The dramatic changes that have occurred in the Middle East during the past decade have called into question many seemingly self-evident assumptions. Some regional powers have declined, others have risen, and alliances have been forged between those who just yesterday were adversaries. The right wing under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu habitually accuses the left of being stuck in a 1990s mindset and of seeing present-day reality through the long-irrelevant prism of the Oslo period. In some cases those accusations have a modicum of truth. But there’s one common assumption held by almost the entire Zionist political spectrum in Israel, a notion no one doubts: the necessity of rivalry between Israel and Iran.
The recent assassinations of senior Iranian figures have once more brought relations between the two countries to the verge of a flare-up. But why not strive for peace with Iran? The question sounds naïve, even chimerical. It will be rebuffed instantly by the argument that Iran seeks to destroy Israel and is engaged in an ongoing effort to become a nuclear power. But, as we have seen, yesterday’s chimera can become today’s reality.
Until lately, Israel’s emerging relations with Saudi Arabia also seemed inconceivable. And yet, in the wake of a series of agreements with other countries in the region, and after some years of unofficial cooperation, the possibility of an accord with the Saudis now seems to be on the agenda. Not very long ago, however, things were very different.
Let’s recall that for years Saudi Arabia called for Israel to be wiped off the face of the earth. Riyadh was in the forefront of the Arab boycott of Israel and of the campaign against normalization of relations with it. In the 1970s, the Saudis threatened to boycott the United States as well over its support for Israel. They also spearheaded the effort to isolate Egypt following the Camp David agreements in 1978, and asserted that its own growing military might was intended to serve all the Arabs, with a clear allusion to Israel.
But there’s no need to go back to the last century. After September 11, 2001, tension between Israel and Saudi Arabia began to rise again. In 2006, the late King Fahd threatened that without progress in the diplomatic process between Israel and the Palestinians, “there will be no choice but to go to war against Israel.”
For his part, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon depicted the Saudis as the head of a snake that was behind the terrorism in the region, including as the bankroller of the terrorism of both the Palestinians and Al-Qaida. Senior Israeli figures noted that many of the hijackers of the 9/11 planes were Saudis, and that Al-Qaida’s ideology had sprung from Saudi Wahhabism. Indeed, generally speaking, the Saudi regime is no more enlightened and certainly no more democratic than the regime in Iran. As recently as a few years ago, Riyadh was still executing people on charges of witchcraft.
With all this baggage, how are we to account for the fact that diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia sounds reasonable today, whereas an agreement with Iran is perceived as defying the laws of nature? The slogan “Death to Israel” is still ostensibly considered a basic principle of the Iranian Revolution. However, the Saudi monarchs have also viewed themselves as the standard-bearers of the struggle against Israel. Citing religious grounds, they have described Palestine as Islamic soil and declared at points that they would not sign for peace with Israel even if all the other Arab states were to do so.
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In contrast, commercial ties between Israel and Iran continued even after the Islamic Revolution; Israel even sent weapons to the ayatollahs’ regime well into the 1980s. Trade relations in the 1990s, too, were not public knowledge because they were kept classified. It turns out that under certain conditions, deals with the Iranian regime are very possible indeed.
Two principal explanations for the ongoing enmity remain. One is that Israel and Saudi Arabia are part of the pro-American axis in the region, while Iran is at the head of the anti-American alignment. So, in this case as in others, Israel’s squabbling with Iran ultimately serves American interests. That is a reasonable explanation, but interests, it should be remarked, can change. The United States and Iran alternately fall out and draw closer. Even pro-Israel Donald Trump offered to hold negotiations with Iran, and in the appropriate circumstances might even have arrived at an agreement with the Iranians (he also strove for an agreement with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, whom the president had previously called insane). A turnabout in relations with Iran is possible under the Biden administration.
The other explanation is that the hostility toward Iran is a deep obsession of Netanyahu’s. Like Captain Ahab, who was a slave to his need to harpoon his white-whale nemesis, Netanyahu has spearheaded the battle against the Iranian regime since the onset of his political career. He has made the war against Iran, a country he portrays as the new Nazi Germany, a global mission of Israel and Zionism.
Netanyahu’s obsession with Iran certainly has personal dimensions, but it also rests on Israeli collective psychology. Historian Haggai Ram argued in his 2006 book “Reading Iran in Israel” (English version, “Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession”) that Israel has a need to view Iran as its polar opposite, the negative to Zionism’s positive in the Middle East.
According to Ram, the rivalry between the two countries, both of which are anomalies in the Arab region, contains an element of intimacy: “Iran was also imagined as a kind of substitute for Israeliness,” even as an “underground self” of we Israelis. It’s not by chance that leaders of the secular camp in Israel often accuse the ultra-Orthodox, as well as other Netanyahu supporters, of being “like Iran.” Beneath the hatred, then, lurks a bizarre form of attraction.
As such, the rivalry seems to be foreordained. But Netanyahu, like other politicians, might well be capable of burying his anti-Iran life project with record speed. Only recently, after all, he was involved in negotiations with a senior figure in Israel’s Islamic Movement, MK Mansour Abbas. Under the right circumstances, he could also see Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, as an ally in the struggle against Yamina leader Naftali Bennett.
Any political arrangement with Iran also depends, of course, on the will of the Iranians. Still, as noted by Ori Goldberg, a researcher at the Forum for Regional Thinking who specializes in Iran, the Islamic Republic already recognizes Israel de facto. Israel, however, has locked itself into an aggressive loop of its own making vis-a-vis Tehran.
Iran is in a vulnerable situation at present. The coronavirus has battered it more severely than most other countries. Israel is exploiting that weakness to strike at the Islamic Republic repeatedly, with the goal of pushing its back against the wall. Yet instead of this approach, Israel could join with other forces globally and take advantage of that weakness to arrive at accords with Iran, perhaps even a bona fide agreement.
Peace with Iran need not be science fiction. It’s time to establish a peace camp with Iran.