Is war between Iran and Israel inevitable?

Given the similarities between Netanyahu and Ahmadinejad, the two countries could be on a collision course.


Erich Follath
June 23, 2009 5:24PM (UTC)

A pair of more disparate twins hasn't existed since the muscle-bound Arnold Schwarzenegger and the sharp-tongued, diminutive Danny DeVito played twins in the Hollywood movie of that name. One, the Israeli, is tall and thickset and often wears tailored suits. He is a gifted speaker and a militant anti-Iranian. The other, the Iranian, is short and slight and is almost always seen wearing an ordinary-looking beige windbreaker. He tends to be somewhat gauche and is a rabble-rousing populist and a self-declared enemy of Israel. The two men couldn't be more different.

But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, 59, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, 52, are twins in spirit, which is not to imply in any way that they are morally equivalent. Both men are convinced of the absolute validity of their beliefs, both are obsessed by what they see as their higher calling, and both are convinced that theirs is a Messianic mission -- a mission to "honor" a religion or "save" a people.

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There is every indication that the coming nuclear negotiations between Washington and Tehran -- if, indeed, they begin in the next few months with Ahmadinejad still Iranian president -- will end in a stalemate by the end of the year. If that happens, US President Barack Obama will push for tougher sanctions against Tehran in early 2010, with the reluctant support of the Russians and Chinese. The leadership in Tehran will interpret this as an aggressive act and will likely speed up its uranium enrichment, meaning that Iran will only be a few months away from having the capability to build a nuclear bomb. At some point next spring, things could have proceeded so far that the Israelis could decide, even without Washington's approval, to launch attacks against Iranian nuclear facilities. The entire Middle East would see thousands of casualties, and the consequences for the global economy would be devastating.

To understand what motivates the Iranian president and the Israeli prime minister, and what convictions guide their policies, it is important to examine the deeply religious ideas that shape both Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu and practically destine them to clash with each other: the theology of the Islamic Haqqani school and the Jewish concept of Amalek. And to understand why Tehran and Jerusalem, with Ahmadinejad and Netanyahu at their respective helms, have embarked on such an alarming and potentially devastating course, it helps -- as this author has done -- to have personally met the people involved and to have studied their milieu during numerous trips to Iran and Israel over the past three-and-a-half decades. These experiences form the pieces of a puzzle, and although the resulting image is not all-encompassing and does not explain everything, it is at least an image based on a concrete search for evidence and on personal experience of the reality on the ground.

The return of the Mahdi

Flashback: It is the late 1980s, and I am visiting the Iranian holy city of Qom. It is my first visit to the Islamic Republic of Iran, following earlier visits during the time of the shah and my reporting on his overthrow. "Do you want to meet Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, the head of the education department at the Rah-i-Haq Institute?" my guide asks. Not another holy man, I think to myself -- I have already had exhausting interviews with half a dozen Koran scholars today. It is hot and dusty in Qom, where Fatima, a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, is buried in a giant mosque. But then my guide tells me that Mesbah Yazdi is considered to be one of the most brilliant and influential thinkers in Qom, and that he is an ardent student of revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

In the interview, Mesbah Yazdi proves to be cosmopolitan and admits to being a computer geek. Ideologically, however, he is an ultraconservative hardliner and a theoretician of the radicals, and his fixed mocking smile cannot conceal his cold nature. He openly advocates suicide bombings, calls for the carrying out of the fatwa imposed against author Salman Rushdi and demands "the blood of any person who insults Islam." And he considers "the Zionists" to be the fundamental source of evil on earth.

Mesbah Yazdi kept a low profile for years, except to control the fundamentalist Haqqani movement, a role in which an ambitious and deeply devout young man became his protégé. In 2005, Mesbah Yazdi called upon the faithful to vote for his former student, Ahmadinejad. It was an unusual step in the world of ayatollahs, who usually steer clear of mundane politics and keep their personal preferences to themselves. Since then, the ultraconservative cleric, who portrays himself as an infallible interpreter of the faith, has been viewed as Ahmadinejad's ideological and spiritual mentor.

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As the son of a blacksmith, Iran's president was in his youth attracted mainly to Islamic social revolutionary theories. Ali Shariati, an Iranian philosopher who was educated in Paris and linked Marxism to religious, anti-colonial beliefs, influenced Ahmadinejad in his early years. But then, in his mid-20s, Ahmadinejad met Mesbah Yazdi and came under the spell of mystical fundamentalism. Ahmadinejad has long been an avowed supporter of the same ultra-religious school of Shia as Mesbah Yazdi. The Haqqani group, in its religious fervor, is reminiscent of the zealots of another religion, the born-again Christians (a group which includes, incidentally, former US President George W. Bush).

The so-called Mahdists around Mesbah Yazdi and Ahmadinejad believe that their Twelfth Imam disappeared from the face of the earth in the 9th century because Allah the Almighty hid him to put mankind to a test. They also believe that this Twelfth Imam, or Mahdi, will return to the earth, as will Jesus, who all Muslims see as an important predecessor to Muhammad. The Mahdi, in their view, will create a paradise on earth for believers and condemn blasphemers to eternal damnation. But he will only return when the world has undergone a catharsis, a whirling, gigantic, cleansing upheaval.

Could it take the form of a war between Muslims and heretics, perhaps? Possibly a nuclear war? And do some of the apocalyptically minded within the Haqqani school want to provoke this cataclysmic event to bring about the return of the Mahdi as soon as possible?

The demagogue Ahmadinejad

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April 2009. I am in a government building in Tehran, waiting to interview President Ahmadinejad together with my colleagues Dieter Bednarz and Georg Mascolo. Our meeting is delayed, which gives us an opportunity to look around. In the vestibule outside his conference room, gifts presented to Ahmadinejad by guests are displayed in glass cases. There are only a dozen, apparently presents from those visitors to Tehran that the president deemed most important.

In a particularly prominent spot is an ugly silver plate, a gift an American anti-Zionist association presented him with during the "Holocaust Conference" three years ago, when Ahmadinejad assembled "academics" of his persuasion to question the Shoah, the murders of millions of Jews under the Nazis. After the conference, the Iranian president repeatedly called for the extermination of the Zionist regime.

At major rallies and in his few press conferences, like the one he gave early last week, Ahmadinejad comes across as a demagogue, an obstinate warrior striking out against the Western world and its supposed moral afflictions, such as "campaigning for the votes of homosexuals." He is more relaxed and focused during our two-hour interview, and yet constantly wary, like a fox on the prowl, quickly responding to our questions with questions of his own. He is also very conscious of the fact that he is preaching to an international and not a domestic audience.

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He declares discussions over the nuclear issue to be "concluded," even though international talks, at least those involving the United States, have yet to begin. He flatly denies charges that Iran has blatantly violated the commitments it made by signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. He claims not to be seeking to obtain nuclear weapons. And yet, reading between the lines of an extremely heated interview (which Ahmadinejad's friends, or perhaps his enemies, later printed verbatim in the Iranian press), it becomes clear that he wants to see Iran acknowledged as a virtual nuclear power, and as one of the world's leading nations. This is the basis on which he wants to negotiate -- under his conditions -- with U.S. President Obama and the rest of the world.

Creative vote counting

In a face-to-face conversation, Ahmadinejad can be polite, even charming, and he is adept at soberly presenting his case that the West is seeking to control Iran. But he also has a different, mystical side. He considers himself chosen. In a meeting with Iranian members of parliament, Ahmadinejad claimed that he was surrounded by a light when he addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and that the light silenced the leaders of other countries in the audience during his speech. This special spiritual bond with the Mahdi that the president claims for himself by making such assertions also makes him suspect to leading clerics in Qom. The Haqqani school was not held in particularly high esteem by Khomeini, the revolutionary leader and founder of the Iranian theocracy, and he is even said to have considered banning the organization. The radical followers of the Haqqani movement are also said to be viewed with suspicion by Khomeini's successor, Khamenei.

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According to associates of Ahmadinejad, he continues to meet with his mentor every week for an ideological tête-à-tête. Members of parliament have questioned why this peculiar cleric, this "adviser" to the president, should be involved in decisions, and on whose authority. Mesbah Yazdi, 74, has since been named director of the Imam Khomeini Education and Research Institute in Qom. In the election to the Assembly of Experts in December 2006, which was apparently not manipulated, the radical cleric suffered a serious setback when he was defeated by moderate reformers associated with former President Mohammed Khatami, who called Mesbah Yazdi a "theoretician of violence." He was also clearly bested by members of the camp of multi-millionaire Hashemi Rafsanjani who are well-established within the system. After that, Mesbah Yazdi, whose nickname is "Professor Crocodile," promptly snapped back at all dissidents. He wants to purify the country of all reformist movements, and he is known to have characterized supporters of the reformist camp as "a pile of booze-drinking rags."

In times of existential threat, Shiite Islam expressly permits "taqiyya," a doctrine which allows deception or lying for the greater good of the community. This is a concept, reinterpreted for contemporary purposes, from the early days of Islam, when the Shia minority was forced to resort to any means possible to survive against an aggressive Sunni majority. Which raises the question: Is Mesbah Yazdi the father of creative vote counting?

The fundamentalist Haqqinists believe that the Mahdi will celebrate his return to earth in Jamkaran, on the outskirts of Qom. The president has spent millions to enlarge and embellish the local mosque in Jamkaran, and there are plans to build a costly new rail line from Tehran to the pilgrimage site, which Ahmadinejad frequently visits. However visitors to Jamkaran, where large numbers of pilgrims, separated by gender, throw their notes with their wishes into two holy wells, would be hard pressed to find any signs of the apocalyptic visions associated with it. In fact, Jamkaran does not seem sinister or threatening at all, but instead has the air of a peaceful, lively pilgrimage site, a place where families might sit down together for a picnic -- part Christian Lourdes and part Jewish Wailing Wall.

Ahmadinejad, Holocaust denier and avowed hater of Israel, has repeatedly assured that he will not attack the "Zionist entity" militarily. Instead, say his defenders, his desire to see Israel wiped off the map should be understood in a "metaphysical way." Experts on Iran, like Cologne-based Islamic Studies professor Katajun Amirpur, point out the semantic subtleties that some have overlooked. According to Amirpur, the Iranian president did not call for the "eradication" of Israel, but said: "This (Israeli) occupier regime must disappear from the pages of history."

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But do such interpretations of Ahmadinejad's words make any difference to Israel -- a country that, despite its military might, still seems to believe that its very existence is threatened, a country shaped by the all-encompassing principle that another Holocaust can never be allowed to happen? How can they trust a man, many Israelis ask, who feels chosen to lead his country to greatness by whatever means possible, and to satisfy his extremist principles?

A visit to the Netanyahu family

They call him "Bibi," as if he were on a first-name basis with the entire nation and had never grown up. Whenever this Bibi, aka Benjamin Netanyahu, has mentioned Tehran and its political leadership in recent months, he has repeated his mantra that the Iranian nuclear program is the greatest threat Israel has confronted "since its creation in 1948." The liberal and consistently well-informed Israeli daily Haaretz wrote: "Politicians in touch with Netanyahu say he has already made up his mind to destroy Iran's nuclear installations" -- apparently without Washington's approval.

What could make the Israeli prime minister feel so confident that he is doing the right thing? It is an important question, given the potentially serious consequences of such a military strike, which could range from Iran firing missiles at Tel Aviv to a wave of Hezbollah and Hamas terrorist attacks, not to mention the damage this would do to Israel's relations with the United States, whose backing is critical to its survival.

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Flashback: Jerusalem, the house of Netanyahu's father, mid-July 1976. The Netanyahu family has invited me, together with Israeli journalist Shabtai Tal, to their home. The mood is somber. The sense of mourning for Yonatan Netanyahu lies over everyone like a heavy veil. A few days earlier, an Israeli special forces unit, in what was probably the most spectacular rescue in the history of terrorism, had liberated more than 90 hostages on board an Air France jet at Entebbe Airport in Uganda that had been hijacked by Palestinians. The only Israeli casualty of the commando mission, presumably killed by a ricochet, was the unit's brilliant commander, Yonatan Netanyahu, nicknamed Yoni -- Bibi's brother. He was only 30 when he died.

For many Israelis, Yonatan Netanyahu had with the Entebbe mission sent a Jewish message to the world, one that continues to shape the debate in today's discussion over the country's stance toward Iran. It was a symbol that challenged the notion that suffering must be passive, a symbol of taking control, even in a seemingly hopeless situation -- a kind of continuation of the 1943 uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto.

In a situation of personal mourning, as was the case during my 1976 visit to Jerusalem, it is certainly not unusual for all emphasis to be placed on the lost son. Benzion Netanyahu, the family patriarch, spoke affectionately of Yoni's willingness to give his life for Israel. But it was also noticeable that Benjamin and Iddo, the youngest brother, never dared to speak, remaining reverently silent when the patriarch launched into a sweeping digression into Jewish history.

It is difficult to judge whether Benjamin Netanyahu was ever jealous of his heroic brother, who was three years his senior. At any rate, he admired -- and tried to emulate -- his older brother from the earliest days of his youth. After completing his military service, Yoni joined Sayeret Matkal, an elite unit of the Israeli Defense Force, and was eventually promoted to commander. Bibi followed in his footsteps. Yoni received the highest decorations for bravery. Bibi, who was part of a mission to rescue hostages on board a hijacked Sabena jet, received the country's second-highest decoration for bravery. The struggle against evil to rescue Jews, embodied in such an exemplary fashion by the martyr in the family, the "Israeli legend," became a legacy for Benjamin Netanyahu. Bibi, again following in his older brother's footsteps, went to the United States, where he attended prestigious universities. When we attended the wake for his brother in Jerusalem, he mentioned that he was considering entering politics.

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A second important influence in the life of the Israeli prime minister is his now 99-year-old father. He was always something of a patriarch, and his children strictly obeyed his "suggestions." That included the willingness to make important personal sacrifices for the Jewish state. Iddo, a radiologist today, also served with the dangerous elite military unit. Benjamin made it his mission to fill the outsized footsteps of his brother Yonatan, and to fight anti-Jewish terror at least as enthusiastically and thoroughly. The family patriarch provided his sons with the necessary ideological tools.

He was born Benzion Mileikowsky, the son of a rabbi, in Warsaw. In 1920, the family emigrated to the Holy Land. Benzion lived in the city of Jaffa, whose population at the time was mainly Arab, before moving to Jerusalem as a student. He took on the Hebrew name Netanyahu (which translates roughly as "gift from God") and wrote for a newspaper that was banned for "agitation" in 1935 by the British Mandate administration. Then the young historian went to America, where he became secretary to the revisionist Zionist Vladimir Zeev Jabotinsky, a man who rejected all compromise with the Arabs. Netanyahu also believed in a Greater Israel and, in America, vehemently fought the partition plan that led to the creation of the Israeli state in 1948.

After returning to Israel, Benzion Netanyahu attempted to embark on a career in Israeli politics, but even Menachem Begin's right-wing Likud bloc rejected his demands as being too extreme. From then on, he devoted himself to his books, became the co-publisher of the Encyclopedia Hebraica and wrote a book about the history of Jews in Spain. In his more than 1,300-page opus, the key points of which he conveyed to his sons in hours of family readings, the historian argues that the Spaniards were more strongly motivated by racism than religion in their pogroms against the Jews during the Inquisition. He also argues that militant anti-Semitism is always an expression of unmotivated hatred, and that there is only one possible response to it: militant and, if necessary, preventive Jewish self-defense.

Netanyahu Sr. could point out to his sons, with some justification, that he was one of the few who had warned against the Holocaust early on. He also instilled in them the conviction that the family had a special calling, that it was chosen.

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'A liar and a cheat'

I met Bibi again a few years later, in New York. He had just been named Israel's ambassador to the United Nations. By the time of our next interview, he had already become Israel's deputy foreign minister. He spoke contemptuously about "Palestinian delusions" and said that they would "be in for a surprise when I come to power." In 1993, his party members elected him to the chairmanship of Likud, and three years later he defeated Shimon Peres in a neck-and-neck race to become the youngest person ever to serve as Israeli prime minister, a post he held until 1999. A hardliner, Netanyahu had a different relationship with the Americans. "That son-of-a-bitch doesn't want a deal," former US President Bill Clinton once said heatedly, in the presence of several witnesses, in response to yet another example of Netanyahu's obstructionist policies. In an interview, former White House spokesman Joe Lockhart called the Israeli prime minister "one of the most obnoxious individuals you're going to come into -- just a liar and a cheat."

But as much as Bibi Netanyahu rubbed people the wrong way, he stubbornly upheld the principles he had inherited from his father and brother, sounded a rallying cry to hunt down terrorists worldwide and pursued his plans to create a Greater Israel. He also showed that he could act against his own ideological convictions when he had run out of other options. For instance, he handed over portions of the city of Hebron to the Palestinians, stirring up resentment within his own ranks.

The duty to fight Amalek

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In December 2005, Netanyahu celebrated his comeback as Likud chairman and, in early 2009, led the party into elections as the frontrunner. That election, not unlike the recent election in Iran, did not produce clear results, even though -- as could be expected in the Middle East's only democracy -- it was free and fair. Netanyahu's party came in second, while Kadima, the party of the popular Tzipi Livni, who was open to negotiations with the Arabs, managed to secure one additional seat in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Netanyahu was forced to form a coalition with an ultra-religious party and to strike a deal with right-wing populist Avigdor Lieberman, a man Haaretz has called a "racist and fascist." Lieberman, to the chagrin of many Israelis, was made foreign minister in Netanyahu's new cabinet.

Netanyahu has not forgotten his roots. He often mentions the two people who shaped his life and his way of thinking. He dedicated a fiery book on fighting terrorism to his father, and he published a book of the letters of his fallen brother. Despite living up to his reputation as a hardliner in the first few months of his new term, he demonstrated at least the willingness to compromise. In response to pressure from the Obama administration, in a keynote speech on foreign policy that he gave last week, Netanyahu spoke for the first time of a "Palestinian state." It was an important moment even if the hurdles he set for its establishment were so high that even moderate Palestinians had trouble recognizing any real willingness to budge.

It is certainly possible that Netanyahu will retreat from other positions in the coming months, perhaps, under pressure from Washington, abandoning the expansion of settlements -- which he is currently pursuing, in violation of all commitments under international law, under the euphemism of "natural growth." But Netanyahu is almost certain to remain unbending on the question of Iranian nuclear bombs, steering Israel toward an attack. Why does he believe that a red line has been crossed? And why does he seem to yearn for his adversary Ahmadinejad to remain in office, as even the respected German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported with astonishment, citing Israeli sources?

When American author and Israel expert Jeffrey Goldberg recently asked a Netanyahu confidant to explain this fixation, he simply replied: "Think Amalek." This is the Jewish concept that forms a potentially disastrous parallel to the Islamic Haqqani school -- a pair of mirror-image concepts that could spell war. In a biblical context, Amalek was the grandson of Esau who, with his tribal warriors from Canaan, launched a treacherous and unprovoked attack on the Hebrews as they were traveling to the Holy Land, Eretz Israel. In a broader sense, the term Amalek refers to the existential threat to Judaism at all times, under all circumstances and by all enemies. The Torah, Devarim 25, Fifth Book of Moses, reads: "Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt--how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear."

No Jewish generation is permitted to forget the conflict with Amalek, because Amalek embodies the intrinsically evil and destructive. Fighting Amalek is the duty of every devout Jew, a "mitzvah aseh" or commandment of action. According to some interpretations of ancient scripture, this mitzvah is more far-reaching, namely a commandment to eliminate the original enemies of the Jews.

Rabbis like Bibi Netanyahu's grandfather taught, and continue to teach today, that Jews are forced to combat the Amalekites, who are constantly, as Goldberg puts it, "reappearing in new forms": the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar and of the Spanish Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, Adolf Hitler's thugs, and now the hardliners who are vowing to destroy Israel, together with their president, Ahmadinejad. Those who, like Netanyahu, see Iran's nuclear program as Amalek's arsenal of weapons, are not just entitled, but are in fact obligated, to take preventive measures to destroy it. According to Jewish apocalyptic constructs, a Jewish state would cease to exist after a possible Iranian nuclear first strike. In other words, it is better to attack first in the case of doubt.

The notion that Iran, if it were to use nuclear weapons, would be acting suicidally and would see its government and hundreds of thousands of innocent people wiped out in the inevitable counter-attack is irrelevant. In fact, say the anti-Amalekites, Ahmadinejad literally yearns for such an inferno, because it would pave the way for the return of the Mahdi in the resulting end-time scenario. The Israelis reject as naïve the idea that Ahmadinejad is "merely" a populist and, with his nuclear program, could "only" be pursuing tactical goals like the regional strengthening of Iran to bring it to the same level as Israel, a nuclear power.

Is a coming war virtually unavoidable? In Israel's more recent history, hasn't it always been the hardliners who have managed to achieve important compromises and who, like Begin or Sharon, or possibly Netanyahu in the current conflict, were also able to convince the people of the need for such compromises? Isn't it possible that Ahmadinejad could be interested in, or forced to, scale back his demands?

The solutions for monitoring the Iranian nuclear program are on the table. The West will have to be prepared to fundamentally grant the Iranians the right to uranium enrichment -- under strict international supervision. The Iranians will have to agree to limit their arsenal to a few dozen centrifuges for scientific research, and to purchase the nuclear fuel for their civilian program from other countries. In return for Tehran's willingness to compromise, the West would agree to a "grand bargain" involving unrestricted trade, the transfer of scientific know-how and diplomatic recognition by Washington.

But the signs are currently pointing to stormy weather ahead: to Haqqani versus Amalek, and to a showdown between the unlike twins.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.


This article has been provided by Der Spiegel through a special arrangement with Salon. For more from Europe's most-read newsmagazine, visit Spiegel Online or subscribe to the daily newsletter.


Erich Follath

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