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.
Time running out. Israeli leaders have been warning the world for decades about Iran, and the issue will be first among Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's talking points at his meeting next week at the White House with President Bush, who, of course, needs no warnings on the subject. Olmert comes to Washington on the heels of his unsuccessful attempt in Moscow to persuade President Vladimir Putin to take a tougher line on Iran.
For Olmert, like most of Israel's political leadership, there is growing anxiety that time is running out for a diplomatic fix. Iran is brazenly defying U.N. Security Council demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program-a key step toward bomb making-and the imposition of punitive international sanctions must get a nod from reluctant Russia and China. "The Iranians need to fear that something that they do not want to happen to them will happen to them," Olmert said in Moscow, without specifying what that something was. Returning to Israel, he sounded a theme that is central to Israel's view of Iran: the comparison of that country to Nazi Germany, and of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Hitler. "We shall never repeat the mistakes of 60 years ago," Olmert said, "of burying our heads in the sand, ignoring what was being heard then when it was still possible to save lives."
Israelis have been likening their arch-enemies to Hitler since the days of Haj Amin el-Husseini, the Palestinian leader in the 1948 war. Husseini, however, gave credibility to the analogy with his avid public support for the Nazis in World War II. Similarly, Ahmadinejad invited the comparison to Hitler with his remark that the Holocaust was a "myth," his hosting of a cartoon exhibition in Tehran that mocked Jewish sensitivities about the Nazi genocide, and his call for Israel to be "wiped off the map."
Between the natural fears of the Israeli public, the often-fiery rhetoric of Israeli politicians, and the scare headlines in the Israeli tabloids, the national stress level over Iran keeps climbing. So far, Iran has reported progress with uranium enrichment, though only to a low level suitable for fueling a nuclear power reactor. Producing bomb-grade, highly enriched uranium remains a major hurdle, as does creating a workable bomb that could be engineered into a missile warhead.
A key question now is how much time is left. Israeli intelligence has predicted that Iran could be able to make a nuclear bomb by 2008, though American intelligence estimates put the probable date closer to 2015. That gap in time is the difference between whether Iran constitutes a crisis or still just a problem. Iran claims it is only interested in developing civilian nuclear power.
Dread. Yet the deepening dread that Iran is preparing a death blow for Israel, and the hardening conviction that Israel may have no choice but to strike first, are reminiscent of the agonizing, two-week "waiting period" that preceded Israel's pre-emptive aerial assault on the Egyptian Air Force that launched, and effectively decided, the 1967 Six-Day War. Israelis want this current crisis decided-and that desire will eventually draw a hard line beyond which efforts for a diplomatic resolution may be moot.
Most Israelis simply don't believe that diplomacy-and specifically, pressure through proposed U.N. Security Council sanctions-will stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Israeli leaders, naturally, would much prefer that the United States use its greatly superior military resources to take out Iran's far-flung, heavily protected nuclear facilities, but if America passes on the mission, some 60 percent of Israelis, according to a recent survey, want their own armed forces to do the job. "I hope the world will deal with this," said Iris Hasid, 39, shopping in the mall at Israel's ground zero-the 50-story Azrieli twin towers across the street from Israeli military headquarters in the heart of Tel Aviv. But when asked what Israel should do if the world doesn't deal with Iran's incipient nuclear power, Hasid, a healthcare administrator, replied without hesitation: "Go to war." The risk that Iran might strike back with weapons of mass destruction doesn't alter her view. "Israel has those weapons, too. I'm confident Israel is capable of defending itself. And," she said, smiling and pointing heavenward, "God will help."
Yet Israelis worry that Iran's leaders believe that God will help them, and that God, in the Iranians' understanding, has commanded them to destroy the "Zionist infidels." A basic belief in Israel (and elsewhere) is that religious-based political radicals are more dangerous than the secular brand because they are incapable of changing or moderating their views, which they believe to be God's word. So the Cold War-era deterrence concept of mutually assured destruction-a nuclear balance of terror that worked for the United States against the Soviet Union and China-doesn't ease many Israeli worries. Joseph Stalin's Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's China "were crazy regimes, but this crazy regime is crazier. Its ideology is jihad," said Labor Knesset member and former Mossad chief Danny Yatom, who added that his "working assumption" is that once Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will use them against the Jewish state.
Given Israelis' apocalyptic fears, would their leaders, as a last resort, order an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities? The Israeli Air Force had stunning success with its 1981 bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor, setting back Saddam Hussein's nuclear program. Yet it is clearly understood today that wiping out Iran's nuclear works, which are numerous, spread out, and often hidden deep underground, is a challenge of a whole different magnitude and may, in fact, be impossible. Iraq, preoccupied at the time with its war of attrition with Iran, didn't retaliate against Israel, but Israelis can't count on such good fortune if they strike at Iraq's former adversary.
But when so many Israelis see an Iranian nuclear attack as inevitable-unless the United States strikes Iran first-any risk may seem worth taking. Yatom acknowledged that Israel would "have to be ready for the possibility that Iran would use its chemical weapons and perhaps biological weapons." But if push came to shove, the ex-Mossad leader would still favor a pre-emptive strike; otherwise, he said, "there will be a nuclear attack against Israel, which is much more dangerous."
To attack Iran, however, Israel would first need a green light from Washington, and at the moment, that is hard to imagine. The United States has vastly superior military resources, and its homeland, unlike Israel, is out of Iranian missile range. Thus, if the United States decided to pass on the mission, there seems no reason why it would want Israel to handle the job-especially when Iran and its allies would inevitably see the "great Satan" behind Israel's "little Satan."
Israel's day of decision-the day its leaders become convinced the Iranian threat is untenable-could be anywhere from a year to several years away. For Israelis, this will very likely be a time of mounting tension, of dark memories resurfacing, of survival instincts taking over. "For us," Olmert said in Moscow, "when the head of a country says he wants to destroy us, it does not sound like an empty declaration but something we must prepare to prevent through all acceptable and possible ways." Much of Jewish history, and of Israeli identity, is contained in that message.
This story appears in the November 13, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.