In an appearance on CBS News’s “Face the Nation” soon before he was reelected as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu was asked if he was offended that the White House tweeted one of my columns, pointing out that for 25 years, Bibi had been wrong in his predictions about Iran’s nuclear program. “If I had to choose,” Netanyahu responded, “I would retweet . . . the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s recent tweet in which he cites nine ways and reasons that Israel should be destroyed.” Netanyahu is right to draw attention to that threat, but for somewhat different reasons than he implies.
Let me be clear. Iran’s supreme leader is a radical, anti-Western ideologue whose Twitter feed is filled with hate and hostility — and he means Israel only harm. But he is also a canny politician who has survived and thrived in Iran’s complex political system. What is the message he is sending?
Khamenei speaks often about the destruction of Israel. But he rejects doing so by means of a war. “We recommend neither a classical war by the army of Muslim countries nor to throw migrated Jews at sea.” (It’s good to know that he is against drowning Jews en masse!) Akbar Ganji, Iran’s best-known dissident, who was jailed for criticizing Khamenei, argues that the supreme leader has been consistent in this position for years — no war, certainly not by Iran.
What does Khamenei advocate? A “public and organized referendum” in which Muslims, Christians and Jews living in the area under Israeli jurisdiction would decide on the fate of their government and regime. Khamenei reveals his intentions by saying that recent Jewish immigrants shouldn’t have a right to vote. But then why do Arabs, who may have traveled to those lands only a few decades earlier, have the right? Khamenei’s language is that “all the original people of Palestine” should vote. If by original we mean since the very beginning, that’s mostly Jews.
But put aside the word games. Khamenei has recognized that the greatest vulnerability for Israel is that it has legal jurisdiction over 4.5 million Arab people who have neither a state nor a vote. That condition is virtually unique in the modern world and cannot last in a democratic society.
Right-wing Israeli politicians and their supporters often dismiss the plight of the Palestinians, pointing out that other ethnic groups — such as the Kurds — don’t have nations. But the Kurds are citizens of the countries in which they live — Turkey, Iraq, Iran. The Chechens may want to be independent, but for now they are full-fledged Russian citizens. Palestinians are virtually unique in the world in that they have neither a state of their own nor citizenship in the country where they live.
There is a historical parallel. The British would tell its colonial populations — say, the people of India — that they could not have independence yet not be citizens of Great Britain. And perhaps because many formerly colonial countries remember this history, the Palestinian dilemma is one that resonates.
This is, potentially, the long-run danger that could undo the miracle that is Israel — and it is a miracle. The country is militarily far more powerful than ever, compared with its neighbors. Its defense budget is larger than Egypt’s, Jordan’s, Syria’s and Lebanon’s combined, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The Wall and the Iron Dome have significantly lessened the threat from Hamas and Hezbollah. Economically, Israel is booming, having become the richest country in a sea of oil states. It is a vibrant democracy and a dynamic society.
As for the Iranian nuclear program, which does not have even a single bomb, let’s not forget that Israel has a large nuclear arsenal, of reportedly more than 200 weapons, many of them on submarines. Iran’s sophisticated, calculating leaders will surely take this strong deterrent into account even if, several years from now, they actually build a few nuclear weapons.
In a strange way, Khamenei understands the immense power of democracy — which is why he shut down the Green Movement in Iran. He recognizes that Israel’s vulnerability lies in its greatest strength — its flourishing democracy. In a genuinely pluralistic country like Israel, it is very hard to keep practicing a policy of non-citizenship toward so many.
To maintain the status quo, Israeli democracy is already being coarsened. In the last days of his campaign, when he thought he might lose, Netanyahu warned the country that Israeli Arabs were beginning to vote in large numbers. The foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has flatly stated that some Israeli Arabs shouldn’t really be part of Israel.
Khamenei understands that Israel can deter and respond to military threats. But it cannot, as a democracy, unendingly keep control of territories with 4.5 million people against their will. This is why he has chosen as his weapon the persistent call for a referendum. I would hope that Netanyahu takes this threat to Israel’s existence seriously and has some answer to it, beyond a retweet.