclear weapons, the Iranian authorities would use them to bomb Israel? Actually, no one in any position of responsibility in Israel, in the United States, or elsewhere in the world believes this. They only say they do.

Let us start with the ostensible arguments. Israeli officials point to the fact that Pres. Ahmadinejad and others have said that they wish to “wipe out” (or some such phrase) Israel. Of course, many experts have pointed out that the translation is incorrect. But even if it were accurate, does that do anything more than repeat the long-standing position of large numbers of people in the Middle East opposing the concept of a Jewish state and favoring various other outcomes to the long-standing dispute?

Why on earth would Iran bomb Israel? They would kill at least as many Arabs as Israelis, if they did. They would be subject to immediate retaliation by Israel, which is well-armed in nuclear weapons. Iran bombing Israel is a fantasy that no responsible leader believes.

So, if they don’t believe it, why do they say it? The answer seems to me clear. Were Iran finally to have a few nuclear weapons, it would indeed change something. It would change the geopolitical balance in the Middle East and weaken politically the position of Israel. It would probably also lead to the rapid acquisition of nuclear weapons by a number of other countries. I think of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey, to begin with.

Were either Israel or the United States to bomb Iran preemptively, there would be enormous political consequences immediately. First of all, it would almost certainly be relatively inefficacious in terms of stopping the Iranian project. Secondly, it would weaken politically the position of both Israel and the United States in the whole world. The two reasons together explain why there is so much opposition by the military and intelligence services of both Israel and the United States to the whole military discourse. What they fear is that the discourse would catch on and permit some political leaders not presently controlling the Israeli or U.S. governments to be foolish enough to start the war.

What Israel and the United States are locked into is a lose-lose situation. Whatever they do, they will lose politically. I believe they are aware of this, and neither Netanyahu nor Obama can figure out what really to do, and how to maintain their own political interests internally. So they spend their time blaming each other and blackmailing each other. In the meantime, the Iranian leadership uses the discourse to wave the patriotic banners and strengthen its internal position, which had been under serious assault not so long ago.

Meanwhile, back to Palestine, which remains a real issue for Israel, not a fantasy issue. Hamas has now made the decision to link its strategy to Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, which seems to be on the point of controlling the Egyptian government. Fatah clearly fears, correctly, that it might lose control of the West Bank to Hamas. Caught between Hamas and the U.S. government, President Abbas of the Palestine Authority is also in a lose-lose position and also does not know what to do. So he dithers, which does not seem to be the best survival tactic.

The future is with the Palestinian street. And I simply do not believe that it can be kept quiescent. Can Israel come to terms with the Palestinian street? We shall soon find out.