Ari Shavit's Countdown: Former Minister Ephraim Sneh Fears Another Hiroshima

Might the leadership in Tehran decide to sacrifice 10 million Iranian lives in order to destroy Israel? Sneh fears it’s entirely possible.

Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit
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Ari Shavit
Ari Shavit

Ephraim Sneh does not get the best PR, apparently. Although he is a definite dove on the Palestinian issue, the left has never been very enthusiastic about him. Although he has demonstrated tremendous responsibility on national security matters, the right has never embraced him. The former officer, former doctor and former minister is perceived by most of the public as a stern, rigid character. He is not cool and his popularity rating is nothing to write home about.

But on the Iranian front, Sneh was ahead of all the Israeli leaders. Sneh understood the Iranian threat when all the so-called best and brightest didn’t yet know what it was all about. 20 years ago, he warned in the Knesset that nuclear weapons in Iran’s possession would constitute an existential threat to Israel. And he has not relented in this view ever since. At every forum and from every socialist-security platform he shouted: Iran, Iran, Iran. And yet, since he is not cool or popular, few listened to him. The decision makers and the general public turned their backs on him. Now that everyone understands what he understood two decades ago, the words of the man sitting across from me have a special weight. Unlike many others, this son of the legendary of Moshe Sneh has a proven track record. He glimpsed the iceberg far ahead of time and warned about it ahead of time and has done his utmost to ensure that we do not sail right into it.

Five minutes after I enter his office in Herzliya, Ephraim Sneh asks me if I’ve seen the photograph that hangs opposite his desk. “This is an Israeli F-15 flying above the green lawns and the long wooden barracks of Auschwitz. It’s being flown by the current air force commander, Amir Eshel. To me, this is it in a nutshell: If there’s an F-15, there’s no Auschwitz. If there’s no F-15, there could be an Auschwitz. You want to call that a Holocaust syndrome? Then call it a Holocaust syndrome. I wouldn’t call it a syndrome, I’d call it a historic lesson. My grandfather and grandmother were murdered by the Polish peasant with whom they were hiding. That taught me that we have no one to rely upon but ourselves. And when I again see a connection between an extreme ideology and absolute military power, I say wait a minute, this reminds me of something. This is something that already wiped out a third of the Jewish people. And when I see a combination of zealous hatred of Israel with unlimited destructive capability, I say: Friends, this is another thing I’m familiar with. This is something that once killed six million Jews. If we allow this combination to be repeated in the 21st century, what have we learned from our history? We haven’t learned a thing. For what happened there could happen here, in one form or another. And I am not willing to accept this. This is a risk I am not willing to take. Not a second time.

“Four years ago I visited Japan. They took me to see the Hiroshima museum. At that point I’d already been dealing with the Iran issue for 16 years. I thought I knew all there was to know. But the Japanese know how to make a museum. There was chilling documentation of the horror the people melted by the atomic fire, the children with the skin hanging off their arms, the total destruction of the city. So it suddenly hit me: I could see the same thing happening in Tel Aviv. If the Iranians get nuclear weapons, it could happen in Tel Aviv. I stood there and looked around and said to myself, they will not do this to us. They will not put us into this inferno. We will go to the ends of the earth and do all that has to be done and pay whatever price has to be paid so that there will be no Hiroshima in Tel Aviv.”

You’re exaggerating, I say to the thin-lipped man in the blue-and-white shirt. The Auschwitz argument is an emotional argument and the Hiroshima argument is not serious. The Iranians are extreme, but the Iranians are not crazy. They would never make direct use of nuclear weapons against Israel. Even if Iran does become a nuclear power, there would be deterrent relations in the Middle East that would ensure that no apocalyptic events occur.

Sneh regards me with the disdainful look of an adult listening to a child who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. “I’ve been in all the dialogues on the Iran issue,” he replies. “I’ve been at all the discussions and heard all the arguments: It will be like the Cold War, like the U.S.-U.S.S.R., like India-Pakistan. And I say: Nonsense. Total nonsense. Where there is no symmetry, there is no mutual deterrence. And between us and the Iranians there is no symmetry. In two dimensions at least, relations between us are completely asymmetrical.

The first is vulnerability. Iran’s territory is 70 times larger than Israel’s 70 times. So there’s no comparison when it comes to vulnerability. What do we have here, all in all? Three power stations, two seaports, one international airport. The Weizmann Institute, Tel Aviv University, the Technion, the high-tech cities. So the temptation to strike us is enormous. Even if a single atomic bomb cannot destroy the entire country, it can certainly wipe us out economically and intellectually.

“The second dimension is that of values. The mental chasm between us and the Iranians is much deeper than people are ready to grasp. We sanctify life, while Shiism sanctifies death. We have a democratic ethos, while they have an ethos of sacrifice. During their war with Iraq, the ayatollahs had no problem sending Iranian children off to use their bodies to clear minefields. In the Second Lebanon War, Hezbollah killed Muslim Arabs in the Galilee and just declared them to be shahids [martyrs]. So it is certainly possible that the supreme leadership in Tehran will decide one day that it’s fine to sacrifice the lives of five million or 10 million Iranians in order to destroy the Zionist entity. In their view of things, this could definitely be considered a reasonable equation.

“What saved the world at the time of the Cuba crisis was the fact that John Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev were of the same culture. They were bitter ideological enemies, but both acted responsibly because both sanctified human life. This is not the situation with Khamenei. No one can know what he envisions in the middle of the night. Pragmatism for his regime is pragmatism that serves crazy objectives. So there will be no symmetry between us and the Iranians and no mutual deterrence. Therefore, Iranian nuclear weaponry is not something that can be accepted. The possibility of living with an Iranian nuclear bomb just doesn’t exist.”

You’re a leftist, I say to Sneh, but you’re talking about Iran the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks about it. You consider it an absolute existential threat. But there was a time when people thought the same about Pakistan, and now we’re living with Pakistan. Experience teaches that life is stronger than all the dangers and all the warnings and all the fears. We’ll find a way, it will be okay.

“Let’s go with your logic,” says the former deputy defense minister. “Let’s assume for a moment that there is no real danger that Khamenei will fire a Shahab nuclear missile at the Kirya [defense headquarters in Tel Aviv]. I’m telling you that even in this scenario a nuclear Iran will cause Israel to wither. On the domestic side, an Iranian nuclear bomb will lead to three things: aliyah to Israel will stop, investment in Israel will plummet and the brain drain from Israel will accelerate. What is the country built on, after all? On initiative and excellence.

These are the two strengths that keep our heads above water. But if we have to live in the shadow of a Shi’ite nuclear bomb, investors won’t come here and Israeli graduates of Stanford won’t return here. The investor from California will be fearful of the risk involved here and the good mother from north Tel Aviv will tell her son that he doesn’t have to return to Israel from MIT, that she’ll come to visit the grandchildren in Boston. And so the Zionist dream will begin to fade. Even without causing a nuclear event, Khamenei will succeed in bringing about Israel’s decline.

“And externally, three other things will happen: First, there will be no peace. What Palestinian leader would make a concession to Jerusalem when he has a nuclear-armed ayatollah behind him? What Israeli leader could take risks when his nation is threatened by Iranian nuclear weapons? Second, all the scumbags in the Middle East will hold their heads high because they’ll have the backing of a nuclear superpower, while all the moderates will be cowed and live in constant dread. Third, we’ll find ourselves surrounded by little Pakistans. What is a Pakistan? An unstable nation with much radical Islamic influence and an arsenal of nuclear bombs. When Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey follow Iran’s example and go nuclear, that is just what they will be like. Now combine the three internal and the three external processes I just described to you and what do you get? A nightmare. Economic and psychological decline at home, and outside, a ring of Pakistans all around us and a situation of strategic inferiority. Do you know any Israeli who would want to bequeath such an inheritance to the next generation?”

Your recommendation is quite unequivocal, I tell him. Bomb Iran. At practically any cost. Forget what the world says or what the Americans say or what the president of the country says. According to you, it is our duty to send our F-15 to bomb the Auschwitz of the 21st century before it extinguishes us.

“We are very close to the moment of truth,” answers Ephraim Sneh. “But we still have a few months left. I would prefer to be with the Americans in the spring rather than against the Americans in the fall. If we’d had responsible leadership in the past few years, it would have reached an understanding with the United States that Israel will be flexible on the Palestinian issue and America will be tough on the Iranian issue. Together we would have built a strong regional front versus Tehran and stood strong against the steady Islamization process that is shaking up the region. But Netanyahu and [Defense Minister Ehud] Barak did the exact opposite. They brought U.S.-Israel relations to an all-time low. On the one hand, they built up the strategic asset called a military option, but on the other hand they lost the strategic asset called the United States. In the short time that is left, I would try to change this. I would absolutely not take action before the American election so as not to provoke Obama. I would try to put together a package of understandings with the United States that is based on the forcible prevention of a nuclear Iran and on ensuring the strategic monopoly ascribed to Israel and on the implementation of a two-state solution. My first preference would be to take action on Iran in cooperation with the Americans. My second preference is to take action on Iran with the Americans’ blessing. But if we have no choice, we will have to act alone. We have no moral right to delude ourselves again. When you really get down to it, we must rely only on ourselves.”

Ephraim Sneh.Credit: Ilya Melnikov
A scene in Hiroshima a month after the atomic bomb fell on August 6, 1945. Credit: AP



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