We’ve been through this before. As one of the most disastrous wars in our history is coming to an inglorious end, the same neoconservative hawks who dreamed it up are agitating for a new war that would make Iraq look like the invasion of Grenada -- and using the ultimate trump card in American politics to silence debate over it.
When hawks begin beating the drums for war in the Middle East, Israel is usually a big reason why. That was true in the run-up to the war in Iraq, and it is doubly true with the current hysteria over Iran. Despite disingenuous claims to the contrary, the only reason the U.S. is even talking about war with Iran is Israel. As the invaluable M.J. Rosenberg, who knows the working of the Israel lobby as only a former card-carrying member can, notes, “It is impossible to find a single politician or journalist advocating war with Iran who is not a neocon or an AIPAC cutout. (They’re often both.)”
Ever since the International Atomic Energy Agency released its overhyped, old-news report on Iran’s nuclear program, Israel’s amen corner in the U.S. has been loudly calling for war.
If American politics did not contain an enormous blind spot, no one would pay any attention to what these discredited ideologues have to say. The Iraq war they championed turned out to be one of the biggest foreign-policy disasters in U.S. history. Their ignorant and Islamophobic view of the Middle East is as breathtaking as their bland willingness to commit America to yet another ruinous war against a Muslim country, this time one four times larger than Iraq and with more than twice as many people. They have a demonstrated track record of complete failure.
Yet these incompetent militarists are still taken seriously. And the reason is simple: They purport to be supporters of Israel. In American politics, you can get away with even the most cracked war-mongering as long as you claim to be “pro-Israel.” And the ultimate get-out-of-jail-free card for anything having to do with Israel is the Holocaust.
To listen to the neocons and hawks, you’d think Hitler was about to send the tanks over the Polish border. Former U.S. ambassador and Dr. Strangelove impersonator John Bolton said, “The only alternative now is the potential for a pre-emptive military strike against their military program, either by the United States or Israel. Diplomacy has failed. Sanctions have failed.” For Bolton, Iran is the second coming of Nazi Germany: "If the choice is them continuing [towards a nuclear bomb] or the use of force, I think you're at a Hitler marching into the Rhineland point ... We’re still in 1936, but not for long.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, the former Israeli Defense Forces corporal and Atlantic writer, whose bogus claim in the New Yorker that Saddam Hussein might give his nonexistent WMD to al-Qaida helped convince some liberals to support the Iraq war, claims, “The Israeli case for preemption is compelling, and has been for some time.”
Why? “The leaders of Iran are eliminationist anti-Semites; men who, for reasons of theology, view the state of the Jews as a ‘cancer.’ They have repeatedly called for Israel’s destruction and worked to hasten that end, mainly by providing material support and training to two organizations, Hamas and Hezbollah, that specialize in the slaughter of innocent Jews. Iran’s leaders are men who deny the Holocaust while promising another.”
Goldberg acknowledged the downside for Israel of attacking Iran, including international isolation and retaliation, but for him that was a reason why America, not Israel, should threaten war.
“Numerous Israeli officials have told me that they are much less likely to recommend a preemptive strike of their own if they were reasonably sure that Obama was willing to use force. And if Iran’s leaders feared there was a real chance of a U.S. attack, they might actually modify their behavior," Goldberg wrote. “I believe Obama would use force -- and that he should make that perfectly clear to the Iranians.”
Neoconservative leader Bill Kristol, who was wrong about Iraq and was rewarded by being given a gig at the New York Times, where he quickly proved to be perhaps the worst columnist of all time, wrote in the Weekly Standard, “The next speech we need to hear from the Obama administration should announce that, after 30 years, we have gone on the offensive against this murderous regime. And the speech after that can celebrate the fall of the regime, and offer American help to the democrats building a free and peaceful Iran.” In 2009, Kristol compared Obama to Neville Chamberlain for not being sufficiently outspoken on behalf of the Iranian people.
The Holocaust mind-set
But the most nakedly coercive use of the Holocaust was made by GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich (whose trustworthiness in foreign policy matters can be judged by the fact that he criticized the Bush State Department for not cooking its intelligence to support the Iraq war). “I don’t think the United States has the moral right to say to a country whose people who have already gone through one Holocaust – two nuclear weapons is another Holocaust,” Gingrich said. “And I think to ask them to take that risk is unconscionable.”
Israel’s leaders and their acolytes in the U.S. have a long history of invoking the Holocaust. From the beginning of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Israel has painted the Palestinians as Nazis and their leaders as Hitlers. On the eve of Israel’s 1982 disastrous invasion of Lebanon, Prime Minister Menachem Begin told the Israeli Cabinet, “Believe me, the alternative to fighting is Treblinka, and we have resolved that there would be no Treblinkas.”
In a speech he gave at the Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon -- whom an Israeli commission found bore “personal responsibility” for the horrific 1982 massacre at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon, and recommended that he never hold office again -- said, “For the Jewish people, the lesson of the Holocaust has been learned. Jews will never again exist in a world with no home, with no haven of rest to run to, and no Jewish defense force to protect them.”
Israel’s current, far-right prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is also given to invoking the Holocaust -- invariably referring to Iran.
"It's 1938 and Iran is Germany," Netanyahu said in 2006. "And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.” In language virtually identical to Goldberg’s, Netanyahu said that while the Iranian president "denies the Holocaust, he is preparing another Holocaust for the Jewish state."
"We will always remember what the Nazi Amalek did to us," Netanyahu said at a 2010 Holocaust remembrance service at Auschwitz, "and we won't forget to be prepared for the new Amalek, who is making an appearance on the stage of history and once again threatening to destroy the Jews.”
The Holocaust mind-set has led Israel into self-destructive policies. And its promiscuous invocation has helped ensure that Israel maintains a stranglehold over America’s Mideast policy. That stranglehold has always been harmful to America, but it is now actually dangerous.
For there is a very real possibility that Israel will attack Iran. I have been reading Israel’s best newspaper, Ha’aretz, for more than 10 years, and I have never seen a possible war with Iran taken so seriously by its journalists. Ha’aretz is a left-leaning paper, but the concern in Israel reaches across the political spectrum. Israel’s leading political columnist, Nahum Barnea, recently warned in a front-page story in Israel’s highest-circulation newspaper, the centrist Yediot Achronot, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, overriding the objections of their security experts, may launch an attack on Iran this winter.
Barnea’s article is in Hebrew: it is summarized by Larry Derfner, who writes for the excellent Israeli-American site 972. Barnea wrote, “Netanyahu [believes] Ahmadinejad is Hitler; if he is not stopped in time, there will be another Holocaust. There are those who describe Netanyahu’s attitude on the matter as an obsession: all his life he dreamed of being Churchill; Iran gives him the opportunity.”
The odds of war
To be sure, the odds are still against Israel actually launching an attack. Washington has made it clear it does not want war with Iran, and the first rule of Israeli politics is “never threaten the special relationship with America.” Israel has been warning that Iran is months away from getting a nuclear bomb for years. And it has a history of rattling its saber as a tactic to force the U.S. to take a harder line with Iran.
But the possibility that Israel might attack Iran, especially after the U.S. troops leave Iraq, cannot be taken lightly -- not least because of Netanyahu’s invocation of the Holocaust. Netanyahu is apparently sincerely convinced that if Iran’s nuclear program is not destroyed, Israel will face another Holocaust. If that is true, the traditional restraints on Israeli behavior may not apply.
It is possible that Israel might attack Iran unilaterally, and dare the U.S. to stop it. As Iran analyst Mark Fitzpatrick told Reuters, "When you consider that next year being the U.S. presidential election year, and the dynamics of politics in the United States, this could increase Israel's inclination to take matters into its own hands. The most likely possibility is that Netanyahu calls up Obama and says: 'I'm not asking for a green light, I'm just telling you that we've just launched the planes, don't shoot them down.’ And in a U.S. presidential election year, I think it's unlikely that Obama would shoot them down."
The Israeli historian Benny Morris makes the same point.
“Most observers in Israel believe that while Israel would like to have a green light from Washington, it will proceed without one if it believes that its existence is at stake,” he wrote in the National Interest. “The feeling here is that Obama will endorse, and perhaps in various ways assist, an Israeli strike once it is underway -- whether or not he is consulted beforehand -- because he sees the ayatollahs' regime as a threat to world peace and American interests in the Middle East; because successive American administrations, including his own, have declared that Washington will not to allow Iran to acquire the bomb; and because, in a presidential election year, Obama cannot afford to alienate the Jewish vote.”
Morris’ assertion that Obama would be willing to endorse and perhaps assist an Israeli strike because he believes it is justified is extremely dubious, to put it mildly. Obama’s Middle East policies have been hugely disappointing, but he is not a fool. He knows that Iran -- which has not started a war in modern history -- poses no conceivable military threat to the United States. He also knows that the Arab Spring and the crisis in Syria have weakened Tehran’s geo-strategic position. There is also the little issue of America being bankrupt and its military exhausted. For all these reasons, for Washington to even consider starting a war with Iran would be utter lunacy. This is why Obama has repeatedly sent Netanyahu high-level messages, from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others, warning him not to launch a unilateral attack.
But starting a war is one thing, and daring to stand up to Israel in an election year is another. As usual, the discourse is tilted psychotically to the right. The GOP presidential candidates are beating up Obama for his alleged lack of support for Israel and falling over each other to be first in line to attack Iran. (Mitt Romney, who stands a decent chance of being the next president, actually said that he would simply let Israel decide America’s Mideast policy.) And considering Obama’s politically driven surrender to Netanyahu, Morris and Fitzpatrick are probably right that he would be unwilling to confront the Israeli leader.
In other words, it is quite likely that the most powerful nation in the world will simply stand impotently by while a tiny client state threatens to do something that it knows is not just antithetical to its interests, but possibly ruinous to them. The tail could be about to wag the dog right off a cliff.
If war does break out, the consequences for America would be catastrophic. Oil prices would soar, plunging the U.S. and the world into a massive depression. Iran would use its proxies to attack U.S. troops. And the entire region would erupt, with unforeseeable consequences. It is not too much of a stretch to say that war with Iran might spell the beginning of the end of America as a superpower.
Of course, if a nuclear Iran really did threaten the existence of Israel, a preemptive strike might be justified. But according to the upper echelons of Israeli’s military and security brass, Iran does not pose such a threat. Israel’s recently retired Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, called plans to attack Iran “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” saying that an attack would mean a regional war that would put Israel in an “impossible” position.
Israel’s former military chief of staff, Gabe Ashkenazi, is also opposed to war, as is former Shin Beth head Yuval Diskin. Another former Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, said Iran poses no existential threat to Israel and attacking it “will impact the region for 100 years.”
If Iran were to launch a nuclear missile at Israel, Israel would instantly vaporize it with the estimated 200 nuclear warheads it possesses. Contrary to the ignorant claims made by Islamophobic hawks like Goldberg, Iran is not run by madmen bent on committing national suicide. (If its leaders really are “eliminationist anti-Semites,” it’s hard to understand why they have not wiped out Tehran’s Jewish community.)
In fact, the logic behind attacking Iran is identical to that of Dick Cheney’s notorious “one percent doctrine,” which held that if there was even a 1 percent chance that Iraq might acquire WMD, the U.S. had to attack. Cheney’s crackpot doctrine has been thoroughly discredited. But because the supposed 1 percent possibility is another Holocaust, it is once again framing American policy.
What a nuclear Iran really threatens, as several top Israeli officials have admitted, is Israeli hegemony in the region. The Arab Spring and the rise of Turkey have already begun to erode that hegemony, and Iran’s inevitable acquisition of the ability to build a bomb will further erode it. Israel cannot fight this trend. The days when it could impose its will by bullying are over. It must learn to live with its neighbors.
Which takes us to the one thing that is anathema to the war-mongers: full diplomatic engagement with Tehran. It is time for the U.S. to put everything on the table – Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian file, the nuclear issue, Iraq – thrash it all out, acknowledge that Iran is going to be a major regional player, and come to an agreement.
The key element is the Israeli-Palestinian issue. If Israel makes a just peace with the Palestinians and the Arab League recognizes Israel, the entire raison d’etre of Iran’s rejectionist position would be removed. Israel and Iran would then just be neighbors squabbling over their turf, along with the rest of the countries in the rapidly transforming Middle East.
Israel stands at a crossroads -- and time is not on its side. Netanyahu is a disciple of the father of Revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, who argued that the Arabs, understandably in his view, would never voluntarily accept Zionist colonization, and could only be controlled by an “Iron Wall the native population cannot break through.”
Netanyahu lacks Jabotinsky’s intellectual integrity, but shares his belief that brute force is Israel’s only recourse. For him, it is always 1938, the Palestinians are terrorists, Israel’s enemies are murderous anti-Semites and the Jewish state must exist in a constant state of war.
Israel, supported by the United States, has been fighting the Nazis for 63 years. That Iron Wall approach, which sees all of Israel’s enemies as reincarnations of Hitler (as in Jeffrey Goldberg’s propagandistic assertion that Hezbollah and Hamas “specialize in the slaughter of innocent Jews”) has been a calamitous failure. It has not made Israel safer. As even center-right Israeli politicians like Tzipi Livni now recognize, it has resulted in Israel becoming increasingly isolated from the world, much of which now sees it as a pariah.
And Israel will not be given another 63 years. If it continues down this path, aided by its false “friends” in the U.S. who insist on fighting Hitler-redux to the last Israeli (and the last American), Israel is doomed. But if it abandons its self-defeating Holocaustology, it will be able to live in peace with its neighbors and join the world.
From the founding of Israel in the ashes of the Final Solution, the Holocaust has been at the core of Israel’s national identity. That identity is affirmed every year, when at 10 in the morning, sirens are sounded for two minutes throughout Israel to commemorate the Holocaust. During those two minutes, everything comes to a standstill. Even the traffic on the road stops.
It is understandable that a people who suffered one of the most horrific genocides in human history would commemorate it, and vow never to allow it to happen again. But history is filled with ugly ironies, and sometimes the reaction to a trauma ensures that it keeps happening again.
A young Polish Jew named Ruth Grunkraut and her mother were shipped to Bergen-Belsen. Grunkraut’s mother died just six days before the Allies liberated the camp. Before she died, she told her daughter, “You must live. You must live for me.”
The annals of the Holocaust are filled with this same message: You must live.
An attack on Iran will be carried out in the name of the victims of the Holocaust. But that attack, rather than saving the Jewish state, will sound the death knell for it. Israel and its American supporters owe more to the millions of human beings whose last prayer, before their deaths, was that their children live.