An Israel-Iran Armageddon?


© 2015 Alan F. Zundel

promised land

Commentary on My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit (Spiegel & Grau, 2013)

Like many others I suspected Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent appearance before the U.S. Congress of being a political stunt to sabotage U.S.-Iranian relations. Hasn’t he long been trying to get the U.S. on board a campaign to bomb Iran? Haven’t Israeli intelligence officials contradicted his dire warnings about Iran’s nuclear capacities? Haven’t we seen this show before, when we invaded Iraq based on ginned-up warnings about “weapons of mass destruction”?

Ari Shavit’s 2013 book, My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel, has reminded me not to jump to conclusions based on my presuppositions. Shavit, a well-known Israeli journalist and peace activist, is on the side of Netanyahu about the danger of Iran and a potential nuclear Armageddon.

The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

I highly recommend his book as a balanced and insightful primer on the history of the modern Israeli state and how the situation got to where it is now. Almost novelistic in style, each chapter explains key historical moments through the stories some of the people involved, from the West European Jews who traveled to their ancestral land in the late 1800s to the reelection of Netanyahu as prime minister in 2013.

The “Triumph” of Israel in the title of the book is the successful establishment of a home nation for the Jewish people after 2000 years of persecution, a nation which has prospered economically and successfully defended itself against attacks by hostile neighboring states. The “Tragedy” is that this success was done at the expense of native Arabs in the lands that Israel took over, first to establish a state in 1948 and later in the occupation of territories captured in the 1967 Six Day War.

Shavit was one of the peace activists who called for withdrawal from the occupied territories and the negotiation of a two-state solution with Palestinian Arabs. In this book he takes a different position, writing that both the right and the left focusing on the issue of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories were missing the big picture. Neither continued occupation nor withdrawal from the territories will solve the fundamental problem, which is that the state of Israel was created by expelling Arabs who lived on the land for centuries and cannot be expected to give up their hopes for return to what is now Israel.

Shavit does not propose a solution to the problem, which can hardly be held against him as no one has ever proposed a solution that can both guarantee protection of Israeli Jews from hostile forces and satisfy the rights of Arab Palestinians who were forcibly removed from their homes and lands. The current situation is in such a state of flux after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Arab Spring of 2011, and the consequent upheavals throughout the Middle East that at this point predictions of any kind are bound to be futile anyway.

The Iranian Threat

The one nation benefiting from the turmoil in the region has been Iran, whose influence has grown as rival Middle Eastern regimes have been weakened or destabilized in the turmoil of the last decade or so. Iran is now a key player in multiple areas in play, including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and possibly Yemen, and has become a de facto ally of the U.S. in countering the spread of our current terrorist preoccupation, ISIS.

This U.S.-Iran cooperation is what has Netanyahu and others worried about a possible shift in U.S. alliances tilting away from Israel toward Iran. From that perspective, Netanyahu’s appearance before Congress as well as his comments about the two-state solution and Arab voters have been counterproductive.

But is Netanyahu right about the danger of Iran building a nuclear weapon?

In the book Shavit interviews Amos Yadlin, a retired army officer who was one of the Israeli pilots who bombed an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 and in 2007 was chief of military intelligence in charge of nuclear activities in Syria.

In the background of the discussion are two historical events. One is covered earlier in the book: Israel’s own development of nuclear weapons in the mid-1960s, during which they effectively hid what they were doing from a suspicious U.S. inspection team. If Israeli could accomplish this, why not Iran?

The second event was the split in the Israeli intelligence community over the need to invest in gathering intelligence on Syrian nuclear activities in 2006. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert sided against Yadlin and with those downplaying the threat until an intelligence breakthrough in 2007 changed his mind and resulted in the secret bombing of a Syrian facility.

According to Shavit, the same personalities in the earlier split in the Israeli intelligence community have been competing over the proper approach to the Iranian problem. Yadlin asserts that a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate by U.S. intelligence agencies was influenced by the desire to avoid another mistake like the “intelligence” leading to invasion of Iraq, and that a thorough review of it by four different Israeli intelligence teams found the U.S. underestimated the state of the Iranian nuclear program.

Meanwhile, Shavit writes, “the Iranians fooled the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and fooled the UN and fooled the Western powers, inching closer and closer to their coveted atomic bomb.”

An Israel-Iran Armageddon?

When Netanyahu first took office as prime minister in 2009 he sided with those who believed the West was underestimating Iran. His efforts to stop Iran, even preparing military plans, pushed the Obama administration into taking more aggressive action with cyberattacks and economic sanctions against Iran. The effort bore fruit in the Iranian elections of 2013, which brought to power a regime more willing to negotiate with the West.

But it also widened the split between hawks and doves within the Israeli political, military and intelligence communities. Furthermore, according to Shavit, Netanyahu squandered his successes and alienated the Obama administration by refusing concessions on settlements in the occupied territories and intervening in U.S. electoral politics during the election of 2012. Recent events also seem witness to Netanyahu’s counter-productive clumsiness in U.S.-Israeli relations.

But granting that Netanyahu has fumbled diplomatic relations with the U.S. and is committed to hawkish views, that does not automatically mean he is wrong about Iran. Nor does it mean that those of us who resist hawkish views and see Iran through the prism of the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq are right that Iranian nuclear intentions can be managed by negotiations.

If Iran succeeds in building nuclear weapons, the danger of a nuclear Armageddon will be the highest it’s been since the heyday of the Cold War. After further interviews with Israeli strategists Shavit concludes, “Iran is not a Netanyahu bogeyman; it is a real existential threat.”

The story continues to play out in current negotiations with Iran. Shavit’s willingness to rethink his earlier positions and go against his liberal background reminds me of how important it is to be aware of our presuppositions and willing to challenge them lest we misread a situation.

None of us have full information on what is going on, and thus we must rely on assumptions to make sense of the situation. For most of us misreading it due to unquestioned presuppositions simply adds heat rather than light to political discussions, but political discussions after all create the climate for political actions.

Political leaders and intelligence agents are just as susceptible to perceptual blindspots as the rest of us, but when they make mistakes the results can be disastrous. Our biggest danger is not other nations or peoples, so much as our own descent into hardened ideological positions.

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