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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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.