Can Israel Live With a Nuclear Iran?

New York debate between American and Israeli analysts leads to a resounding no.

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
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Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

NEW YORK - Politicians running for office may have succeeded in avoiding substantive discussion of some of the most pivotal issues facing Israel – such as whether it can tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran – but New Yorkers were jostling for space at a debate that allowed some of America's and Israel's prominent observers on the matter to air their views.

One could feel the energy at the Merkin Concert Hall in the Lincoln Center neighborhood of New York City. The event was sold out, and even if the hall could admit more than 500 people, one senses that it would still be sold out. The event was broadcast by some 220 radio stations, websites and podcasts. For the first time, it was also scheduled to be screened by public TV stations throughout the U.S.

No rock, opera or rap performers were on stage. It was no more than a debate, entitled "Israel can live with a nuclear Iran," which was organized by Intelligence Squared Debate. John Donvan of ABC hosted the event. On one side of the stage was those who believe Israel can live with a nuclear Iran. These figures included James Dobbins, Director at RAND International Security and Defense Policy Center, and Reuven Pedatzur, military affairs analyst for Haaretz, lecturer at Tel Aviv University and academic director of the Daniel Abram Center for Strategic Dialogue at the Netanya Academic College. On the other side were Jeffrey Goldberg, the well-known national correspondent of The Atlantic and specialist on Islamist terror and the Middle East, and Shmuel Bar, director of studies at Israel’s Institute of Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center of Herzliya and formerly an intelligence officer and official at the Prime Minister's Office.

IQ2 U.S., which imported Oxford University-style debates from Intelligence Squared in London, is an organization dedicated to dealing thoroughly with weighty issues. "Nowadays many arguments on radio and TV are oriented towards 'sound bites,'" says Dana Wolfe, IQ2 U.S.'s executive producer. "We wish to hold comprehensive debates, and we believe there is an audience for serious discussions. I believe we proved today that people are interested in such debates. The hall is usually full, and according to our data, millions of people are watching or listening to the debate."

Each debate lasts two hours, including an opening a closing speech by each participant, with time left for the audience to participate. The main question is if the debate changes opinions. Before it began, the audience was asked if Israel can live with a nuclear Iran. 25 percent said it could, 35 percent said it couldn't and 40 percent had no opinion.

The audience was asked the same question again after the debate, and the results pointed to an unequivocal victory for those who believed Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear Iran: 37 percent said after the debate that Israel could tolerate the threat, but 55 percent said it couldn't. Only 8 percent remained undecided.

Of course, one must examine the audience. The organizers have no data that would indicate the audience's political leanings, but the Upper West Side is considered Jewish and liberal. One could find religious Jews in the audience as well as Arabs, Pakistanis and Indians. It felt like a mixed crowd.

For those familiar with the argument, there was nothing really new in the debate, but a two-hour debate on such issues are few and far between. Goldberg, for example, said that for the first time in history there was a U.N. member who threatened to liquidate another member. The Iranians, he said, are very clear that they do want to wipe Israel off the map. He noted that when he visited Afghanistan in 1998, and heard Osama Bin Laden's declarations concerning his intention to fight the U.S., he did not take him seriously. Three years later, after 9/11, he learned to take such threats seriously. "I believe the Iranian regime wants to annihilate Israel," he said.

Dobbins, on the other hand, said that no one thinks that a nuclear Iran is a positive development. The only question is if one should go to war, when according to all estimates, the best that can be achieved is to postpone the moment of truth by several years. Pedatzur seconded that opinion, saying that it is indeed frightening to live under a nuclear threat, but the ayatollahs, despite not being Zionist, are nonetheless rationalist people who hope to survive, and therefore they will not make use of nuclear weapons, being aware of the Israeli response. I live in Tel Aviv, he added, and I didn't tell my family to leave. A nuclear Iran is by no means the end of Zionism. Bar said that Iranian nuclear capabilities would make the Middle East a very dangerous place.

Intelligence Squared was established in Britain, and is licensed as a non-profit organization in the U.S. and several other countries. John Donvan, who is married to Ranit Mishori, an Israeli physician, has hosted the debates from day one. The 70 debates include such topics as "Science contradicts god," "Legalize drugs," College football should be banned," "Organic Food Is Marketing Hype," "Too many kids go to college" and "Men are finished." Every so often there are debates dealing with the Middle East, such as "Better elected Islamists than dictators."

The lecturers are usually well-known in their fields. "Their pay is modest," says Wolfe, "but we do cover their expenses. We're a non-profit organization. People usually enjoy this platform, which allows them to present their positions in a comprehensive manner." Asked whether there could be an effort to manipulate results, Wolf answers: "that is possible, but I doubt it. Maybe every so often some individual might make such an attempt, but in general I believe that the audience is basically fair."

Shmuel Bar, left, and Jeffrey Goldberg at the debate in New York.Credit: Samuel Lahoz

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