The choices in the Middle East are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse

A nuclear Iran will destabilise the Middle East and maybe push Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries into a nuclear arms race. Oil supplies might be threatened. Yet Israel, though always capable of defending itself, shouldn’t be taking a seat in the firs

‘‘Moreover, I advise that Carthage must be destroyed,” Cato the Elder, the Roman statesman, used to say at the end of each of his speeches, regardless of the topic at hand. He was indeed obsessed with Carthage, believing that it posed an existential threat to the Roman empire. For him, it was a zero-sum game.

Did Carthage, on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea (near today’s Tunis), pose such a threat to the mighty empire? That is a matter for historians to judge. What matters is that Cato’s constant cries were heeded. In 146BC, after a siege of more than two years, the Romans conquered Carthage and destroyed it. It was said that, to prove their point, they even ploughed over the city and sowed salt into the soil after destroying it. As far as the Romans were concerned, that was the end of the Carthaginian story.

Like Cato the Elder, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, doesn’t miss an opportunity to declare that Iran’s nuclear programme must be stopped. On 6 October, in his second landmark speech at Bar-Ilan University, he said Iran aspires to take over the Middle East and destroy Israel. If this is true, then, from a purely Israeli point of view, Netanyahu is right: Iran has to be checked.

So, like Cato, who repeatedly warned that if Carthage wasn’t crushed Rome would fall, Netanyahu has been trumpeting the formula that a nuclear Iran is the end of Israel. To his credit, through his tireless efforts and with his considerable oratorical skills, he managed to mobilise the world to take a more serious look at the danger of a nuclear Iran. The question is whether he is satisfied with this, or if, suspecting that the rest of the world is just talking, he would act on his own to attack Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

Still following the Roman-Carthaginian analogy, one might wonder if a nuclear Iran really is the end of Israel. Not that I’m endorsing a nuclear Iran – God forbid – but, in my opinion, the main goal of the ayatollahs is never again to be in the position where they were in 1988 at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, when, out of weakness and exhaustion, they had to accept a ceasefire. It is the Shia-Sunni divide that is their main priority, and they are determined to get the upper hand over the Sunnis in the Middle East. Needless to say, nuclear capabilities will also allow them to challenge the US presence in the region.

If this analysis is true, Israel should not be pushing itself into the forefront. Of course, a nuclear Iran will destabilise the Middle East and maybe push Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries into a nuclear arms race. Oil supplies might be threatened. In short, grim prospects for the future.

Yet Israel, though always capable of defending itself, shouldn’t be taking a seat in the first row for this show. Israelis should rather be humming the tune of that popular Israeli song, “Medina Ktana” – “Little country, avoiding trouble”.

If, on the other hand, I am wrong and the main aim of the Iranian leadership is indeed to destroy Israel with nuclear weapons, then, in theory, Netanyahu is absolutely right and everything possible should be done to stop it, including – if all else fails – an independent Israeli strike on Iran.

However, this is where the historical analogy stops serving us. Cato the Elder had to convince the Roman Senate to go to war with Carthage. Once he succeeded, Carthage was doomed: it couldn’t face the might of the formidable Roman army and navy. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has to persuade the whole world community, and, judging from his most recent appearance at the United Nations, it doesn’t seem that the world is convinced.

Even the United States seems more receptive now to the new rhetoric emerging from Tehran. And the success of the moves to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, in which diplomacy backed by a credible military option seemed to bring results, is definitely not an incentive for an American strike on Iran. Strong and effective sanctions, with the constant reminder that “all the options are on the table”, seem more promising to Washington.

So, Netanyahu is left with his own government, but even here, alas, he has not garnered success. According to the Israeli newspapers, he has tried once and again to pass a resolution on a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the inner cabinet of seven ministers, but failed. It is believed that each chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) in recent years, and each head of the Mossad, objected to such a decision. According to Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad who has spoken out publicly, such an attack would only delay the Iranian rush for nuclear weapons, and its repercussions might be even more dangerous.

Netanyahu has already made one vow which he has had to break. In books and speeches, he declared that a Palestinian state posed a mortal threat to Israel. Then, four years ago, in his first Bar-Ilan speech, he reluctantly agreed in principle to such a state existing side by side with Israel. He learned the hard way that choices in the Middle East are not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.

It seems that, rhetoric aside, Netanyahu is slowly resigning himself to the idea that bad (sanctions, with unknown chances of stopping a nuclear Iran) is better than worse (an Israeli strike, which will only delay the nuclear progress, and will surely be followed by a nuclear, revengeful Iran). I sincerely do not envy him.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. He was the spokesman for the Rabin and Peres governments of Israel from 1992 to 1996

Binyamin Netanyahu doesn't miss an opportunity to mention that Iran's nuclear programme must be stopped. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

Ellie Foreman-Peck
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Martin Schulz: could this man bring an end to the reign of Angela Merkel?

The German Eurocrat is the biggest threat to the possibility of a fourth term for Merkel. 

At first sight, Martin Schulz looks like an unlikely political saviour. Thin of hair and thick of waist, the 61-year-old was a member of the European Parliament for 23 years and its president for five. In an anti-establishment age, it was predicted that Schulz would struggle when he became the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) candidate to replace Angela Merkel as the German chancellor in January. Instead, he is spearheading a remarkable revival in his tribe’s fortunes. On 19 February, for the first time in a decade, the SPD polled above Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), attracting 33 per cent to their 32 per cent. The SPD vote share has increased by 12 points in a month. The cause is clear: “Martin mania”.

For months, it was assumed that Merkel would secure a fourth term as chancellor in September’s federal election. The SPD, the grandfather of European social democracy and Germany’s oldest party (it was founded in 1863), had polled as low as 19 per cent. After forming a grand coalition with the CDU in 2013, Schulz’s party was marginalised as Merkel claimed credit for policies such as the country’s first minimum wage. Voters defected to the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. The SPD’s future looked to be one of managed decline.

Sigmar Gabriel, the party’s leader since 2009, stood little chance of supplanting Merkel as chancellor. As a result, like François Hollande, he reached for the pearl-handled revolver: he announced his intention to step aside on 24 January after internal SPD polling showed that Schulz would perform significantly better against Merkel. “It was not an easy decision but I’m convinced it was the right decision,” Gabriel told reporters. His judgement was vindicated as public polls gave Schulz an 11-point lead over Merkel (49-38).

The German chancellor’s apparent unassailability owed less to her strength than to her opponents’ weakness. Eleven years after she entered office, voters had grown weary of Merkel’s leadership but saw no viable alternative. In Schulz, they have found one. Having been engaged at EU level and held no domestic office since standing down after 11 years as mayor of the north-western market town Würselen in 1998, Schulz has been embraced by voters as a relative outsider.

Unlike his SPD colleagues, Schulz can criticise the CDU’s record without appearing hypocritical or feeble. He has attracted voters with a centre-left emphasis on redistribution and social justice. “When people see that their taxes are used to give their children a future, they buy into it,” Schulz has said in interviews.

The European Parliament has been a useful platform for his pugnacious style. He is best known for being compared to a concentration camp guard by Silvio Berlusconi in 2003 and for his interjection in 2010 after Nigel Farage branded the then EU president, Herman Van Rompuy, a “damp rag”. Schulz retorted: “It’s not right that this man should be able to trample over the dignity of this house!”

Voters have warmed to Schulz’s personal story as well as his political history. He was born on 20 December 1955 in the village of Hehlrath, North-Rhine Westphalia, to a policeman father and a homemaker mother (he is the youngest of five). Rather than going to university, he trained as a bookseller and was a promising footballer. Two severe knee injuries ended his playing career at the age of 18 and he sought refuge in alcohol after falling into depression. Having contemplated suicide, he recovered to open a bookshop in his home town (which he ran until he became an MEP in 1994) and has been teetotal since 1980.

Schulz educated himself by devouring historical fiction (his favourite writers are John Steinbeck and Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa) and retains the restlessness of an autodidact (he often works 18-hour days). His bonhomie and blunt manner appeal to voters who regard Merkel as aloof.

That Schulz has come to the SPD’s rescue is unsurprising. He joined the party at the age of 19 and became the youngest mayor in North-Rhine Westphalia when he was elected in Würselen at 31. After more than two decades serving the EU, the attractions of a return to domestic politics were obvious. “People must look into your eyes and see that you are a bloody streetfighter,” he remarked in 2013, as he presciently dismissed Ed Miliband’s electoral chances.

Schulz has disoriented the Christian Democrats, who failed to anticipate a centre-left renaissance. In a mark of how much he has unsettled them, the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, has denounced him as a Trump-like populist for his slogan “Make Europe great again”. Were Schulz to replace Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to be elected French president, the pair would unite in seeking to impose punitive Brexit terms on the UK.

For Germany’s Social Democrats, the fear is that Schulz’s surge has come too soon – voters could swing back to Merkel and the CDU before polling day. But after years as an emblem of centre-left malaise, the SPD has momentum. Schulz is determined to prove that there are second acts in political lives. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit