So much is wrong with the Obama administration’s negotiations with Iran that one scarcely knows where to begin.
A chorus of thoughtful observers has objected to virtually every dimension of what is transpiring. Henry Kissinger and George Shultz have pointed out (in The Wall Street Journal) that the White House has exhibited a complete misunderstanding of Iran’s intentions. The US envisions a region of stable nation-states and hopes that a deal with Iran can advance that. What Iran seeks, though, is a revolutionary anti-Western order, which the US is giving it the tools to pursue.
Michael Oren has pointed out (in TIME) that the US has no idea how to negotiate in the Middle East. In this region’s carpet bazaar, he notes, the purchaser must always be prepared to walk away if the deal is not good. But President Barack Obama has made clear that he wants a deal more than he cares about its substance. The Iranians have thus hoodwinked him into concessions that not long ago he said he would never accept. As recently as 2012, Obama said, “The deal we’ll accept is that they end their nuclear program.” The US, he said, would demand that the Iranians cease all uranium enrichment and dismantle their nuclear plants.
So much for that.
For Jews and Israelis, however, there is an additional, emotional dimension to the emerging agreement. There is horror that extends beyond the fact that even Obama admits that Iran could get a bomb in 13 years (it could take less time if Iran cheats). No, it’s worse than that. Obama’s incompetence (at best) or malevolence (not out of the question) is undermining one of Zionism’s most basic commitments – the promise that Jews made to each other that the days of our not being able to defend ourselves were over.
That promise goes back not just to the beginning of the State of Israel, but to the early days of the Zionist movement. The Kishinev pogrom of 1903, with its wanton injuring of Jews, convinced Jews that whatever history wrought, the days in which Jews could not defend themselves simply had to end. It was not just that Jews were being killed, though they were. It was that even when maiming Jews became a sport, there seemed to be little that most of the Jews of Kishinev could do.
As Monte Penkower, a Jerusalem- based historian, recounts, Kishinev was replete with abject cruelty for its own sake. One two-year-old boy’s tongue was cut out while he was still alive. Another child, Meyer Weissman, had been blind in one eye since youth and begged the attackers to spare him. He even offered them money.
They took the money and then gouged out his remaining eye. Women were murdered and raped, and some, still alive, had their breasts cut off. The Jew had become a plaything for the sick and deranged. To this, Zionism said, “That is over.”
ZIONISM HAS not lived up to all the promises it made the Jews. Herzl believed that creating a Jewish state would “normalize” the Jew and thus end the “Jewish problem” in Europe. On that score, he could not have been more wrong. Similarly, the promise of our Declaration of Independence that Israel “will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants” and “will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” has only been partially realized.
The promise that the days of Kishinev are behind us, however, is where Zionism succeeded. Israel cannot stop its enemies from killing Jews, but it can and does guarantee that they can no longer do so with impunity. What Israel has taught its youth – and their parents – is that defending the state and the Jewish people is not a “chore,” but part of the history-altering process of fundamentally changing the existential condition of what it means to be Jew. (In that regard, by the way, the problem with haredim not going to the army is not merely that it is selfish and shifts the burden onto others; the problem is that the decision not to serve is a distinctly anti-Zionist statement.) Israel has had its share of military challenges, but has consistently demonstrated to Jews and to the world that we are no longer in Kishinev.
Now, Israel has long said, Jews can defend themselves. The War of Independence was a terribly difficult war.
One percent of the state’s Jewish population was killed (today that would be some 60,000 Jewish Israelis). The Jews slogged it out, though (partially with weapons purchased from Czechoslovakia that had originally been manufactured for the Nazi regime). The war could be a slog, but the Jews proved that they would defend themselves.
The disastrous Yom Kippur War, with insufficient intelligence and a misreading of what intelligence there was, started out with the Arabs routing Israel. However, the soldiers on the field more than made up for the brass’s incompetence. Thousands died, but once again, Jews demonstrated that they were no longer victims-in-waiting.
Nasser could say that he was going to push the Jews into the sea, but the Jews would no longer allow it. So badly was he beaten that his successor, Anwar Sadat, gave up the fight and signed a peace treaty with Israel.
VERY SOON, though, none of that will hold true with Iran. Kissinger has said that he believes Israel does not have the capacity to attack Iran. Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah, a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said in last week’s Haaretz that Netanyahu and the top IDF brass have invested billions of dollars in preparing for an attack on Iran – but Israel has little to show for it. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision this week to allow the sale of S-300 missiles to Iran – a move that was prevented in the past by strenuous American objections (ones this administration will not repeat) – will make an Israeli attack all the more difficult.
When Iran gets the bomb, it will have been a gift from the Obama administration.
The Iranians may or may not use the bomb, but once they have it, they will have the capacity to wipe out millions of Jews in one fell swoop – something that Zionism said would no longer happen. Israel will have a second-strike capacity, of course, but that will scarcely matter. Millions of Jews will still be dead, simply because deranged lunatics (Obama’s peace partners) decided it was time.
The scenario is less frightening than it is devastatingly sad. There are still survivors of the Holocaust walking the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, but humanity’s memory is short. In 1943, Jews as a whole had no way of protecting themselves. Since then, Zionism has changed that entirely. What Obama, Europe and Iran are all shamefully and shamelessly conspiring to do is to make sure all that progress is undone.
With the mere stroke of a pen, they will ensure that Zionism cannot keep its promise to the Jewish people.
History will judge them, of course, but that – as usual in our history – will be small compensation. ■ The writer is senior vice president, Koret distinguished fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, the country’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul. He is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.