Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert
Last updated: February 14, 2012
Josef Olmert: The past and Israel's calculus about Iran

"Their very existence as a sovereign people is called into question yet again"

In January 1989 I braved the atrocious weather and traveled to the University of North Dakota in Fargo to participate in the inaugural proceedings of a new center of peace and conflict resolution studies.  In one of my meetings, a participant asked me;’’ Dr. Olmert, I just read that an ultra-nationalist group called Sikariks was engaged in an anti-Arab activity in the West Bank. Where is this strange name coming from?’’ Well, I answered him, this was the name of a militant Jewish group   fighting the Romans in Jerusalem prior to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 A.D. Today, the Sikariks resurfaced as an anti-Zionist group in the ultra-orthodox community of Jerusalem.

This is just one example, somewhat episodal, though not uncommon of the use of symbols of past Jewish history, even very old one, in the current political and cultural discourse in Israel. Another example is the swearing in of new soldiers of the Israel defense forces in Masada, the last Jewish stronghold to fall to the Romans in 73 A.D. Surely, there are obvious examples from recent past, particularly the Holocaust. Israeli high-school children travel to Poland to visit what is left of the Warsaw Ghetto and the Auschwitz death camp.

No wonder, that a poll taken some years ago among young Israelis under the age of 18 showed, that 37% of them believed that a second Holocaust was possible during their life -time. Stunning results considering the fact, that Israel today is a military, economic and scientific powerhouse.

The in-gathering of Jews from all over the world in the state of Israel required the creation and cementing of a unifying national ethos, and 2000 years of anti-Semitism and persecution provided this ethos. One of deep suspicion towards the outside world. Older Israelis still remember that one of the most popular hit songs after the 1967 war, was ‘’the entire world is against us’… However, the question is whether this ethos has not gone overboard, developed into a sacred cow, one that has the potential of crippling Israel’s leaders ability to make major decisions on issues of national security based mostly on political/strategic assessments of cost and benefit,  rather than the traumas of the past.

As is well known, Israel’s nuclear project was initiated by David Ben-Gurion in the early days of the state, in order to prevent another holocaust. In the late 1940’s the memory of the holocaust was definitely fresh and in its most painful, but then the memory of the holocaust was still high on the agenda of Prime Minister Menachem Begin many years later. After attacking the Iraqi nuclear reactor AUSAIRAK in June 1981, he explained that the decision to attack was taken when he saw Israeli children walking the wayside when one day his motorcade brought him back home. Then, said the PM whose family was exterminated in the holocaust, I remembered the 1.5 million Jewish children who perished in the gas chambers and it was obvious to me what needs to be done about the Iraqi reactor.

Thirty years after the successful operation in Baghdad, Israel’s public opinion and political and military leaders ponder again the pros and cons of a military operation aimed at destroying the Iranian nuclear program. The very fact that this question is on the agenda of the state of Israel and its leaders is in itself a vivid, though regrettable reminder for the vast majority of Israelis, that their very existence as a sovereign people is called into question yet again. This is exactly the kind of situation that tends to fuel and exacerbate old-established Israeli/Jewish fears.

For example, how to relate to the statements of Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and supreme leader Khamenei calling in public to erase Israel off the map. Statements like this were everyday political feature in the Middle East of the 1950’s when Egypt of Gamal Abd Al-Nasser and other Arab states publicly threatened to push the Jews to the sea. This was the background for the momentous decision to launch the pre-emptive strike of 5 June 1967 in response to mass demonstrations in Arab capitals, when the crowds waived the Nazi S.S symbols, threatening to finally finish off the Jews of Israel and Arab Armies were amassing along the borders ready to do just that.

World leaders, important newspapers, political scientists, strategists and many Iranian watchers advise the Israelis to ignore Ahmadinejad and Khamenei statements, or simply view them as addressed to their domestic audience. Moreover, they argue, it can’t really be, that the Iranian nuclear program is aimed at destroying Israel. It simply does not make sense, so they say, and try to turn wishful thinking into a political reality. In Israel though the narrative adopted by many is so different; "Yes, we remember when the same arguments were used 70 years ago, and a dictator called Adolf Hitler was not taken seriously. We all know what were the results.’’

The political/public discourse in Israel about Iran is dealing with policy and strategy but not less so, perhaps more with history and its traumatic legacy. It is a safe bet, that whatever is the Israeli decision regarding the Iranian nuclear project, and I personally believe that it is still pending and not a foregone conclusion, the burden of the past will be a major factor in shaping and explaining it.

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