Analyzing Tuesday’s surprise announcement of a national unity government in Israel, Charles Krauthammer suggests a parallel to 1967, in which Israel formed a unity government shortly before launching a pre-emptive strike on the massed forces of Egypt.
“Everyone understood why,” Krauthammer writes. “You do not undertake a supremely risky preemptive war without the full participation of a broad coalition representing a national consensus”:
Because for Israelis today, it is May ’67. The dread is not quite as acute: The mood is not despair, just foreboding. Time is running out, but not quite as fast. War is not four days away, but it looms. Israelis today face the greatest threat to their existence — nuclear weapons in the hands of apocalyptic mullahs publicly pledged to Israel’s annihilation — since May ’67. The world is again telling Israelis to do nothing as it looks for a way out. But if such a way is not found — as in ’67 — Israelis know that they will once again have to defend themselves, by themselves.
“Nuclear weapons in the hands of apocalyptic mullahs publicly pledged to Israel’s annihilation” would obviously represent a serious threat to Israel, but it’s worth unpacking this statement and examining each of its three claims.
First, with regard to an Iranian nuclear weapon, while Iran still has yet to answer key questions from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) about the nature of its nuclear work, the current position of both U.S. and Israeli intelligence is that the Iranian government has not yet made a decision to obtain a nuclear weapon. In an interview last month, Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said Iran “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile.” Surveying the enormous pressure being brought to bear on Iran, Gantz continued, “I believe he [Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei] would be making an enormous mistake” by manufacturing a nuclear bomb, “and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile.”
Second, while Twelver Shia theology does speak of an End Times scenario (as do other faiths), there’s no evidence that a desire to trigger the apocalypse is driving Iranian policy. In the same interview, echoing former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Lt. Gen. Gantz said, “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.” This isn’t to diminish Iran’s various aggressive actions, such as its continuing support for terrorism, only to point out that the evidence strongly suggests that Iran’s leaders are very much focused on the here and now, and not the afterlife.
Third, while Iranian leaders have made offensive and threatening statements about Israel, the last few months have seen Iranian leaders specifically walking back a number of those statements. Asked in March about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s oft-cited claim that Israel would be “wiped from the page of history,” Mohammed Javad Larijani, a key adviser and spokesperson for Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, disavowed Ahmadinejad’s remarks, saying they were “definitely not” meant in a military sense and that such a move was not “a policy of Iran.”
Similarly, in an April interview, former Iranian president Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, who was recently re-appointed by Khamenei as head of Iran’s Expediency Council, clarified a 1999 statement about Israel’s vulnerability in a nuclear-armed Middle East, saying it was mistakenly interpreted as a threat against Israel. “Having nuclear weapons is not even in Israel’s interest,” Rafsanjani explained. “We deeply believe that nuclear weapons must not exist, and this has been part of our policy.”
Of course, given their record of deception on the nuclear issue, the Iranians shouldn’t simply be taken at their word, which is why getting them to satisfactorily address the IAEA’s questions is a top goal of the current P5+1 negotiations. And none of this is to diminish the very real and legitimate concerns that Israelis and others in the region have over the prospect of an Iranian nuke. But, as retired Israeli Big. Gen. Shlomo Brom noted in March, efforts to prevent that outcome are not helped by making wild claims about the nature and imminence of the threat. (It’s also worth noting that quite a few Israeli commentators have doubted whether the creation of a unity government has much to do with Iran at all.)
Finally, Krauthammer’s rendering of Israel standing alone against a gathering threat is simply not accurate. Not only has the Obama administration extended U.S. military support and deepened intelligence cooperation with Israel over the Iranian nuclear issue, it has also forged, with considerable diplomatic effort, a broad and durable international coalition toward addressing that issue. There may be disagreements as to the exact timing and strategy, but Israel is in no sense on its own. As Lt. Gen. Gantz put it, “The state of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.”