The Middle East Channel

Israel, Iran, and existential threats

Israel, Iran, and existential threats



In February 2005 I sat in an intelligence briefing for Israeli Middle East and diplomatic affairs correspondents at the headquarters of the Israel Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. There were probably 15 of us around a long table. At the head, various researchers took turns speaking about the threat levels coming from different parts of the Muslim world. 

When it came to Iran, the intelligence researcher told us in the most foreboding tone that Iran was very close to building a nuclear weapon. It was the same ‘and-that-will-be-the-end-of-us’ tone that numerous Israeli politicians had been using in the media to warn Israelis following the Iranian announcement to develop nuclear energy.

At the time, I was serving as the Middle East correspondent for The Jerusalem Post and was a member of the Gulf/2000 Project, a group led by former National Security Council member and presidential advisor Gary Sick and made up mainly of academics, journalists, diplomats and intelligence people from East and West with a professional interest in the Persian Gulf.  It exposed me to a wealth of information about Iran, including the problems it faces, its own security fears and the question of the nuclear threat. And it became clear to me that the Iranian regime was not crazy enough to push a would-be red button on Israel.

But I wanted to know how the Israeli intelligence people would answer the question:"So do you think that if the Iranian regime were to develop nuclear weapons some crazy mullah would press the red button?" So, I asked.

Before they could respond, Ayala Hasson, Israeli Channel One’s diplomatic affairs correspondent, shouted across the table, "But of course they’ll press the button!"

Harry Kney-Tal, director of the Foreign Ministry’s Center for Diplomatic Research, paused before answering: "No, we don’t think there is some crazy Iranian who is going to press the button." Nuclear weapons were a form of "insurance" against being attacked, he said.

For years now, official Israel has been scaring its people into believing Iran is near the ‘point of no return’ and the day it reaches it will be doomsday for Israel (of course, Israel’s estimated ‘point of no return’ dates continuously pass, prompting it to make new ones). But the Israeli establishment knows that there is no existential threat, that the Iranian regime is radical, but not suicidal; that if it is building weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it is in self-defense.

So why all the hype?  Why the deception?  The reasons are many, but they come down to money, politics, and security.

After the briefing Kney-Tal shared with me that if Iran were to have nuclear weapons Israel would lose its role as the regional superpower. "We are afraid that it will give Iran more leverage to empower its clients, "he said, referring to Hizbullah and Syria.

In other words, Iranian nukes would prevent Israel from acting as the neighborhood bully and Israel would have to think twice before it attacked its neighbors.

Yet it wasn’t until last month that a senior Israeli official, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, acknowledged that Israel did not fear an Iranian attack. The Iranian regime was "radical", he said in a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, but not meshugeneh (the Yiddish word for crazy).

As retired Brigadier General Uzi Eilam describes in his recently published book, "Eilam’s Arc", money and politics–not security–are the key reasons for the scare.  The "defense establishment is sending out false alarms in order to grab a bigger budget," said the former Director-General of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission.

Moreover, some Israeli politicians are using Iran to divert attention away from problems at home. Not only does it make them more popular among the population–Israelis understandably feel more at home in the role of victims–but it also focuses the attention away from the country’s internal problems which are not being solved: poverty, racial strife, and lack of peace with its neighbors. Finally, the ‘Holocaust-is-around-the-corner’ doomsday prophecy, putting Israel in the traditional Jewish role of the oppressed, gives Israeli leaders more clout when pushing for gestures from friendly countries abroad.

Interestingly, Netanyahu has tempered his own doomsday prophecies. At the recent AIPAC conference he said that Iran "might be tempted" to use nuclear weapons. It is possible that if the Israeli Foreign Ministry intelligence department is aware that Iran does not pose an existential threat, then the US and European countries have come to the same conclusion. That would take the punch out of Israel’s prophecies.

Now Israel is warning that Iran could share WMD knowledge with non-state actors who will use it against Israel and other countries: "Our world would never be the same," said Netanyahu at AIPAC.

If Israel really does fear this prospect it needs the help of its allies, either to pressure or persuade Iran. So when Vice President Biden comes to town it is best not to embarrass him with the announcement of settlement expansions and then insist on making more announcements that deepen the rift; when Turkish television broadcasts a television series depicting Israel in anugly manner, best not to humiliate the Turkish ambassador on Israeli television; when the Secretary General of the UN visits, best to send someone to greet him at the airport, and not just the security guards; and when Israel wants to make a revenge assassination for the killing of Israeli soldiers, best to let it go, rather than use fake passports of your allies (or don’t get caught).

Israel’s recent behavior is not conducive to achieving its stated goals. It must reassess its priorities and decide whether a settlement in the West Bank, the humiliation of diplomats, and the killing of an arms smuggler are more important than its security.

At the end of the day, Israel needs help if it wants to remain the only kid on the block with a big stick.  

Orly Halpern is a freelance journalist and Middle East analyst based in Jerusalem.