Recently, supporters of Israel were outraged to learn that
according to a poll conducted by the European Commission, 59% of
Europeans regard the Jewish state as the single greatest threat to world
This statistic has been loudly denounced as yet another example as if
more were needed of Europe's chronic anti-Semitism.
And yet the Europeans aren't necessarily wrong about the threat to
their security. In fact, nothing imperils world peace, such as it is, more
than Israel's disinclination to be the target of Iranian nuclear weapons.
In the past few weeks, Israeli officials have made a series of
declarations that they won't permit Iran to get its hands on atomic
weapons. These statements should be taken with extreme seriousness,
because they echo similar warnings on the eve of Israel's decisive 1981
air strike on an Iraqi nuclear reactor.
This attack although not Saddam Hussein's virtually unopposed
effort to get his hands on nukes was denounced by the entire world.
But the following day, an unrepentant Menachem Begin held a press
conference in Jerusalem. The Israeli prime minister announced that
Israel would not sit back idly while its enemies developed tools of
extermination. Although he didn't use the term, he was essentially
promulgating a policy of regional preemption.
Not all Israelis agreed with this policy. Indeed, many senior Israeli
leaders had opposed the attack itself. Some generals thought it was
operationally impossible. Diplomats were concerned that it would
inspire a horrific international response.
Begin listened to the naysayers, weighed his own understanding of the
responsibilities, post-Auschwitz, of an Israeli prime minister and went
ahead. He wouldn't have done it without the strong support of his
minister of defense, Ariel Sharon.
Fast-forward 22 years. Sharon, now prime minister himself, again faces
the prospect of nuclear weapons in the hands of a radical Islamic
enemy, Iran. And suddenly the Begin Doctrine dormant for a
generation - is back on full display.
On Nov. 17, Meir Dagan, head of the Mossad, Israel's CIA, met with the
Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Security Committee. Reportedly, it was
the first time in 18 years a Mossad chief has done so.
Committee proceedings are supposed to be secret, but they always
leak, and Dagan's testimony was no exception. He warned lawmakers
that Iran is on the verge of obtaining nuclear weapons, a prospect
Israel cannot accept.
"Such weapons pose, for the first time, an existential threat to Israel,"
Dagan told the committee, according to an Israeli newspaper report.
Dagan is extremely close to Prime Minister Sharon. He wouldn't have
said such a thing - or even met with the Knesset panel without
authorization from the prime minister.
A few days before this meeting, Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz
appeared before a think tank in Washington and delivered a similar
message. He said that he believes the Iranians are no more than a year
from "the point of no return."
Last week, Sharon himself carried the warning to the European Union.
He told his friend Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister and the
current president of the EU, that Iran's nuclear program poses a dire
threat not only to Israel, but Europe and the rest of the world.
Why all these statements now? After all, Israel has suspected for years
that Iran wants nukes and what it wants them for. In December 2001,
for example, Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran's second in command,
publicly bragged about the efficacy of a doomsday weapon. "The
application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but
the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world," he
told a Jerusalem Day crowd in Tehran.
Israel's threats are obviously an attempt to influence current debate at
the International Atomic Energy Agency, which recently conceded
that Iran has been concealing the nature and extent of its nuclear
program for the past 18 years.
Iran says it is only interested in atoms for peace, but no one believes
this. The Iranians already have vast amounts of energy. And Tehran
has been caught with equipment containing weapons-grade enriched
uranium. The only question is, what to do about it.
The United States wants the atomic energy agency to take strong
measures, including the possibility of sanctions. Not surprisingly, the
Europeans want a much softer approach. One of America's talking
points is that the agency had better move before Israel takes matters
into its own hands.
Israel is on board with the American diplomatic strategy, for now. But
it would be a mistake to dismiss the revival of the Begin Doctrine as
merely a ploy. Israeli concerns are, if anything, more acute today than
they were in 1981. In the first Gulf War, Israeli cities were hit by Iraqi
Scuds, an experience that powerfully concentrated the Israeli mind.
Iranian missiles have the range to hit the same targets. Even more
frightening, Tehran could hand off nukes to its Hezbollah proxy.
Both possibilities are, from Israel's point of view, life-threatening.
There's no doubt Jerusalem would prefer to have this danger removed
by the international community. But if the world ignores its
responsibility, Israel won't simply shrug and hope for the best. It will
very likely act on its own - this time, perhaps, with tacit American
One hopes the Begin Doctrine will work as well as it did in 1981. If not
and things get messy, well, at least 59% of Europeans won't be