Letter From Tel Aviv: Netanyahu’s Iranian Dilemma

The Limits of the Military Option Against Iran

At a recent symposium at Tel Aviv University, Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the former chief of military intelligence, described Israel's public perception of the Iranian nuclear threat as "distorted." His view -- which is shared by many in Israel's security and intelligence services -- is that Israel is not Iran's primary target, and therefore, Israel must not attack Iran unilaterally. Members of the audience took issue with his analysis. One woman, speaking with a heavy Farsi accent, said of the Iranian regime, "They're crazy, and they will drop a bomb on us the moment they can. We need to deal with them now!"

Her sentiment reflects the public mood in Israel, where many are convinced that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to annihilate them and is willing to risk the destruction of his own country to do so. For most Israelis, the question is not whether Iran will attack but when. Polls consistently show that Israelis are overwhelmingly in favor of striking Iran's nuclear facilities. A recent survey commissioned by Tel Aviv University's Center for Iranian Studies found that three out of four Israelis believe the United States will not be able to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and one in two supports taking immediate military action.

It is impossible to separate such convictions from their historical context. The fear that Jews -- having escaped the furnaces of the Holocaust -- could face annihilation in Israel has always haunted the public psyche. Long before Ahmadinejad's outbursts, therefore, Israelis were already attuned to hearing echoes of the Wannsee Conference in Tehran's inflammatory rhetoric. Historical comparisons between Tehran and Nazi-controlled Berlin are common, as is linking the Allied forces' refusal to bomb the concentration camps with the present international reluctance to take effective action against Iran. In April 2008, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, made such an explicit comparison in a conversation with Stephen Hadley, then national security adviser in the Bush administration. "Ahmadinejad is a modern Hitler," Netanyahu told Hadley, "and the mistakes that were made prior to the Second World War must not be repeated."

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