Opinion: Israel and the Iranian bomb

BOSTON — Writing in the Atlantic Monthly, Jeffrey Goldberg cast a cloud over the late summer season by positing that Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities if it cannot get the Obama administration to do it for them.

What makes Goldberg’s variation on this conventional wisdom important is the in-depth reporting he has done both in Israel and Washington to make his case. He points to the wide political spectrum that believes an Iranian bomb would threaten Israel’s very existence. Some Israelis believe that the Iranian nation would choose to embark on a martyrdom mission, committing national suicide, just for the sake of killing a large concentration of Jews. Given that Israel has more than enough nuclear bombs to wipe out Iran, that always seemed to me to be a bit far fetched. Iranians are not insane and there is little to support the contention that assured destruction would fail to act as a deterrent against even such an ideologically driven theocracy.

Iranian leaders have been, in my view, extremely foolish to threaten Israel with destruction. Such language is unacceptable if there is to be any kind of international order, and especially foolish given Israel’s role as a refuge for Jews following the Nazi Holocaust. Such talk plays well in a Muslim neighborhood, but if bombs do rain down from Israeli planes such loose talk on the part of Iran’s leadership will bear a major share of responsibility. One cannot help but sympathize with Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu when Goldberg quotes him as saying he is shocked that the world is not shocked by Iran’s language.

“Sure there are perfunctory condemnations, but there is no j’accuse — there’s no shock … Iranian leaders talk about Israel’s destruction or disappearance while simultaneously creating weapons to ensure its disappearance," Netanyahu said, and he has drawn his own conclusions.

Then there is the argument that other Arab nations would scramble to get their own weapons of mass destruction to counter-balance a nuclear armed Iran. “The Middle east is incendiary enough, but with a nuclear arms race it will become a tinderbox,” Netanyahu told Goldberg.

But there are the more subtle Israeli reasons for preventing Iran’s bomb. The reasoning is that with Iran holding the keys to nuclear destruction, surrogates such as Hezbollah and Hamas would be emboldened to try more and more terrorist and rocket attacks under Iran’s nuclear umbrella, and that this would cause such disruption in Israeli society that Jews would no longer want to live there — i.e. the end to the Zionist enterprise.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Goldberg that: “The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality. Jews know they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American-Jewish young people want to come here. Our young people can consciously decide to go other places.”

The dilution of quality is indeed a threat to Zionism, but the real threat lies within. According to a report by the Jerusalem based-Taub Center, demographics are posing an existential threat to Zionism. The growing numbers and power of the ultra-Orthodox in Israeli society has driven many young people out of Jerusalem and into the more secular Tel Aviv. Others go abroad, and now that the great wave of immigration from Russia has run its course, trends are pointing towards more people leaving than coming.

Then there are the long discriminated-against Arabs who are Israeli citizens. Their loyalty is being stretched by the continued occupation next door. Israel Arabs represent 21 percent of the Israeli population, and, according to the Taub Center report, by 2040 ultra-Orthodox Jews and Arab students will make up 78 percent of pupils in Israeli elementary schools.

There is already a brain-drain taking place. According to the Financial Times one out of every four Israeli academics is currently employed in an American university. According to the Taub Center the number of senior staff at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University has fallen by 14 percent and 21 percent respectively since 1973 although the population has more than doubled. This has more to do with economic considerations than it does from nuclear threat.

The most interesting aspect of the Goldberg article is the influence Netanyahu’s 100-year-old and ultra right-wing father has on the Israeli prime minister. Goldberg quotes the senior Netanyahu as saying on the occasion of his birthday: “The Jewish people are making their position clear and putting faith in their military power. The nation of Israel is showing the world today how a state should behave when it stands before an existential threat." And according to one of Goldberg’s sources, Netanyahu could never give away territory to Palestinians as long as his father still lives.

Israel is bound to its doctrine that force can solve its problems in a world where force is less and less likely to do so.

Israelis have their own theocratic doctrines to deal with: the concept that God promised the West Bank to the Jews. The strength of the settler movement and the defeat of a two-state solution will almost certainly lead to another Palestinian uprising, and the resulting bloodshed will do more to eat at the quality of life in Israel than all the fulminations of Iranian leaders could ever do.