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Israel Raises Nuke Threat to Iran

by Ira Chernus

You've got to give Israel's leaders credit for creativity, if for nothing else. They never run out of new excuses for their violence, each more imaginative (and imaginary) than the last. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just gave his official explanation to the Israeli people for the deaths on the Mavi Marmara. And guess whose fault it was. (Are you ready for this?) Iran! 

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised, since Netanyahu and most of Israel have been obsessed with Iran as the source of all evil for years now. But how did he make such far-fetched connection? Simple: "Iran is continuing to smuggle weapons into Gaza. It is our obligation to prevent these weapons from being brought in by land and sea. ... If the blockade had been broken, dozens and hundreds more ships carrying weapons could have come."

From chocolate for kids to missiles for terrorists, just like that. It's an easy leap for minds trapped in a sense of powerlessness and victimhood that "is nothing less than pathological." That's how Henry Siegman, former head of the American Jewish Congress, described the twisted logic of Netanyahu, whose message is always "that the whole world is against Israel and that Israelis are at risk of another Holocaust" -- especially if Iran gets even one nuclear weapon, Israel's PM insists at every opportunity. 

Yet this is a particularly infelicitous time for Netanyahu to be raising the imaginary specter of an Iranian nuclear weapon -- which doesn't exist and may very well never exist -- for two reasons.

First, the world is starting to pay much more attention to Israel's nuclear weapons, which certainly do exist, in great quantity. (The best estimates often run as high as 200.)  Press coverage of the recent Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty conference, even in the U.S. mass media, highlighted the issue. At the conference, all NPT members called for a 2012 meeting to begin turning the Middle East, including Israel, into a nuclear-free zone. That would mean inspecting Israel's nuclear arsenal and making sure it is dismantled. Even the U.S. agreed to the call, hoping to gain wider support for stopping Iran's supposedly menacing nuclear program.

But who should really be afraid of nuclear attack? That brings us to the second reason Netanyahu might want to keep the spotlight off Iran and the nuclear issue. Three Israeli submarines are heading to the Persian Gulf, where they will be stationed permanently, just off the coast of Iran.  They can stay at sea for about 50 days and stay submerged for at least a week. They're equipped with cruise missiles that can reach any target in Iran. And some of those cruise missiles are equipped with the most advanced nuclear warheads in the Israeli arsenal.

Though that story was reported by the Times of London and several Israeli newspapers, it got little if any notice in the U.S. mass media. And now that all eyes are on the terrible attack at sea, it's not likely to get any notice. Perhaps that's why Netanyahu could risk giving Iran such a central role in his concocted version of the Mavi Marmara tragedy.

No one is paying attention to the central fact: Even if Iranian missiles were being smuggled into Gaza, they would be mere firecrackers compared to the nuclear missiles that Israel plans to keep permanently in range of Teheran and every other city in Iran.

What does the Israeli justification of the attack on the Mavi Marmara tell the Iranians? It was self-defense, Netanyahu insisted; Israel has the right to use any violence necessary to stop ships from coming into Gaza harbor. His defense minister, Ehud Barak, agreed, telling the commandos who carried out the attack that "we live in the Middle East, in a place where there is no mercy for the weak." And a top Israeli Navy commander warned that Israel will use even more aggressive force to prevent future ships, like the MV Rachel Corrie, from breaking the blockade

If I were an Iranian military planner, I would be listening to all this very closely. It's all about self-defense, right? Well Iran is in infinitely more danger than Israel. Barak himself recently said publicly: "Right now, Iran does not pose an existential threat to Israel." But three submarine loaded with nuclear-armed missiles certainly pose an existential threat to Iran. And according to Barak, Middle Eastern nations should show no mercy to the weak.

If I were that Iranian planner, my conclusion would be obvious. I would do everything I could to find those subs and find a way to attack them. I would destroy them if I could. I'd play by Israel's rules and show no mercy.

Doesn't that make perfect sense, you might ask Barak or Netanyahu. Aren't you just asking for it? Do you expect the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to throw up his hands and say "I surrender"? Of course not.  You know that you are throwing more fuel on an already incendiary conflict. You know that Iranian leaders are bound to make some new threatening gestures in return. And indeed the London Times story reported this response from an Iranian admiral: "Anyone who wishes to do an evil act in the Persian Gulf will receive a forceful response from us."

No, no, the Israeli leaders would reply. You don't get it. We can't do an evil act. We are the good guys -- by definition. When we say Middle Easterners show know mercy, we're talking about our enemies. They are out to destroy us -- by definition. So they'll pounce on us as soon as we show any sign of weakness. That's why we have to keep on ratcheting up our show of strength, even if it's bound to ratchet up the conflict and criticism against us too. We're terrified (they'd say, if they were honest) of appearing weak.

That's the pathology Henry Siegman was talking about. Israel has immensely more military power than anyone else in the Middle East. Yet in their imaginations, most Israeli Jews -- and many Jews in other nations -- still picture the Jewish state as a powerless victim, the most threatened people in the world.

In fact the London Times story, written by an Israeli reporter in Tel Aviv, ended with this telling punch line: "Tel Aviv, Israel's business and defence centre, remains the most threatened city in the world, said one expert. ‘There are more missiles per square foot targeting Tel Aviv than any other city,' he said." What? The Israelis can now drop as many nukes as they want on Teheran or any other Iranian city. But it's Tel Aviv that is "the most threatened city in the world"? Give me a break.

Yet as long as our most well-respected mass media continue to present the pathological story of Israeli weakness as if it were fact, they'll also give headlines to Netanyahu's "self-defense" story, as if that should be taken seriously. Meanwhile they'll ignore Israeli nuclear submarines stationed permanently off the coast of Iran.  It would all be funny if it were not so tragic.

The Israelis seem to be trapped in their pathological fear of weakness. That in no way justifies or excuses their egregious violence. But it does go far to explain why they seem so incapable of taking even the smallest steps toward peace.

The only force strong enough to move them is the government of the United States.  I know how frustrating it is to try to change U.S. policy. Believe me, I know. I've been working at it for nearly four decades. But now every terrible act by the Israeli government gets much more scrutiny that it used to.  Now is not the time to stop pushing.

It is time to heed Henry Siegman's conclusion: "The conflict continues because U.S. presidents -- and to a far greater extent, members of the U.S. Congress, who depend every two years on electoral contributions -- have accommodated a pathology that can only be cured by its defiance." 

It is time to defy the Israeli government, and put pressure on the U.S. government, by explaining to everyone, everywhere, the difference between genuine threat -- the kind of threat posed by submarines carrying nuclear missiles -- and the pathological stories spun by the likes of Barak and Netanyahu.   


(This text was corrected on 06/03/10 to include links.)
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