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

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

‘‘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