It is Israel’s fears, not a nuclear Iran, that we must tame | David Grossman

Israelis must resist Netanyahu’s rhetoric. An attack on Iran will bring certain disaster, to forestall one that might never come

In his speeches, Binyamin Netanyahu likes to fire up his audiences with frequent references to the Holocaust, Jewish destiny and the fate of future generations. In light of this doomsday rhetoric, one wonders if Israel’s prime minister can always distinguish between the real dangers confronting the country and shadows of past traumas. This question is crucial, because to confuse one with the other could sentence Israel to relive those echoes and shadows.

If all that – the tough talk, the big bellows of catastrophe –, is no more than a tactic meant to enlist the world to tighten the screws on Iran, and if the tactic were to succeed without an Israeli attack, then we would happily acknowledge, of course, that the prime minister had done an excellent job, for which he deserves due credit and kudos. But if he indeed thinks and operates within a hermetic worldview that swings between poles of disaster and salvation, we are in a very different universe of discourse.

Instead of a one-dimensional translation of the Israel of 2012 into the Holocaust of European Jewry, one question needs to be asked: is it advisable for Israel, on its own, to enter into a war with Iran, a war whose consequences cannot be foreseen, in order to prevent a future situation that is dangerous indeed but that no one can be sure will ever come to pass? In other words, in order to block a possible disaster in the future, will Israel be driven to initiate a certain disaster in the present?

It’s very hard to decide at a moment like this. It would be hard for any Israeli leader, not least Netanyahu, to make a level-headed decision in a situation heavily freighted with the trauma that occurred in the past and another that may occur in the future. Can Netanyahu, amid the tangle of pressures that he creates and inflames, find his way to a practical, clear-minded present? A present reality that need not be part of a tragic, apocalyptic myth that somehow strives for fulfilment again and again, in every Jewish generation?

Because this too is the present reality: there is already a balance of terror in place between Israel and Iran. The Iranians have announced that hundreds of their missiles are aimed at Israeli cities, and it is safe to assume that Israel is not sitting idly by. This balance of terror, say the experts, includes unconventional weapons, biological and chemical. To date, this balance of terror has never been violated.

No one can know for sure that the balance of terror will last. Nor can anyone be certain that it will not. No one can know whether nuclear weapons or knowhow might “trickle” from Iran to terrorist organisations, just as no one can rule out the possibility that the current regime in Iran might be replaced by a more moderate one. Politicians are currently working mainly on the basis of guesswork and fear. One must not belittle the gravity of such conjectures, but can they provide a solid basis for actions that might bring about irreparable damage?

No one in Israel can be absolutely certain that all Iran’s nuclear potential would be demolished by an Israeli attack. Nor has anyone precise knowledge of the extent of the death and destruction that an Iranian response would sow in Israeli cities. It is worth remembering the overblown confidence of Israel’s leaders and their illusions of accurate military intelligence at the start of the second Lebanon war, or the failures of prediction in the first Lebanon war, which entangled Israel in an 18-year occupation.

Even if the infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear project were destroyed, it is impossible to destroy Iranian knowledge. And knowledge, and those who possess it, will rise from the dust – and this time fuelled by the insult of humiliation, and unbridled hatred, and a thirst for vengeance on the part of the whole Iranian people.

Iran, as we know, is not just a radical fundamentalist state. There are wide sectors of the population that are secular, educated and enlightened. There is a broad middle class, including many people who risked their lives in brave demonstrations against the dictatorial religious regime they despise. I am not claiming that the Iranian nation feels any sympathy for Israel, but that same part of the Iranian public, at some point in the future, might be the ones who will lead Iran, and might even warm to Israel. An Israeli attack on Iran would eliminate that possibility for many years; in the eyes even of moderate Iranians, Israel will be permanently perceived as a haughty, megalomaniacal nation, a historic enemy to be fought indefinitely. Is this possibility more or less dangerous than a nuclear Iran?

And what will Israel do if Saudi Arabia decides it wants a nuclear weapon? Attack it too? And if Egypt, under its new regime, heads down that path? Will Israel bomb it? And for ever stay the only country in the region allowed to have nuclear weapons?

Even if these questions have already been voiced, they must be repeated before ears go deaf in the din of battle: will war bring any real gain, any assurance of peaceful life for Israel? Anything that would create the willingness to accept Israel as a partner and neighbour, a willingness that in the long run can render all forms of nuclear arms – Israel's, and those of others – superfluous?

A legitimate answer to these questions, an answer hard to swallow but worthy of public discussion, is this: if economic sanctions do not cause Iran to halt uranium enrichment, and if the United States, for reasons of its own, does not attack it – even then, it would be better for Israel not to attack, even if this means that Israel, gnashing its teeth, would have to live with a nuclear Iran. It is very hard to accept that, and one hopes that international pressure will eliminate this eventuality, but an Israeli attack might be no less painful and bitter. And because there is no way to ascertain that Iran would indeed attack Israel if it had nuclear weapons at its disposal, Israel must not attack Iran. Such an attack would be a rash, wild bet, likely to disfigure our future in ways I dare not even imagine. No, I can imagine it, but my hand refuses to write it.

I do not envy the prime minister, the defence minister and members of the cabinet. Immense responsibility lies upon their shoulders. I think about the fact that in a situation mainly made up of doubt and uncertainty, the one certain thing is often fear. It is tempting for us Israelis to cling to such fears, to let them counsel and guide us, to feel their familiar, reassuring ring. I am sure that those who support an attack on Iran justify it on the grounds that it would be done to forestall the possibility of a bigger nightmare in the future.

But has any person the right to sentence so many people to death, only in the name of a fear of a possibility that might never come to pass?

• This article was translated from Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman. Comments may be switched off overnight

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