In Israel, the threat of Iran going nuclear is the only issue

by Russell's Rants

Originally published May 11, 2012


Sign at the border of Israel and Lebanon

Tel Aviv, Israel

On the last day of our trip to Israel this past weekend, our group attended a lecture by Sheldon Shulman, a national security aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Schulman sardonically joked that after our lecture, he was going to a national security briefing – which these days means a meeting about Iran.

Iran is topic one in all conversations about politics in Israel today. Mr. Schulman related to us that starting this September, all Israeli schoolchildren in Grade 5 and above will receive training on how to survive a nuclear attack – including on how to care for younger siblings should their parents be separate or killed. Mr. Shulman told us that Iran has constructed models of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to test the correct height at which to explode a bomb over those cites for maximum impact. In Mr. Shulman’s view, once Tehran gets the bomb, it will make good on its threats to use it against Israel.

Not all Israelis that we met on our trip necessarily believe that Iran will actually fire its nuclear weapons once acquired. We met with Etan, the leader of a Kibbutz in Northern Galilee. Where his fruit fields end, Lebanon begins. Etan pointed to the hill directly on the other side of the boarder overlooking his Kibbutz and explained that Hezbollah guerillas were watching our every move – which on that particular day happened to include planting a fruit tree in the orchard and meeting with the IDF soldiers patrolling the area. Etan’s love of the land, his people and his soldiers (his “boys”) was palpable. In Etan’s view, Iran would not have to launch a ballistic attack on Israel for its acquisition of a nuclear bomb to be devastating. Rather, as he colorfully put it, under current circumstances, when Hezbollah guerillas across the hill in Lebanon act up, Israel is free to pound them hard into submission. But if Hezbollah’s “father” in Tehran has the bomb, then Israel needs to think twice before pounding the “son.” And that very act of having to think twice erodes Israel’s strategic military position.

In other words, what Etan was telling us is that the mere fact of a nuclear Iran alters the balance of power in the Middle East in a manner detrimentally unacceptable to the Jewish State – and, as Mr. Shulman would add, would create a nuclear arms race by the Sunni Arab Gulf States to counter Persian Iran.

The import of Mr. Shulman’s lecture was that Israel could not wait to see if it would survive a first strike from Iran because its command and control facilities in such a small country might be tested beyond capacity. Iran’s strategic goal is to be the hegemonic power in the Middle East, which just a few years ago meant taking down Saudi Arabia, Israel and Egypt, in that order of difficulty. In light of the Arab Spring and Iran’s progress toward the bomb, Mr. Shulman now thinks the order has reversed!

The import of Etan’s discussion with us is that it doesn’t matter if Iran uses the bomb, but whether it acquires it at all. The conclusion is that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons under any circumstances.

Mr. Shulman thinks there is a small window of opportunity for international sanctions and diplomacy to work. But a very small window. Charles Krauthammer in this country views the big political news out of Israel this weekend as we were flying home – that instead of calling for early elections that he was sure to win resoundingly, Prime Minister Netanyahu formed a large national unity government with rival Kadima – as strong evidence of “Israel’s political readiness to attack, if necessary.” Krauthammer likens Israel’s position today to that of May 1967 when its neighbors threatened imminent attack.

It has been 31 years since I first visited the Land of Israel as a teenager in the early 1980’s. At that time, the Independence, Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars seemed liked vivid but distant memories, and Israel’s place in the world, while challenged, seemed secure. How odd it is that three decades later the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran has forced me to reconsider my youthful optimism.