If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, Israel’s very existence will be threatened. Few friends of Israel doubt this proposition. Therefore, the Government of Israel should give the Iranian threat higher priority than anything else. But that does not seem to be happening.
Ariel Sharon argued convincingly that Israel should handle the threat from Iran by presenting it as a threat to the region and the world, and not simply—or even primarily—as a threat to Israel. The Western powers, including the United States, will be unwilling to take the military and economic risks associated with confronting Iran solely for the purpose of protecting Israel; they will be far more ready to act to preserve their own interests. And their interests are threatened, on many levels; to take the most obvious example, a nuclear Iran will set off an arms race among her neighbors that will further destabilize an already unstable region that provides much of the world’s oil.
Israel’s strategy, therefore, should be to work with the United States and her European allies to send this message of the emerging Iranian threat to Western interests and values. She should work diligently to build the necessary coalitions, focusing not on her own fears but on the dangers to others. This will require careful and sophisticated diplomatic work—work that can best be undertaken, of course, by an Israel that herself enjoys strong relations with the Western powers and that has made every effort to be sensitive to Western concerns.
And yet, despite the urgency of this task, the Government and Knesset seem intent on taking steps intended to infuriate those countries whose support is needed immediately. The reason for these actions by Israel is perfectly clear: they are intended to meet internal political needs. Yet while politics are always present, and are on some level understandable, given the stakes it would be far wiser to focus on building the coalitions in the West that are desperately required to assure Israel’s survival.
Two examples come to mind. First, settlement building should stop. There is no need for grand declarations here, but the fact is that every time new settlements are announced, the Western powers respond with fury. Let’s put aside for now the question of whether or not the settlements affected are wise, legal, significant, or anything else. The fact is that they alienate friends whose support is required on something that is simply more important.
And second, legislation directed at restricting Israeli NGOs should be dropped immediately. This legislation, aimed at leftwing, human rights organizations, is a very bad idea under any circumstances. (If Irving Moskowitz and Sheldon Adelson can pour money into Israel’s political life, why not European foundations or governments? Since European governments support human rights organizations all over the world, what is the message when Israel resists? And, by the way, the influence of these NGOs in Israel is minimal.) But the point here is that these bills are seen as a direct affront to European governments and a clear message to these countries to “mind your own business.” The problem, of course, is that on the far more important issue of coalitions against Iran, Israel wants the Europeans engaged and involved.
Iran is THE issue. Let’s keep our eyes on the ball.