Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, middle, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Photo by Ariel Harmoni / Defense Ministry
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If Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky is to be believed, the Iranian nuclear program can already claim to have reduced the number of Jews in Israel. In a radio interview Sunday, Sharansky said that all the talk of an imminent war had led to a situation of “would-be immigrants cancelling their plans after all the details had been finalized. One of them told me: 'We will come after the Middle East has had its nuclear war.'”

But Sharansky isn't only blaming the Iranians; he criticized the Israeli media and the Israeli politicians for their “constant chatter” about a possible war with Iran which he says “is making Jews everywhere panic. It is also weakening the government's deterrence.”

Let’s put aside the sad fact that Sharansky, a man who bravely fought Soviet oppression and was imprisoned when defending his right to freedom of speech, now feels that a democratic society should not be exercising its right to engage in an open discussion over the wisdom of going to war. Instead I would like to focus on Sharansky’s other role as Chairman of the World Zionist Movement, and ask whether attacking Iran is also a Zionist issue. One fervent Zionist, albeit of a very different ideological shade than Sharansky, who thinks that it certainly is one, is former Meretz leader, Yossi Beilin.

In an interview with Haaretz’s Ari Shavit, published over the weekend, Beilin laid out the Zionist case against an Israeli unilateral strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities, which Beilin says is “not an existential danger. It must be prevented − just as Palestinian terrorism must be prevented − but it mustn’t be seen as spelling the end of the Zionist project.”

Beilin is basing his opposition to such a strike on a Zionist argument, asking:

“For what is someone who says we’re in Berlin in 1938 really saying? He’s saying − Take your suitcases and go. If we’re in Berlin in 1938, there’s no point in staying here. I have no reason to raise my grandchildren here. This is something I cannot accept. This kind of statement gives me chills."

“Netanyahu apparently doesn’t understand this, but his position is the most un-Zionist position that could possibly be. If Netanyahu is right, Herzl was wrong. Because we massed Jews together here to give them a safe refuge. But if this Jewish mass will be in mortal danger because a few of its neighbours have the ultimate destructive weapon, there is only one conclusion: Disperse. Disperse immediately."

“Because I was born here and because my parents made me a Zionist, I cannot accept this argument. I find it inconceivable that the whole thing was a mistake. I believe in this country and I don’t think we need to live here like a rapid response unit that’s dispatched all over the place at the drop of a hat in order to prevent some far-off danger. Yes, there are dangers and there are threats. But we have to contend with them intelligently and with moderation and with self-confidence. To me, that’s Zionism. It’s the total antithesis of what Netanyahu is proposing."

Based on this analysis, you might expect that Beilin and Sharansky would agree with each other, after all the Jewish Agency head is bewailing the reluctance of potential immigrants to relocate to Israel due to the Iranian threat and Beilin seeks to reassure them that they have nothing to worry about. But Sharansky is of the opposite opinion; he is extremely supportive of Netanyahu who made it clear that Israel would attack Iran if no-one else would. Sharansky also last week criticized President Shimon Peres for publicly opposing Netanyahu’s plans for a unilateral attack. He thinks that Israelis and prospective Israelis are right in fearing Iran; he just doesn’t want them to hear the debate over whether an Israeli attack is the right course of action. Sharansky would prefer we simply trust Netanyahu on this.

Two arguments underlie here. One has nothing to do with Iran - it is about what sort of democracy the Jewish-Zionist state should be. As the Iran debate has proven over the last few months, Sharansky’s vision is losing. Israelis are capable of sustaining a robust discussion on their national security issues, and all sides, that of Netanyahu and Barak, and that of Beilin and his former boss Peres, are participating actively.

However, I think that Beilin is wrong in making the argument over a possible strike about Zionism, since he himself is no pacifist. He would not oppose a strike on Iran if he thought the Iranians were serious about using nuclear weapons against Israel. He just doesn’t believe it to be the case. And there is no need for him to couch his argument in Zionistic terms, since the majority the Israeli public, if opinion polls are anything to go by, agree with him.