Will Iran acquire nuclear weapons and use them to wipe Israel off the map, as its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has threatened to do repeatedly?
Is Iran rational or irrational? Would it or would it not unleash nuclear weapons on Israel? Can Israel take the chance? Does Iran, a country of 77 million people with armed forces totalling some 545,000 people, represent an existential threat to Israel, or not?
Will Israel attack Iran? If it does, will this unleash a regional war? Is Israel bluffing? Is all the bravado just cover for covert operations to slow down Iran’s development of nuclear weapons or to encourage Iran’s liberal opposition – mowing the grass, as the Israelis call it?
Would an Iranian counter-attack cause hundreds of Israeli casualties or thousands? Does the first estimate represent Israeli bravado and the second a fear that runs deep in the Jewish psyche?
Is the United States hoping that Israel does the world’s dirty work for it? Is Israel hoping the same about America? Is U.S. President Barack Obama serious about not wanting a nuclear Iran, or is he prepared to live with the reality if necessary?
These are all important questions, particularly if you’re a supporter of Israel.
The pressure would be enough to make any country come apart at the seams, and it seems to be testing even Israel, which has a remarkable ability to hold itself together despite many internal, seemingly irresolvable tensions.
In the past few weeks, a number of current and former high-ranking Israeli security and military officials have issued strong criticisms of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s musings about an imminent unilateral strike, which they argue is necessary to stop Iran.
In March, former Mossad head Meir Dagan called a strike “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” He said success is unlikely, and that it would hasten Iranian efforts to obtain nuclear weapons. He feels undercover efforts to slow down Iran’s progress toward a bomb are a better way to go.
Last month, Yuval Diskin, former head of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, accused Netanyahu and Barak in very personal terms of being unfit to lead. “My major problem is that I have no faith in the current leadership, which must lead us in an event on the scale of war with Iran or a regional war. I don’t believe in either the prime minister or the defense minister. I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings,” Diskin said. “Believe me, I have observed them from up close… They are not people who I, on a personal level, trust to lead Israel to an event on that scale and carry it off. These are not people who I would want to have holding the wheel in such an event.”
Meanwhile, former Israel Defence Forces chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi (2007-2011), while acknowledging that Iran is a grave threat, thinks there’s still time to stop Iran by convincing the rest of the world that the Islamic republic is a global menace, and he believes the Israeli government (i.e., Barak and Netanyahu) has done a good job of this. (Another former IDF chief of staff, Dan Halutz, 2005-2007, told the Herzliya Conference this past February that Iran poses a serious but not existential threat to Israel, and that any attack should not be led by Israel.)
The current chief of staff, Benny Gantz, a Barak appointee, told Ha’aretz in an Independence Day interview that while Iran remains a danger and the IDF is making preparations to deal with it, war is not imminent, because Iran is still deciding whether to acquire a weapon. He said it likely won’t, because if fears what may happen next. He also argued that Iran’s leadership “is composed of very rational people.”
These aren’t the cries of doves. These are the opinions of hardened military and security men issuing warnings and cautions.
Some of their criticism of Netanyahu and Barak has to do with the ever-present political jockeying that’s endemic to Israeli democracy, particularly since many, if not most, senior military figures enter politics after leaving the IDF.
But there seems to be more to it, and the tone is more shrill than usual.
One analyst, Chemi Shalev, writing on Ha’aretz.com, comments that it’s all a bit nuts. “Even for cynical Israelis who think they’ve seen it all, this is crazy talk. Even for people who like to boast of the rough and tumble atmosphere of political discourse in Israel, this is way over the top.”
This worrisome situation is giving the enemy succor, he suggests.
Most Israelis and Diaspora Jews “are probably looking on this sudden-onset collective dementia with complete bewilderment and growing concern. After all, if half of what the generals are saying about the politicians is true, it’s terrible. If half of what the politicians are hurling back at the generals is valid, it’s horrendous. Someone should explain what bug has entered our system that can turn all of these good people who have truly devoted their lives to the country’s well-being – on both sides of the divide – into such stark, rabid rivals. And someone should put a stop to this maniacal melee before it turns into a tragedy of our own device.”
Count me as one of those concerned Jews he talks about.
Yet, paradoxically, it’s actually kind of comforting to think that Israel is having a breakdown of sorts about the Iranian threat, a la Yitzhak Rabin in the tense hours leading up to the Six Day War in 1967.
In some ways, a nervous breakdown might be the only sane response to the situation.
In these kinds of circumstances, I find it comforting to seek out what members of Israel’s old guard have to say– Israelis with the gravitas that comes from being involved in politics and security since the early days of the state and before.
There are very few of them left, and there’s really only one who is still active in politics, albeit in a more ceremonial role than in the past.
He happens to be in Canada on a state visit at this very moment.
Speaking to the Globe and Mail just before coming to this country, Israeli President Shimon Peres – a former prime minister and a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his efforts in hammering out the ill-fated Oslo accords – did not contradict Netanyahu directly on the subject of Iran.
But he did muse that a strike might only set Iran back two or three years, which, he said, isn’t enough. He also argued that the United States should lead the way in building a coalition against Iran, and that sanctions should be given more time to work.
Many right-wingers dismiss Peres, 88, as a dovish Laborite dreamer who never managed to actually get himself elected prime minister.
But he was one of the key architects of Israel’s own nuclear program in the 1950s and ’60s. During that period, he told the Globe (and has said before), he was a hawk when it came to the prospects for peace with Israel’s neighbours.
He said it was Israel’s policy of ambiguity on whether it possesses nuclear weapons that turned him into a dove, because the spectre of a nuclear-armed Israel has given its enemies pause. During the 1973 war, he said, it prevented Egypt and Syria from attacking Israel proper – they attacked the Sinai and the Golan – for fear of what Israel might unleash.
“This was a watershed,” Peres said, “because until Dimona [Israel's secrecy-shrouded nuclear facility], the Arabs were sure they could destroy us.”
Peres’s views seem to be in line with Israeli public opinion.
A poll in late April shows that 72 per cent of Israelis would back a U.S.-led strike (14 per cent oppose it), while only 45 per cent said they would back an Israeli unilateral strike (40 per cent oppose that idea).
“Israelis who identified themselves as right-wing and religious were more likely to support an Israeli strike on Iran. Support for such an attack is wider among people over 50 than those under 30,” the Jerusalem Post reported.
It’s good to see Israelis having a healthy debate about how they should confront the dangers they face, although one wishes that it might be a bit more civil at times. It shows that Israelis are not of one mind on most issues, and that the country is a robust democracy where everyone is free, and even encouraged, to tell the prime minister and government where to get off.
(Don’t think that Netanyahu and Barak aren’t giving as good as they’re getting. Last week, Barak responded to the recent criticism, saying it’s coming from former Kadima party prime minister Ehud Olmert and his “gang,” who, Barak said, “travel all over the world, and their remarks serve to weaken the not-inconsequential achievement of Israeli policy, which has turned the Iranian nuclear threat into an important and urgent issue, not only for Israel but for the world at large.” Barak added that “there are things that cannot be discussed in an open forum without the mere discussion causing damage.”)
When it comes to Israel, I don’t purport to have easy answers to the problems it faces. Since I don’t have to live with hostile neighbours and missiles pointed at me from all directions, I’m not inclined to tell the Jewish state what to do (not that it’s listening anyway).
Ultimately, Barak and Netanyahu – old rivals who are now political allies – may just be banging the drums for war because they want to keep pressure on Iran and ensure the issue remains on the front-burner of international affairs.
But with friends and relatives living there, I hope Israel’s leaders consider the potential ramifications of their actions very carefully before sending young Israeli pilots thousands of miles away to strike Iran.