Israel’s Third Option for Dealing With Iran

War, living in the shadow of a nuclear Iran - or peace

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Iranian soldiers during a military parade in Tehran in 2019.
Iranian soldiers during a military parade in Tehran in 2019.Credit: AFP
Dmitry Shumsky

Benny Morris asserted in a recent article that Israel has two options – both of which he admitted are awful – for dealing with Iran’s nuclear threat. Either it destroys Iran’s nuclear facilities, which might well result in war with both Iran and its satellites, or it reconciles itself to a nuclear Iran, to living in its shadow and the risk of nuclear attack.

But there’s also a third option that he ignored – seeking a peace agreement between Israel and Iran, regardless of whether or not the latter becomes a nuclear power.

The options Morris listed and analyzed are both realistic ones that are clearly apparent in the existing political reality. The third option, peace with Iran, is an imaginary, unrealistic and utopian one. Nevertheless, Israel doesn’t have the privilege of ignoring this option.

First, any nation that wants to live – including nations fully or partially surrounded by enemies – ought to bear in mind not only conflict scenarios, but also a diplomatic horizon for forging peace with its enemies at some point in the future. Second, ever since the beginning of modern Zionism, Zionist policy has been characterized not just by a keen sense for the current reality, but also by elements of utopian thought, to strive tirelessly to change the existing reality.

This unique Zionist combination of a realistic approach and a utopian one, which Prof. Yosef Gorny, an expert on Zionism, termed “utopian realism,” is completely absent from both Prof. Morris’ analysis and Israel’s policies on the Iranian threat.

One of the unique characteristics of historical Zionism was its ability to turn what seemed like a utopian vision at any given historical moment into a reality. Indeed, what seems on the surface to be a utopia detached from current reality often reflects a deep, hidden undercurrent in that reality that will someday surface and become relevant once circumstances change. The ongoing conflict between Iran and Israel may prove to be a salient example of this.

On the surface, the mutual hostility between Israel and Iran is a yawning chasm impossible to bridge. But when you look deeper, it’s clear that this hostility stems more from the rational world of interests and geopolitical power struggles than it does from religious zealotry or ideology.

Even though Shi’ite rulers frequently embittered the lives of their Jewish minorities over the course of history, the direct and primary cause of Iran’s hatred of Israel nowadays isn’t Shi’ite theology, but the fact that Israel is America’s most loyal ally in the region. The United States is Iran’s sworn enemy, and it earned that title honestly through its incessant meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs during the second half of the previous century. Consequently, if relations between America and Iran someday take a positive turn, this might also favorably affect Iran’s relations with Israel.

Obviously, any scenario involving reconciliation between Iran and the “great Satan,” as America is deemed by the ayatollahs’ regime, is a utopian vision. Therefore, the option of a peace agreement between Iran and the “little Satan,” as the ayatollahs term Israel, lies strictly in the realm of imagination.

Nevertheless, the mere realization that the relationship between Iran and Israel depends on a factor that is fundamentally rational and might change – Iran’s geopolitical interests regarding America, which, like any set of interests, has a tendency to change over time – could contribute in the long run to promoting a future language of reconciliation between Israel and Iran.

This is so because the insight that our enemy, just like us, is driven by rational cost-benefit calculations could challenge demonization of this enemy. And challenging the demonization of the enemy is a basic condition for someday making it possible to reach a peace agreement with it.

In contrast, Israel’s current way of talking about Iran, which was clearly reflected in Morris’ article, is rife with sweeping demonization and ultimatums, to the point of absurdly depicting Iran – a very cautious country that tends to work against its enemies indirectly, through its proxies – as a country that would be willing to commit suicide in order to attack Israel with nuclear weapons.

This demonization is unnecessary for two reasons. First, it ignores the concrete factors driving Iran’s hostility toward Israel, and could therefore impair Israel’s judgment and its ability to assess the nature and dimensions of the Iranian threat matter-of-factly and judiciously. Second, this demonization – which is an almost perfect reflection of Iran’s language of “big Satan” and “little Satan” with regard to America and Israel – contributes to the region’s continued slide toward an all-out war, without even attempting to open a dialogue of reconciliation.

Clearly, Israel must weigh both of the gloomy options Morris proposed in his article with all due seriousness and continue preparing for a possible military conflict with Iran. But at the same time, Israel should stop its demonizing babble about Iran and, in the spirit of historical Zionism’s utopian realism, challenge its primary enemy with the language of peace.

Surprisingly enough, it’s not inconceivable that there are actually members of the Iranian establishment who, in their heart of hearts, are waiting to extend a hand to Israel in peace and longing for reconciliation between these two ancient peoples of Mideastern civilization.

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