By Sander A. Diamond, professor of history
When Israelis visit Poland and other European nations that once were home to many Jews, they come away with an affirmation of what one historian wrote: “Everything survived except the [Jewish] people.”
It adds to their insecurity, brought on by wars for survival, the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict, domestic terror attacks, and above all, the Holocaust.
A deep sense of insecurity gradually ebbed after they defeated Arab armies in 1948, 1967, and 1973. However, as we approach the 39th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, millions of Israelis are on edge as a result of the Arab Spring and an Iran bent on making atomic weapons. The changes in the region have elevated Israel’s worst fears that go to the core of its national DNA. As the Israelis and Jews worldwide approach the coming of the High Holy Days and the Day of Atonement, they fear that the New Year, 5773, will rock the very foundations of Israel.
Throughout the unfolding of the Arab Spring, Tel-Aviv watched in silence as the West applauded what appeared to be a transition to democracy. However, it came as no surprise to Israeli Prime Minister Binjamin (“Bibi’) Netanyahu when the head of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt won the election, and in time the army made concessions to him. The Brotherhood has been hostile to Israel for seven decades. Tel-Aviv fears that once the Brotherhood consolidates its power and puts the economy in order, it will turn its attention to Israel, perhaps revisiting or ending the peace treaty signed by Sadat at Camp David. The recent attacks on United States embassies in Cairo and Libya only affirm their concerns.
Iran, which has emerged as the key player in the region, is on the cusp of building atomic weapons, and promises to use them against the “Zionist enclave,” a phrase it always uses rather than calling Israel “Israel.” The language of its leader is pure Hitlerian, referring to the Jews as “a cancer” in the region.
The Jewish State is divided about what to do. Bibi, and those on the right, believe that a pre-emptive strike against Iran is the only way to slow down the development of a bomb. They are tired of talk about sanctions and do not believe the Obama Administration has drawn a red line in the sands of the region. What’s more, they believe that Obama is the first president since Harry Truman who is not solidly behind the Jewish State. Despite assurances from Obama and the top people in his Administration that Iran will not have atomic weapons and the United States will support Israel, they remain unconvinced in Tel-Aviv.
However, not all Israelis agree that a strike is necessary. Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, and former generals and politicians believe a strike would be folly, setting into motion a regional war. The last thing President Obama wants to see is an Israeli pre-emptive strike, all the more so now that the Middle East is being destabilized by rioters after a short film appeared on the Web defaming the founder of Islam.
It is time for Israel to take stock of its assets rather than future liabilities. It has an inventory of atomic bombs, first-class missiles, the Iron Doom Anti-Missile System, submarines armed with cruise missiles, a first-class military, powerful air force, and above-all the backing of the USA. They might have to live with an Iran with atomic weapons, each side concluding that using theirs would mean mutually assured destruction.
Bibi and President Obama should reach out to each other, not in public but in private. There is a mutuality of interests and concerns. Bibi, in particular, should pull back from his sharp language and the president should assure him that he and his nation understand the Israeli psyche, its sense of insecurity, and their heightened feelings of isolation in a raging Islamic sea. Now is not the time to push the panic button.