We should pay attention when someone like H.R. McMaster, the former national security adviser, says that ‘it’s a possibility’ Israel will attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before President Trump leaves office. McMaster was using a television interview to tell a future Biden administration it would be a mistake to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which he said had been ‘a political disaster masquerading as a diplomatic triumph’. Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has always argued that the agreement — ‘based on lies’ — gives the ayatollahs cover to build a nuclear bomb. In his interview, on Fox, McMaster said: ‘Israel follows the Begin doctrine, which means they will not accept a hostile state having the most destructive weapons on earth.’
There are no signs yet that Israel is preparing an attack — more of that later — but McMaster was right about the psychology of the Israeli leadership. The politicians and the generals in Israel, and many Israelis, see a nuclear bomb on top of an Iranian missile as a flying Holocaust. A former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, Avraham Burg — a rare dissenting voice on this issue — once wrote that ‘the Shoah’s deepest influence’ on Israeli society was on security policy. Those in charge of the nation’s defense were ruled by ‘fears and paranoia’. Netanyahu would not agree that his fears about Iran are imagined but his strategy — inherited from Begin and Ben Gurion — was formed in ‘the shadow of Auschwitz’. That phrase comes from a paper by Professor Shmulik Nili, written almost a decade ago but which still explains how Israel might act in what he calls ‘the world’s most dangerous nuclear dispute’.
As Nili says, for David Ben Gurion — Israel’s first prime minister — the lesson of the Holocaust was that Israel could not afford even a single defeat: every war might end in genocide. Ben Gurion believed that Israel could guarantee its survival only with a nuclear deterrent. There was a Jewish bomb by the time Menachem Begin was prime minister but he thought it might not be enough to deter enemies that wanted to destroy Israel. He ordered an air raid on Saddam’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 because, as he told a press conference afterwards: ‘There won’t be another Holocaust in history. Never again, never again…we survived. We shall survive.’ This is the Begin doctrine: no state that threatens Israel can possess a nuclear weapon
Netanyahu often invokes the Holocaust when he talks about Iran. At Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum outside Jerusalem, he said that a nuclear Iran would bring the world to the edge of an abyss. ‘Unlike our situation during the Holocaust, when we were like leaves on the wind, defenseless, now we have great power to defend ourselves.’ We don’t know if Iran is a nuclear power yet. It might succeed in making only one or two bombs — and Israel probably has around 300 (as Jimmy Carter revealed). But Netanyahu has said he believes Iran would be willing to destroy itself in order to destroy Israel. It was ‘a messianic regime that is deterred by nothing.’ Given this logic, it’s not surprising that Netanyahu has reportedly come close to ordering a pre-emptive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities several times during his premiership.
The Israeli media don’t see any obvious signs of an attack being prepared now, in the last days of the Trump presidency. The editor of the Jerusalem Post, Yaakov Katz, tweeted there was ‘no state of urgency’, no movement of troops to the country’s northern border, ready for retaliation by Iran’s militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah. But Katz also says, correctly, that there would probably be a deceptive quiet before any attack. I was in Israel for the 2009 war against Gaza. The offensive seemed almost inevitable but then the troops were allowed home for Shabbat and everyone relaxed — nothing would happen. The following morning Israel sent in wave after wave of bombers. The Palestinians suffered their worst losses in a single day since 1948.
Ordering the planes to fly against Iran would require even greater secrecy. And Netanyahu could not act alone. The generals were said to have stopped an attack in 2010, telling Netanyahu they did not have the ‘operational capability’ to succeed. That year, I spoke to Colonel Ze’ev Raz, the pilot who led the raid on Osirak, in Iraq. In Iran on the other hand, he said, ground troops would be needed to finish the job: an invasion. The uranium enrichment plant at Natanz was deep underground and hard to hit. ‘We can destroy some targets, cause some damage. But we can’t stop the project [to build an Iranian nuclear bomb].’ So we can expect Israel to continue the covert campaign of sabotage and assassination being waged by Mossad.
If Netanyahu wants to do more, he will need the support of his Cabinet and especially of his bitter rival, the defense minister, Benny Gantz. The Israeli public is nervous, having been told that over the years Hezbollah has steadily built up a force of 150,000 conventional rockets and missiles, all pointing their way. Professor Nili said that some other important things had changed in the 10 years since he wrote his paper on ‘the line drawn from Auschwitz to Natanz’. If Netanyahu ordered a ‘reckless’ strike on Iran now, he could be almost certain President Biden wouldn’t stand in the way of devastating economic sanctions against Israel. Netanyahu was too pragmatic to do anything without coordinating it with Biden, ‘which means it won’t happen’.
But, Nili went on, Netanyahu’s ‘first, second, and third concern’ had always been his survival in office, and these days, staying out of jail. He is the first sitting prime minister in Israel to face criminal charges, accused of bribery and corruption. He denies the accusations — forcefully — but could face 10 years in jail if his trial goes ahead. Israel could well have elections early next year. What if Netanyahu thought that a dramatic strike against Iran could give him a parliamentary majority big enough to stop the trial? Then, Nili said: ‘He might risk it all.’ Does that remind you of anyone? Donald Trump’s enemies believe him capable of anything, even starting a war with Iran, to stay in office or out of jail afterwards. For the next 60 days, peace in the Middle East depends on two leaders both intent on self-preservation, both being backed into a corner and hearing a loudly ticking clock.