Of late this column has been more than a little obsessed with the Iranian nuclear threat. There is, however, a good explanation for that: All Israelis are obsessed with the Iran. Prime Minister Olmert’s speech at last week’s Herzliya Conference focused almost exclusively on reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and no subject received so much attention from the vast array of international and Israeli security experts gathered for the conference.
Nor is Israeli concern with a nuclear Iran something new. In a widely cited article in the New Republic on the Israeli security establishment’s view of Iran ("Israel’s Worse Nightmare"), Michael Oren and Yossi Klein Halevi, senior fellows at the Shalem Center, reveal that it was the fear of Iran that pushed Yitzchak Rabin into Oslo. Rabin was informed by Israeli military intelligence shortly after being elected prime minister in May 1992 that Iran had embarked on a program to develop nuclear weapons. Because he viewed Iran as the greatest threat on the horizon – and, unlike the Palestinians, an "existential" threat – Rabin decided to secure his "inner circle of threat" through negotiations with Arafat in order to be better prepared to deal with Iran.
Oren and Halevi cite one poll that 66% of Israelis believe a nuclear Iran would use its nuclear weapons against Israel and another finding that 27% of the population would seek to emigrate were it to be confirmed that Iran possesses nuclear weapons. The Israeli security establishment is divided about many things, Oren and Halevi report – e.g., the likelihood of Iran employing nuclear weapons against Israel; Israel’s ability to absorb the likely Iranian response if Israel attacks its nuclear facilities – but about one thing there is no disagreement: Israel cannot live with a nuclear Iran.
That is so because it is impossible to discount the possibility of Iran attacking Israel with nuclear weapons entirely. Israeli military men, Oren and Halevi write, "suddenly sound like theologians when explaining the Iranian threat." Giora Eiland, the former head of the National Security Council, warns that Ahmadinejad would be willing to sacrifice half of Iran’s population to destroy Israel. Apocalyptic talk about hastening the return of the missing 12th imam is by no means limited to Ahmadinejad. His predecessor declared at a 2001 Jerusalem Day rally in Teheran that it was "not irrational to contemplate a nuclear exchange with Israel" on the grounds that "even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However it will only harm the Islamic world."
NO ARTICLE BETTER CAPTURES THE MOOD of near panic that has gripped the Israeli public better than Benny Morris’s "This Holocaust will be different" in the January 18 Jerusalem Post. Morris is considered the father of the Israeli "new historians," who set out to rewrite the traditional Zionist narrative of Israel’s birth, but since 2002 he has been going through something of a political about face.
His lengthy essay assumes without question that "one bright morning, in five or ten years, perhaps during a regional crisis, perhaps out of the blue, a day or a year or five years after Iran’s acquisition of the Bomb, the mullahs in Qom will convene in secret session, under a portrait of the steely-eyed Ayatollah Khomeini, and give President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, by then in his second or third term, the go-ahead."
There are no contingencies in Morris’s scenario; no ifs, buts, or maybes. He takes it as a given that the world will not act to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons: Russia and China are too intent on securing Muslim markets, and France too intent on Muslim oil. An Israeli strike to prevent Iran from going nuclear could at best set their program back a year or two, in Morris’s opinion, and would trigger Muslim terror attacks around the world and near universal condemnation of Israel. Only the United States has the capacity to mount the kind of sustained air attacks that would be necessary to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, and Morris does not believe the United States will do so.
Once armed, Morris is certain that Iran would not be deterred by Israel’s own nuclear weapons or the near certainty that an attack on Israel would kill millions of Arab as well and level the Temple Mount. The Iranians have no love for Sunni Arabs, and have a particular contempt for the Palestinians for their inability to defeat the Jews, whom they greatly outnumbered. In the Iranian calculus, the Muslim/Arab world would barely notice the loss of a few million Palestinians, and within fifty years or so, Palestine would also recover from the radioactive material soaked into the earth.
Nor will the mullahs be deterred by the devastation wrought by an Israeli counter-strike on Iran. The price to be paid for the destruction of Israel is worth it in their minds. As Khomeini himself put it in a 1980 speech in Qom: "We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. . . . I say, let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant. . . ."
Israel’s nuclear weapons will, in short, remain useless. In the words of a "wise general" quoted by Morris, it will always be either too early or too late to employ them. Israel will never strike preemptively with its nuclear weapons and kill millions of Iranians, and once Iran has struck, Israel’s nuclear weapons can do nothing to reverse the destruction of Israel. For that reason, Morris claims, the United States will not employ its own nuclear weapons against Iran in the event of a strike on Israel: What’s the point of angering the entire Muslim world by bombing Iran, especially given that such retaliation can "not bring Israel back."
The only questions left after reading Morris’s chilling essay is: Why does he continue to live in Israel and has he already purchased homes abroad for himself and his loved ones if Iran does go nuclear.