From Alan Dowty
Israeli public discourse over Iran’s nuclear weapons program is dominated by two analogies: the Holocaust and the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.
The prominence of the Holocaust—the most horrific genocide in human history—should be no surprise. Jewish history seen through the Zionist lens is a chronicle of powerlessness and tragedy, embodying a “gevalt syndrome”: if things can get worse, they will. Gloomy premonitions are extracted from even the most propitious turn of events—and recent developments in Iran are far from propitious.
This tragic history culminates in the Holocaust, which continues to be ever-present in Israeli public life. It was a central element in Israel’s critical decisions on its own nuclear weapons program, in the 1950s and 1960s. As recounted in Avner Cohen’s authoritative Israel and the Bomb, David Ben-Gurion’s private communications on this issue returned to the Holocaust, then only a few years in the past, again and again. In the current debate, the fact that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a Holocaust denier serves to strengthen the hold of the analogy.
To take a sampling of the most recent statements:
- Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: “We will not allow Holocaust deniers to carry out another Jewish Holocaust. This is… my supreme commitment as Prime Minister of Israel.”
- Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin: “This time [Hitler] has a beard and speaks Persian…. But the words are the same words and the aspirations are the same aspirations and the determination to find the weapons to achieve those aspirations is the same menacing determination.”
- President Shimon Peres: “As Jews, after being subjected to the Holocaust, we cannot close our eyes in light of the grave danger emerging from Iran…. If Europe had dealt seriously with Hitler at that time, the terrible Holocaust and the loss of millions of people could have been avoided. We can’t help but make the comparison.”
In this light, a nuclearized Iran is regarded by both policymakers and the public as an existential threat to Israel, as an ideologically-driven state capable of irrationality and suicidal behavior—an image strengthened by the incidence of suicide bombings. Poll data show that Israelis believe, by overwhelming majorities ranging from 66 to 82 percent, that Iran would use the bomb to try to destroy Israel. Frequent reference is made to the 2001 statement by former Iranian President Ali Rafsanjani that “if one day, the Islamic world is also equipped with weapons like those that Israel possesses now, then the imperialists’ strategy will reach a standstill because the use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. However, it will only harm the Islamic world. It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality.”
The second major analogy in the debate, the 1981 attack on Iraq’s nuclear plant, seems obvious since it involves a neighboring state, with a similar threat, similar conditions, and (so far) a similar failure of the international community to stop the program. It is also noted that while the 1981 attack was almost universally condemned by other governments, no effective sanctions against Israel resulted, and it was clear that many states privately welcomed the action. The analogy also lowers expectations, in that the Iraqi nuclear weapons program was not ended but only delayed for several years (which turned out to be adequate).
At the same time, some participants in the debate underline differences: an attack on Iranian facilities would be much more difficult militarily, and the Iranians, unlike Iraq, would be ready and able to retaliate on a number of fronts. But some differences, others point out, would work in the other direction: offensive capabilities have also improved considerably over the last three decades, and there is considerably more international attention and support directed toward blocking an Iranian bomb than was the case with Iraq.
It is also important to note some analogies that are not featured in this debate, but are either ignored or downplayed by Israeli policymakers and analysts. For example, little mention is made of the fact that Saddam Hussein did not use the weapons of mass destruction (chemicals) at his disposal in 1991, during the SCUD attacks on Israel, despite his earlier use of such weapons against Iran. Likewise, the Cold War model of the U.S.-Soviet nuclear balance is not a major focus, and when discussed it is often with the focus on the differences that would obtain in a Middle East context: the lack of invulnerable second-strike capability, shortcomings in command and control, and above all the lack of any clear “rules of the game.”
Some of the analysts in academia—particularly from the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, including Ephraim Kam and Yair Evron—have, along these lines, examined the consequences of an Iranian bomb in terms of deterrent theory and the requirements of a stable balance. But even in these analyses, the emphasis remains on preventing the Iranian program from coming to fruition. And elsewhere, in the public debate and in the utterances of policymakers, attention is focused almost entirely on prevention.
Israeli policymakers obviously have a strong incentive to make an Israeli attack appear inevitable if sanctions fail to stop Iran, since it strengthens the chance for these sanctions to succeed. But a close reading of policymakers and press in Israel today leads clearly to the conclusion that Israel will in fact act if the sanctions fail.
Alan Dowty delivered these remarks at a symposium on “Iran: Threat, Challenge, or Opportunity?” convened by MESH at Harvard University on April 30.
Comments are limited to MESH members and invitees.
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