ahmadinejad - AP - December 6 2011
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Photo by AP
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Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad are gifts to each other but curses on their nations. Rather than attack Iran, Israel should commit to a nuclear-free Middle East.

One may be the heir apparent of Israeli right-wing royalty and the other the son of a poor, provincial Iranian jack-of-all-trades, but Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad behave like mutant clones when it comes to their international brinkmanship and their uncanny knack of furthering their peoples' international isolation.

Both ultra-conservatives to the bone, Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad are aligned with the most conservative and reactionary forces at home. Their desperate desire to play to the choir and preach to the converted was on "eloquent" display at the UN General Assembly in September.

Ahmadinejad insultingly suggested that the West threatened "anyone who questions the Holocaust and the September 11 event with sanctions and military actions," eliciting angry reactions not only from the United States and Israel but also, apparently, from Al-Qaida. Not to be outdone, Netanyahu succeeded in offending the entire international community when he described the UN as "the theater of the absurd" and that "automatic majorities ... can decide that the sun sets in the west or rises in the west [sic]."

Mad and bad as they both may be, there is some rationality and method to their madness. Both leaders are incredibly unpopular at home, especially among moderates, liberals and leftists. Against this backdrop, both Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad have, ironically, found common cause in mutual confrontation to manufacture domestic consent.

That is not to say that the concerns and worries of the Iranian and Israeli peoples are entirely unjustified, but their two governments are going about resolving the issues in the wrong way.

When it comes to Iran's civilian nuclear program, Iranians are understandably incensed by the West's double standards, especially when one considers that Iran was developing a nuclear program with Washington's blessing during the reign of the Shah.

If the latest IAEA report proves to be true and Iran is, despite its insistence to the contrary, developing a covert nuclear weapons program, then though misguided, there is a logical strategic rationale behind its quest. Iran is, after all, surrounded by nuclear-armed foes and potential foes: Israel, India and Pakistan, not to mention the United States in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the notion of mutually assured destruction is not only as MAD as its acronym suggests, Iran is never likely to tip the "balance of terror" enough in its favor to reach that level of supposed deterrence.

Given the bombast emanating from Tehran since the Islamic Revolution and Ahmadinejad's confrontational rhetoric, the fear among the Israeli public of a nuclear-armed Iran is understandable, if hugely exaggerated, considering Iran's status as a "paper tiger," as one former senior Mossad official put it.

This makes recent reports that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are in favor of military action against Iran seem all the more foolhardy and reckless, risking not only a war between the two countries but potentially a wider regional conflict.

But there is a far more sensible military option that Israel's leadership and the Israeli public should seriously consider: nuclear disarmament. Israel has a nuclear weapons program, according to foreign media. Not only was that alleged program developed without the public's knowledge or consent, it was done so against the will of the international community - rather like what Iran is possibly doing today. In addition, Israel's estimated arsenal of up to 200 nuclear warheads - as estimated by foreign media outlets - has been a liability rather than an asset, as foreseen from the start. A declassified 1963 CIA report predicted that a nuclear Israel would destabilize the region and lead to proliferation.

For at least three decades, efforts to avoid a nuclear arms race in the Middle East have crashed against the rocks of Israeli intransigence. If Iran does succeed in developing its own bomb, Arab powers are also likely to scramble to gain their own capability. The best way to avoid this is for Israel to come out of the closet about its "bomb in the basement," as Moshe Dayan called it, and commit to a nuclear weapons-free Middle East.

The writer is a Egyptian journalist living in Jerusalem.