One of the more melancholic aspects of the confrontation between Iran and Israel is that Persian and Jewish civilizations have not forever been adversaries; one of the heroes of the Bible is the Persian king Cyrus, who restored the Jews to the land of Israel from their Babylonian captivity 2,500 years ago. (A few years after Harry Truman granted recognition to the reborn state of Israel in 1948, he declared, “I am Cyrus.”)
Iran is the home of an ancient Jewish community—Jews have lived there since the Babylonian exile, a millennium before Muhammad’s followers carried Islam to Persia. And in the modern era, Iran and Israel maintained close diplomatic ties before the overthrow of the shah in 1979; Israel’s support of the shah obviously angered his enemies, the newly empowered mullahs in Tehran, but this is insufficient to explain the depth of official Iranian hatred of Israel and Jews; something else must explain the sentiment expressed by Mohsen Rezai, the former commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, who said in 1991—14 years before the rise of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian politician most associated in the West with the regime’s flamboyant anti-Semitism—“The day will come when, like Salman Rushdie, the Jews will not find a place to live anywhere in the world.”
The answer might be found in a line of Shia Muslim thinking that views Jews as ritually contaminated, a view derived in part from the Koran’s portrayal of Jews as treasonous foes of the Prophet Muhammad. As Robert Wistrich recounts in his new history of anti-Semitism, A Lethal Obsession, through the 17th and 18th centuries Shia clerics viewed Jews variously as “the leprosy of creation” and “the most unclean of the human race.” I once asked Ali Asghar Soltanieh, a leading Iranian diplomat who is now Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, why the leadership of Iran persistently described Israel not as a mere regional malefactor but as a kind of infectious disease. “Do you disagree?” he asked. “Do you not see that this is true?”
In a speech in June, Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, explained Middle East history this way: “Sixty years ago, by means of an artificial and false pretext, and by fabricating information and inventing stories, they gathered the filthiest, most criminal people, who only appear to be human, from all corners of the world. They organized and armed them, and provided them with media and military backing. Thus, they occupied the Palestinian lands, and displaced the Palestinian people.” The “invented story” is, of course, the Holocaust. Ahmadinejad’s efforts to deny the historical truth of the Holocaust have the endorsement of high officialdom: the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, said in 2005, “The words of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on the Holocaust and on Israel are not personal opinion, nor isolated statements, but they express the view of the government.”
The Iranian leadership’s own view of nuclear dangers is perhaps best exemplified by a comment made in 2001 by the former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, who entertained the idea that Israel’s demise could be brought about in a relatively pain-free manner for the Muslim world. “The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely while [a nuclear attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damages,” Rafsanjani said.
It is this line of thinking, which suggests that rational deterrence theory, or the threat of mutual assured destruction, might not apply in the case of Iran, that has the Israeli government on a knife’s edge. And this is not a worry that is confined to Israel’s right. Even the left-wing Meretz Party, which is harsh in its condemnation of Netanyahu’s policies toward the Palestinians, considers Iran’s nuclear program to be an existential threat.
Israeli policy makers do not necessarily believe that Iran, should it acquire a nuclear device, would immediately launch it by missile at Tel Aviv. “On the one hand, they would like to see the Jews wiped out,” one Israeli defense official told me. “On the other hand, they know that Israel has unlimited reprisal capability”—this is an Israeli euphemism for the country’s second-strike nuclear arsenal—“and despite what Rafsanjani and others say, we think they know that they are putting Persian civilization at risk.”
The challenges posed by a nuclear Iran are more subtle than a direct attack, Netanyahu told me. “Several bad results would emanate from this single development. First, Iran’s militant proxies would be able to fire rockets and engage in other terror activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella. This raises the stakes of any confrontation that they’d force on Israel. Instead of being a local event, however painful, it becomes a global one. Second, this development would embolden Islamic militants far and wide, on many continents, who would believe that this is a providential sign, that this fanaticism is on the ultimate road to triumph.
“You’d create a great sea change in the balance of power in our area,” he went on. An Iran with nuclear weapons would also attempt to persuade Arab countries to avoid making peace with Israel, and it would spark a regional nuclear-arms race. “The Middle East is incendiary enough, but with a nuclear-arms race, it will become a tinderbox,” he said.
Other Israeli leaders believe that the mere threat of a nuclear attack by Iran—combined with the chronic menacing of Israel’s cities by the rocket forces of Hamas and Hezbollah—will progressively undermine the country’s ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens. Ehud Barak, the defense minister, told me that this is his great fear for Israel’s future.
“The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality,” he said. “Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is 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.” This vision is threatened by Iran and its proxies, Barak said. “Our young people can consciously decide to go other places,” if they dislike living under the threat of nuclear attack. “Our best youngsters could stay out of here by choice.”
Patriotism in Israel runs very high, according to numerous polls, and it seemed unlikely to me that mere fear of Iran could drive Israel’s Jews to seek shelter elsewhere. But one leading proponent of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Ephraim Sneh, a former general and former deputy defense minister, is convinced that if Iran crossed the nuclear threshold, the very idea of Israel would be endangered. “These people are good citizens, and brave citizens, but the dynamics of life are such that if someone has a scholarship for two years at an American university and the university offers him a third year, the parents will say, ‘Go ahead, remain there,’” Sneh told me when I met with him in his office outside of Tel Aviv not long ago. “If someone finishes a Ph.D. and they are offered a job in America, they might stay there. It will not be that people are running to the airport, but slowly, slowly, the decision-making on the family level will be in favor of staying abroad. The bottom line is that we would have an accelerated brain drain. And an Israel that is not based on entrepreneurship, that is not based on excellence, will not be the Israel of today.”
Most critically, Sneh said, if Israel is no longer understood by its 6 million Jewish citizens, and by the roughly 7 million Jews who live outside of Israel, to be a “natural safe haven,” then its raison d’être will have been subverted. He directed my attention to a framed photograph on his wall of three Israeli air force F-15s flying over Auschwitz, in Poland. The Israelis had been invited in 2003 by the Polish air force to make this highly symbolic flight. The photograph was not new to me; I had seen it before on a dozen office walls in the Israeli Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv. “You see those planes?” Sneh asked me. “That’s the picture I look at all the time. When someone says that they will wipe out the Jews, we have to deny him the tools. The problem with the photograph is that we were too late.”
To understand why Israelis of different political dispositions see Iran as quite possibly the most crucial challenge they have faced in their 62-year history, one must keep in mind the near-sanctity, in the public’s mind, of Israel’s nuclear monopoly. The Israeli national narrative, in shorthand, begins with shoah, which is Hebrew for “calamity,” and ends with tkumah, “rebirth.” Israel’s nuclear arsenal symbolizes national rebirth, and something else as well: that Jews emerged from World War II having learned at least one lesson, about the price of powerlessness.
In his new book, The Worst-Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain With the Bomb, Avner Cohen, the preeminent historian of Israel’s nuclear program, writes that David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was nearly obsessed with developing nuclear weapons as the only guarantor against further slaughter. “What Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Teller, the three of them are Jews, made for the United States, could also be done by scientists in Israel, for their own people,” Ben-Gurion declared. Cohen argues that the umbrella created by Israel’s nuclear monopoly has allowed the Jewish state to recover from the wounds of the Holocaust.
But those wounds do not heal, Sneh says. “The Shoah is not some sort of psychological complex. It is an historic lesson. My grandmother and my grandfather were from Poland. My father fought for the Polish army as an officer and escaped in 1940. My grandparents stayed, and they were killed by the Polish farmer who was supposed to give them shelter, for a lot of money. That’s why I don’t trust the goyim. One time is enough. I don’t put my life in the hands of goyim.”