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

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.