Barely a day goes by without a strident warning from a top Israeli official, politician, or general about the nature of the “threat” Iran poses to the Jewish state. It’s unprecedented. Or it’s imminent. Or it’s existential. And it is declared to be behind every Israeli problem, from the rearming of Hezbollah in Lebanon to the “terrorist” humanitarian activists aboard the Gaza flotilla.
How powerful is that anti-Iran mindset in Israel? How is fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon heightened by the blasts of anti-Israel invective from the neoconservative government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran?
“We are making them stronger than they are,” says David Menashri, the director of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University. “To refer to Iran as an ‘existential threat’ – I refuse to use this term – you give Iran greater credit than they deserve.... What signal does it send to our own people, that the day Iran should have nuclear weapons you should leave the country, because your existence is threatened?”
Dr. Menashri says Israeli politicians should “speak less” about Iran, and not make exaggerated historical comparisons. He points to a conference in 2006, at which then-opposition leader and current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned repeatedly: “It’s 1938 and Iran is Germany. And Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs.”
Menashri says the analogy is a mistake. “Because if Ahmadinejad is Hitler, if Nasser was Hitler, Saddam was Hitler, Arafat was Hitler – what can I tell my children about the unique character of the Holocaust? If I want to keep the memory, I am downgrading the historical significance of the Holocaust by repeating that every crazy thing is Hitler.”
Still, for politicians in Israel there are few downsides to demonizing Iran, whose leaders for 31 years have described the Jewish state as a “cancerous tumor” which will one day “vanish from the face of time” – or in one rendering of those remarks, be “wiped from the map.”
“For Israelis, [being] anti-Iran is a consensus. You don’t have to be a neoconservative to wish for the destruction of Iran,” says Haggai Ram, of the Ben Gurion University of the Negev, in an interview in Tel Aviv.
In his recent book “Iranophobia: The Logic of an Israeli Obsession,” Dr. Ram wrote that “there’s something utterly irrational and exceedingly disproportionate in Israeli understandings of the Iranian threat –even if that threat is, in certain respects, very real.”
Ram states that “acute Iranophobia" has led most Israelis to “argue that, should Iran be allowed access to weapons of mass destruction, the ‘nuclear ayatollahs’ will quickly turn them against Israel so as to achieve their apocalyptic ambitions.”
Iran says that its controversial nuclear program is solely for nuclear energy, and often calls for a Middle East free of all nuclear weapons – a pointed reference to Israel’s own atomic arsenal.
Still, it has also supported Israel’s strongest enemies – Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, to name two. Israel has been a proclaimed arch-enemy for as long as the United States has been, dating to when the pro-West Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was overthrown in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
President Barack Obama came to office early last year vowing to negotiate with Tehran and ease the estrangement, with few results. Last week, the US spear-headed a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.
“Iran is perhaps the most central issue [in Israel], yet there is really no critical debate about this," says Ram. "The people who would rather run against the grain are really a minority. Whenever they speak up – and I say this out of personal experience – they are immediately rendered into these bizarre self-defeating, self-hating Jews, and seen as a fifth column.”
“The idea is that we have no other choice, they want to destroy us,” says Reuven Pedatzur, academic director of a center for strategic dialogue at Netanya Academic College, of the Israeli mindset. “It’s a cultural issue, based on the Holocaust, that everybody wants to destroy the Jewish people."
Israeli analysts often describe how the Jewish state “needs” an outside enemy to justify continued oppression against the Palestinians and one of the largest per capita defense budgets in the Middle East.
Likewise, Iranian analysts often describe how the Islamic Republic must beat the war drums against the United States and Israel to drive its revolutionary anti-imperial, anti-West policies – and to divert Iranian attention from a limp economy and restrictions on freedom at home. “The two countries are obsessed with each other – Iran and Israel,” says Menashri.
Menashri points out that Iran's revolutionary celebration was named Qods (Jerusalem) Day by Ayatollah Khomeini. "Did they go to the revolution for this?” he asks. “If Israel was not in existence, it [would be] good for the Iranian government to establish the Jewish state of Israel.”
Not all Iranians want their government to pay so much attention to the needs of dispossessed Palestinians or Lebanese after Israeli attacks. One slogan chanted by hundred of thousands of Iranian protesters after disputed elections last year was for the end of aid to Lebanon and the Palestinians. Some protesters' subsequent vows to give their lives for Iran spoke of their desire to have domestic needs be the regime's top priority.
Still, while Israel and Iran have played their arch-enemy roles for decades, the psychology today is magnified by hard-line leaders at the helm in both Jerusalem and Tehran.
“The current government in Israel does see Ahmadinejad as a Hitler in disguise, that we have to be saved from a nuclear holocaust, if and when Iran does get its hand on a nuclear bomb,” says Meir Javedanfar, co-author of “The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran.”
While many analysts suggest that Israeli fears are overblown – and note that the plight of Palestinians is a low priority for most Iranians – such calculations are fed by past trauma.
“Imagine for a minute if you are an Israeli. See that second white building?” asks Mr. Javedanfar, sitting in a Tel Aviv coffee shop and pointing down Dizengoff Street. “There’s a bank there, and on the sidewalk is a memorial; a suicide bomber … blew himself up next to people who were taking money out from the cash machine.”
That March 4, 1996, blast, attributed to Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, killed 13 people.
“The issue with Iran is not some Great Game competition, where we are competing for influence in Azerbaijan – it’s right here,” says Javedanfar. “When [Iran is] cooperating with groups that reach right here in Israel, you cannot but take it as a direct threat.. When it reaches there – five meters from where you and I met – that’s the difference.”