Israel's Rabbi Ovadia Is Helping Stay Netanyahu's Hand on Iran

For now, those who fear a fundamentalist future for Israel can at least take comfort that the only rabbi with a say on affairs of state is trying to avert war.

August 2012 will be one of those periods that will be dissected by historians in generations to come, each day analyzed. Piecing together events in Jerusalem and Washington, Tel Aviv and Tehran, they will try to understand how Benjamin Netanyahu took his country to the brink of war, looked down into the abyss, took a deep breath and was yanked back. By then all the main players will have been judged by the outcome. If Iran persists and succeeds in building nuclear weapons, plunging the region into a chaotic arms race, Barack Obama and all those in America who insisted that Iran could be stopped by a combination of diplomacy, sanctions and clandestine operations will have been branded with Neville Chamberlain's black umbrella as the 21st century's arch appeasers. Netanyahu will be our Churchill, his insistent warning vindicated and cantankerous warmongering image transformed for posterity.

Or the forces of logic and rationality may prevail for once, the Iranian regime forced to abandon its atomic ambitions by pressure short of war. Netanyahu will go down as the figure most of the world, including many Israelis, see today - a Holocaust-obsessed hardliner - and Obama will have finally earned his so-premature Nobel Peace Prize. (By the way, if you haven't read Ron Rosenbaum's essay on Slate where he eviscerates the notion of Holocaust obsessing, I urge you to do so. )

Anyone who played a part in events - generals and spy chiefs, politicians and pundits - will be graded on a scale of appeasement to farsightedness, or of pragmatism to alarmism. The intervention by our 89-year-old president, who is already being credited with having turned the tide, will be seen as either the great man's crowning achievement or the final betrayal of an incessant underminer.

How, I, wonder will history see the role of another elderly gentleman?

Even when the secret protocols are opened decades from now, we will never know for certain what effect Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's unwillingness to lend his support to an attack on Iran had on Netanyahu. Was it just a technical matter of Netanyahu needing Eli Yishai's vote in the cabinet to authorize the strike? Since the two men have not met for nearly a year and the rabbi, who will turn 92 in a couple of weeks, doesn't do long phone calls, it probably wasn't anything Yosef said to him. Rabbi Ovadia's opposition may not have been a major factor when added to the concerted campaign being waged against war from within and without, but Netanyahu has been there before - as deputy foreign minister in 1991, he saw a harder man than him, Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, hold back and delay the attack order after Iraq launched Scud missiles against Israel's cities. Shamir faced a similar array of opponents: an American administration using every blandishment at its disposal, skeptical generals and ministers and Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, represented by the persuasive Aryeh Deri, who had been sent on Shabbat to argue against the attack.

Two months ago, Netanyahu tried to reframe history, saying that Shamir would have launched a strike if the ceasefire in Iraq had not preempted him. But he was there and he knows the truth: Shamir backed down in the opening stages of the Gulf War and the rabbi had a crucial part in staying his hand.

Rabbi Ovadia, the man who famously called Arabs "snakes," wishing missiles down on their heads, may seem an unlikely peacemonger. As it is, Haredi rabbis have usually sat out decisions on war and peace, since their children and followers don't serve in the army. The spiritual leader of Shas, though, has a more nuanced attitude towards military affairs.

Not having served a day of his life in uniform, he is a firm supporter of the exemption of yeshiva students from enlistment and the edict against women serving in the army. He has not spoken to his younger sister Margalit for over 60 years since he slapped her for disobeying him and enlisting. But he allowed some of his sons to serve as military chaplains and a handful of grandsons have seen combat service, which sets him apart from the great majority of Haredi rabbis.

His introduction, though, to warfare was much more traumatic. As the new chief rabbi of Israel in late 1973, he was called upon to release 970 widows of the Yom Kippur War from their aguna status (of being unable to remarry under Jewish religious law ), ruling that their husbands were indeed dead and they could mourn and get on with their lives.

In terms of Jewish religious law, this was an unprecedented endeavor - in the space of a few months reviewing 970 personnel files, examining forensic reports and battle accounts, until in each case he found sufficient proof of death to rule that each woman was indeed a widow. Yosef was never the same man again; the intimate details of death on the banks of the Suez Canal and along the Golan Heights filled him with a deep horror of war that often contradicts his suspicious instincts towards the Arabs who killed his paternal grandfather in a Baghdad pogrom over a century ago.

He is no pacifist, he just doesn't want to see Jews die. In recent months he has been besieged by experts from either side trying to make a case for and against war on Iran. Netanyahu sent his National Security Adviser Yaakov Amidror, perhaps hoping that the bearded, religious ex-general would find the way to convince the rabbi that more Jews would be in danger if Israel did not act sooner rather than later. Yosef, though, was much more predisposed to the arguments of his old friend Peres: that Israel would do better to allow the Americans to lead on this.

There was some derision in the political arena at the way Netanyahu has courted Rabbi Ovadia, but it has generally been muted. After all, those opposing war, including American diplomats, have also sought to influence him. If Ovadia had adopted a belligerent tone, egging Bibi to launch the bombers, the media outcry would have been much more vocal.

Fifty years from now, Israel may have been transformed into a theocracy as some Malthusian demographers predict, and the idea of a nonagenarian rabbi deciding whether the country should go to war will not seem so outlandish. For now, those who fear such a fundamentalist future can at least take comfort that the only rabbi with a say on affairs of state is trying to avert war.