There are obvious points of consensus in the Free World: the Iranian regime is not nice; in fact it’s pretty horrid, both to its own people and in its support of violent actors in the Middle East. A nuclear Iran is bad, very bad; not just for Israel, but for the Middle East, and the world as a whole.
I don’t envy Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak: they need to make fateful decisions under a high degree of uncertainty: the problem, as the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once said, is that life can only be understood backward, but needs to be lived forward.
It has been argued that Netanyahu's and Barak’s real goal in threatening that Israel will strike Iran on its own is to push U.S. President Barack Obama to either initiate such a strike when it is under U.S. control, or to force the U.S. in joining Israel when Iran retaliates by attacking Israeli cities with rockets. If this will indeed be the case, and if this will topple the regime in Iran, Netanyahu will, as he dreams, go into history as Israel’s Winston Churchill who saved the world from a nuclear Iran.
If, instead, the attack will set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions for a short time only, if the Israel Air Force will incur heavy losses, and if Israel will suffer severe damages from Iranian rocket attacks, Israel's deterrence will actually be lowered. In addition, the Middle East might be set the Middle East ablaze and the world economy sent into a tailspin.
Given the high level of uncertainty, it may well be wise to keep room for maneuvering. But, as Aluf Benn has pointed out, Netanyahu’s Auschwitz analogy at AIPAC narrowed his own options. Because if indeed Iran is Nazi Germany, if a nuclear Iran is a repeat of Auschwitz, and not bombing Iran is like not bombing the railways to Auschwitz, there is indeed no way to justify any course of action other than attacking Iran.
Does Netanyahu actually believe that a nuclear Iran may be the end of Israel and endanger the Jewish people’s existence? Peter Beinart has pointed out in a thoughtful essay, that there is almost complete consensus between those who, beyond doubt are experts on the matter (including current Mossad Chief Tamir Pardo, former chiefs Meir Dagan and Efraim Halevy; former commander of the IAF and IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz) that while a nuclear Iran is bad and dangerous, it is not an existential threat either for Israel, and certainly not to the Jewish people. This is also what I hear, off the record, from central members of Israel’s security establishment. Given that, like Beinart, I am not a military expert, I need to base whatever I say on their assessment.
This raises the question why Netanyahu keeps returning to the Holocaust analogy; why, for years, he keeps telling the world that the next Holocaust is around the corner; that the Chamberlains of 2012 are about to close their eyes, whereas he, the Churchill of our era, fearlessly looks at the facts as they are. Because, if the consensus of Israel’s security establishment that a nuclear Iran – bad as it may be - is not an existential threat to Israel is correct, then Netanyahu (who, presumably, has access to all the information these experts have) is saying something that isn’t true.
It cannot be denied that the Holocaust theme has served Netanyahu well politically. As many commentators have pointed out, Netanyahu has succeeded in reframing political discourse on the Middle East: this visit to the U.S. was the first in a long time in which the Palestinian issue was completely off the table. Nobody even raised the question of settlement construction or the old question how to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiation table.
Instead of being on the defensive on the Palestinian issue, Netanyahu is now on the offensive on Iran. By invoking the allied power’s failure to disrupt the Nazis sending millions to concentration camps in 1944, he is reminding the Free World of a horrible mistake, and demanding that this mistake not be repeated.
But Netanyahu’s short-term political advantage may well turn into a pyrrhic victory highly detrimental to Israel’s long-term interests: a few years ago Netanyahu’s current security advisor Yaakov Amidror argued in a conference at Tel Aviv University that he was against attacking Iran, because such an attack would not prevent Iran from going nuclear in the long run. In fact, he claimed, it would pretty much force Iran’s future leadership to build the bomb, and, at some point, to redress the humiliation of having been attacked by Israel.
If Amidror’s argument is correct, Netanyahu may go into history not as another Churchill, but as another George W. Bush. Like Bush before the invasion of Iraq, Netanyahu is twisting the facts to make his case; and like Bush he may drag Israel into a war that may take an exorbitant toll on Israel and the world economy, without preventing Iran from going nuclear in the long run.
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