The Dark Cloud on the Horizon
Why Israelis eye a potentially nuclear-armed Iran and worry that a cataclysm can't be averted
TEL AVIV-There was a time-from the September 1993 start of the peace process with the Palestinians until the sudden, explosive outbreak of the intifada in September 2000-when Israelis might have been able to remain steady in the face of the nuclear threat now looming in Iran. Back then, Israelis dared to hope that they were finally on their way to peace with their enemies-first Egypt, then the Palestinians and Jordan, soon Syria, and then all of Israel's borders would finally be secure. The old wars would be over, and a "new Middle East" would be at hand. Iran, even if it were as close to going nuclear as it is today, probably wouldn't have had most Israelis convinced, as they are now, that they face a second Holocaust unless somebody-preferably the Americans, but if not, then Israel itself-pre-emptively bombs into rubble Iran's nuclear facilities.
In different circumstances, Israelis might have settled for the idea that Iran's Islamist revolutionaries wouldn't be so self-destructive as to risk the lives of their country's 69 million people, not to mention their own lives, by launching a nuclear strike against a far stronger adversary. Israel, after all, has been building its nuclear arsenal, a defensive insurance policy, for some 40 years. Israelis might also have drawn reassurance from the fact that Iran, after all, hadn't dared strike them with the chemical and possibly biological weapons already in its possession. If Israelis were in a less grim and fatalistic mood then than they're in now, the threat of Iranian retaliation with weapons of mass destruction might have convinced most that a pre-emptive strike on Iran's nuclear facilities just wasn't worth the risk.
But today a growing numbers of Israelis are feeling the way they felt in the bad old days, before their leaders began shaking hands with the enemy: that in their corner of the world, it's either kill or be killed. Israelis figure they tried trading land for peace with Yasser Arafat and ended up with suicide bombings and Hamas. They unilaterally ended the occupation of Gaza-and the rocketing of Israeli border towns only escalated. They got out of Lebanon and, after six quiet years, Hezbollah showered the Galilee for a month last summer with 4,000 of the rockets it stockpiled with Iran's generous assistance.
As a result, Israelis have run out of faith that their enemies can be persuaded to let them be in peace. The 5.3 million Jews in Israel, which was founded in the shadow of the Nazis' extermination of 6 million European Jews only three generations ago, have reverted in large part to their core identity-that of a historically persecuted people whose enemies, now as before, are bent on their destruction, and whose only way to survive is by being stronger than those enemies. Living with the daily escalation of the fighting in Gaza, and with the virtual certainty that a second round of fighting with Hezbollah isn't too far off, Israelis look to the horizon 600 miles east and see a more chilling threat than they've ever faced before: an enemy who not only swears to destroy them but who may soon be capable of trying to do so.