Israel's Leadership: Messianic and Then Some

Could it be that Netanyahu is the person in charge who has gone crazy and is gambling on a minor apocalypse to prevent a major apocalypse, whereas Barak is the bluffer who will flinch at the moment of truth?

Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen
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Avner Cohen
Avner Cohen

When Gunter Grass said a frightened Israel is dangerous not only to itself but to the entire world, Israelis refused to address this harsh statement. The Israeli tribal defense in the face of Grass' remarks focused on the speaker's insolence, past and character. As for what he said - nothing.

It's easier to criticize the "messianic" Israeli leadership, which thrives on "falsehoods and deceptions," when the criticism comes from the heart of the security establishment - the former head of the Shin Bet security service. Yet even here, Israeli tribalism's response has been mainly denial. Few people have addressed the content of Yuval Diskin's remarks. The debate has dealt mainly with the speaker and his political motives.

Benjamin Netanyahu at last week’s cabinet meeting For a bluff to look believable, one has to be convinced that the person in charge has gone crazy.Credit: Reuters

In contrast to Israel, where every controversial public statement is perceived as political, in the United States there is respect for truth backed by fact, especially in political statements. As part of this ethos, The Washington Post has created the Pinocchio test, which checks the facts in political statements. Diskin's remarks are more of an assessment than pure fact, but still, they should be put to the Pinocchio test: Are they based on the facts?

Let's start with form. Is it fair to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "messianic" on the Iran issue? To answer this question, we should consider the ways prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert handled the problem. Sharon believed that Israel must not be depicted as the international spearhead on the Iran issue; it's a global problem that must not be perceived as an Israeli problem.

Sharon never spoke publicly about a military option. When anyone talked about an attack on the nuclear installations at Natanz, back when this site was being start up, Sharon rejected this option outright. He believed it was a mistake to use the military option as a card to pressure Iran. He apparently feared that a bluff like that would require action and create a booby trap for Israel.

Even Olmert, during whose term the issue began escalating, made sure to maintain a low profile; he certainly didn't allow the rhetoric to reach apocalyptic proportions. His Herzliya speech on Iran was a model of determination and caution. No less importantly, both Sharon and Olmert understood that things had to be kept in perspective: The Palestinian issue is more pivotal to Israel's existence.

Netanyahu changed the rules of the game to the opposite extreme. Not only has he made the Iranian issue the be-all and end-all, he's the one who created the warped connection between Iran and the Holocaust, between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Adolf Hitler. See the Amalek speech he delivered at David Ben-Gurion's grave, his remarks at the AIPAC conference on the link between Auschwitz and Natanz, or his comments at Yad Vashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day. All these are clear manifestations of the messianic way the prime minister sees the problem, from both the Iranian and Israeli sides.

As for the content, is it fair to say Bibi and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are creating "falsehoods and deceptions" on the Iranian issue? Here too the answer is definitely yes. Diskin is right when he says there's a consensus among the experts: The Iranian nuclear project is being conducted methodically, and apparently its heads have not yet decided on the ultimate aim - a bomb or a capability, and if a capability, then to what extent and what kind?

Many people, among them Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and this author, believe that it's not very likely Iran will produce a bomb under the current conditions. This is why many experts say an Israeli strike now not only wouldn't stop an Iranian bomb, it would accelerate the program. An attack would give the Iranians a golden opportunity to walk out of the nonproliferation treaty, to be free of restrictions and inspection, and to declare that since they have been attacked by a nuclear power, they have the right to have a bomb of their own.

Some also believe that an Israeli strike now would be an irrational move; that all the talk about an attack is one big falsehood and deception, a bluff aimed at increasing the pressure on Iran. But for the bluff to look believable, one has to be convinced that the person in charge has gone crazy and will act out of messianism, even irrationally.

Could it be that Netanyahu is the person in charge who has gone crazy and is gambling on a minor apocalypse to prevent a major apocalypse, whereas Barak is the bluffer who will flinch at the moment of truth?

The writer is a professor at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at California's Monterey Institute of International Studies, and author of "The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel's Bargain with the Bomb."



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