When Israel declared independence in 1948, it had to use mostly small arms to repel attacks by six Arab armies. Today, however, Israel feels, and is, more menaced than it was then or has been since. Hence the potentially world-shaking decision that will be made here, probably within two years.
To understand the man who will make it, begin with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's belief that stopping Iran's nuclear weapons program is integral to stopping the worldwide campaign to reverse 1948. It is, he says, a campaign to "put the Jew back to the status of a being that couldn't defend himself -- a perfect victim."
Today's Middle East, he says, reflects two developments. One is the rise of Iran and militant Islam since the 1979 revolution, which led to al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. The other development is the multiplying threat of missile warfare.
Now Israel faces a third threat, the campaign to delegitimize it in order to extinguish its capacity for self-defense. After two uniquely perilous millennia for Jews, the creation of Israel meant, Netanyahu says, "the capacity for self-defense restored to the Jewish people." But note, he says, the reflexive worldwide chorus of condemnation when Israel responded with force to rocket barrages from Gaza and from southern Lebanon. There is, he believes, a crystallizing consensus that "Israel is not allowed to exercise self-defense."
From 1948 through 1973, he says, enemies tried to "eliminate Israel by conventional warfare." Having failed, they tried to demoralize and paralyze Israel with suicide bombers and other terrorism. "We put up a fence," Netanyahu says. "Now they have rockets that go over the fence." Israel's military, which has stressed offense as a solution to the nation's lack of strategic depth, now stresses missile defense.
That, however, cannot cope with Hamas's tens of thousands of rockets in Gaza and Hezbollah's up to 60,000 in southern Lebanon. There, U.N. Resolution 1701, promulgated after the 2006 war, has been predictably farcical. This was supposed to inhibit the arming of Hezbollah and prevent its operations south of the Litani River. Since 2006, Hezbollah's rocket arsenal has tripled and its operations mock Resolution 1701. Hezbollah, learning from Hamas, now places rockets near schools and hospitals, certain that Israel's next response to indiscriminate aggression will turn the world media into a force multiplier for the aggressors.
Any Israeli self-defense anywhere is automatically judged "disproportionate." Israel knows this as it watches Iran.
Last year was Barack Obama's wasted year of "engaging" Iran. This led to sanctions that are unlikely to ever become sufficiently potent. With Russia, China and Turkey being uncooperative, Iran is hardly "isolated." The Iranian democracy movement probably cannot quickly achieve regime change. It took Solidarity 10 years to do so against a Polish regime less brutally repressive than Iran's.
Hillary Clinton's words about extending a "defense umbrella over the region" imply, to Israelis, fatalism about a nuclear Iran. As for deterrence working against a nuclear-armed regime steeped in an ideology of martyrdom, remember that in 1980, Ayatollah Khomeini said:
"We do not worship Iran, we worship Allah. For patriotism is another name for paganism. I say let this land burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world."
You say, that was long ago? Israel says, this is now:
Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, says that Israel is the "enemy of God." Tehran, proclaiming that the Holocaust never happened and vowing to complete it, sent an ambassador to Poland who in 2006 wanted to measure the ovens at Auschwitz to prove them inadequate for genocide. Iran's former president, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who is considered a "moderate" by people for whom believing is seeing, calls Israel a "one-bomb country."
If Iran were to "wipe the Zionist entity off the map," as it vows to do, it would, Netanyahu believes, achieve a regional "dominance not seen since Alexander." Netanyahu does not say that Israel will, if necessary, act alone to prevent this. Or does he?
He says that CIA Director Leon Panetta is "about right" in saying Iran can be a nuclear power in two years. He says that 1948 meant this: "For the first time in 2,000 years, a sovereign Jewish people could defend itself against attack." And he says: "The tragic history of the powerlessness of our people explains why the Jewish people need a sovereign power of self-defense." If Israel strikes Iran, the world will not be able to say it was not warned.