Whenever a new crisis appears, Israelis have been adept at gauging how serious the threat is and whether we need to take the limited steps we have available to protect ourselves as individuals. This is especially true for the residents of southern Israel, who live under a daily missile threat and are still determined to live normal lives. We developed this skill during the first Gulf War in 1991, the second Lebanon war in 2006 and Operation Cast Lead in 2008 – all of which brought the civilian sector to the front line as in 1948.
The Arabs’ indiscriminate missile strategy is successful because they disrupt and terrorize innocent civilians. For a nation like Israel, which rejects targeting innocent civilians and property, such attacks are very difficult to deter.
Individual Israelis have learned to analyze crisis situations because it helps us feel more in control when all we can really do is make sure our gas masks are accessible. And I can decide when to replace the wooden door to my son’s peacetime bedroom with the heavy steel door to seal off the reinforced safe room in our apartment. This need to be prepared is likely one reason for our addiction to news.
But with the Iranian nuclear crisis, my analysis changes 180 degrees on a daily, or even hourly, basis. Every day this issue is a major item in the media. Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Correspondent Herb Keinon’s recent column began: “When it comes to Iran, the mind increasingly reels. So much noise, so many contradictions, so little clarity. On the one hand, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, thinly disguised in a Haaretz interview last month as the “decision-maker,” says the sword hanging over Israel’s neck today is sharper than the one that hung over the country prior to the Six-Day War. On the other hand, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu heavily intimated this week that if the U.S. would just draw a clear line in the sand and say to the Iranians that if they cross that line the U.S. would attack, then Israeli action in the near future could be avoided.”
If Israel is going to launch a strike, it will be soon, before it is too late to at least delay Iran’s nuclear weapon capabilities. Any strike certainly will bring Iranian missile retaliation on all of our population centers. To prepare for this eventuality, we are looking for a little certainty. Every politician, former military official or other official asked about Iran starts his answer with, “I will not talk publicly about such a fateful issue that should be discussed only in the most classified forums,” and then goes on to tell everything he knows, which is not much. It makes me feel like someone who is told to stand in the corner of a round room.
Recent significant developments have been dramatic and frighteningly reminiscent of the 1930s’ appeasement in the face of Nazi aggression.
First the International Atomic Energy Agency reported the Iranians have made dramatic strides in upgrading their uranium to weapons-grade status, moved the majority of their centrifuges to a subterranean location and concealed another facility while they apparently cleaned it of incriminating evidence in advance of inspections.
Then the UN Secretary General and 122 nations traveled to Teheran to take part in the nonaligned nations conference. The vicious and debauched anti-Semitic diatribe unleashed by Khomeini and Ahmadinejad, which described the Jews as bloodthirsty wolves, was not a surprise. But the fact that not one delegate walked out of the session, or voiced any opposition (except Ban-Ki Moon, whose criticism was negated by his participation in this hideous farce) was eerily reminiscent of the international community’s behavior in the prewar years of Hitler’s regime.
Then U.S. Joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey remarked that the U.S. will not be “complicit” in an Israeli military strike against Iran. The Israel media emphasized the word complicit, which generally is used in regards to an illegal act. Finally, we heard the U.S. has sent back-channel messages to the Iranians that in the event of Iranian retaliation following an Israeli attack, no U.S. installations or assets should be targeted.
All of these issues are deeply disturbing for Israelis. We feel that instead of pressuring Iran, which constitutes the real threat, the Obama administration is putting the screws on Israel. We weren’t surprised when Yediot Ahronot columnist Shimon Sheefer reported Netanyahu blew up at U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro because he was at his wits’ end over what he sees as Obama’s lack of clarity on Iran’s nuclear program. Also unsurprising is that the outburst occurred on the eve of the Democratic National Convention.
The latter appears to be Netanyahu’s attempt to intervene in the U.S. electoral process by depicting Obama as unwilling stand up to an evil that threatens the entire world.
The bottom line is, no one besides Netanyahu or Barak really knows what Israel is going to do, and I’m not sure they have decided. One can look at the statements of each, but these can be interpreted in two ways: either Israel will launch a strike, or Israel will attempt to pressure the world to act to prevent the entire Middle East from becoming a nuclear weapons arsenal. Those nuclear weapons likely would end up in the hands of some of the unsavory elements vying for power in the anarchy of the new Middle East.
This is the most serious global threat since World War II, and not just an existential threat to Israel. It drives us crazy, and apparently Netanyahu as well, that the leaders of the free world (except Canada) will not face it. Instead of internalizing Ahmadinejad’s constant rhetoric that Israel is a “black stain” that needs to be removed from human society and his preparations to implement this, the international community is fixated on preventing a potential Israeli self-defense strike.
The only serious glimpse into the thoughts of Netanyahu and Barak was an interview by Ha’aretz writer Ari Shavit with Tzachi Hanegbi. Former Likud Minister Hanegbi had bolted to Kadima and was forced to step down for ignoring the legal process for making appointments; cleared to return to politics, he has rejoined Likud. The interview is revealing because of Hanegbi’s close relationship with Netanyahu and Barak.
Asked about the potential death of Israelis, Hanegbi says Netanyahu is guided by the principle that Iran cannot cause as much damage to Israel in a counterattack as could an Iran with nuclear weapons capabilities. That would make life in Israel eternally intolerable.
Asked why Israel belittles sanctions, Hanegbi says sanctions historically have not prevented a determined authoritarian regime from achieving its goals. As the West continues to implement the misguided policy of “engagement,” the Iranians manipulate these useless discussions as they develop nuclear weapons.
On the assumption that Israel can only delay, not destroy, Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, Hanegbi says this has been Israel’s policy on all fronts since the first Lebanon war. “It is preferable to cause delaying damage than reconcile to a nuclear Iran. Israel has the ability to hinder Iran. When Iran repairs the damage, Israel will need to implement another round of damage and delay. Israel will see this as a marathon … and will need to muster the required ability and willingness to do it.”
Asked if this means Netanyahu has decided to attack, Hanegbi denies any knowledge. But he says the recent clashes with the American administration and the Teheran conference make the leadership of Israel realize no one other than Israel can be depended upon to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.
So, how should I feel when I go to sleep at night? I am no clearer about what I should do. Therefore, I am getting ready for the short-term worst, which will prevent the long-term worst.
In the end, Keinon summed up what most of us understand and feel: “So all that we have to fall back on is historical precedent. And what the historical precedent has shown is that when Israel feels its back is against the wall, when it genuinely feels that the sword is at its throat, it takes action – even if the U.S. is opposed.”
Born in the United States, Mylan Tanzer, moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.