Netanyahu and Abbas Clarify Israel's Choices

(Bloomberg) -- Israelis held their breath when Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announced, on Monday afternoon, that the prime minister would be addressing the nation with “dramatic news” about Iran. The looming announcement, coupled with reports that the prime minister had asked the Knesset to authorize his declaring war with the approval of only the defense minister (which the Knesset did approve), led many to believe that Netanyahu was preparing Israelis for the prospect of war.

Ultimately, the prime minister’s announcement, made with his characteristic theatrics and an utterly amateurish backdrop of loose-leaf binders and CDs, was not about war, but about what he called one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of Israeli intelligence. Mossad operatives, it is now being said, managed to break into an Iranian archive documenting Iran’s nuclear program, and smuggled to Israel some 55,000 pages of documents and more than 180 CDs, which contained another 55,000 digital files.

Netanyahu had no “smoking gun” proving that Iran had violated the nuclear deal which President Donald Trump may choose to exit on May 12. What the documents did confirm was Iran’s abiding nuclear ambitions and the extent of its work on the components of a bomb.

Netanyahu obviously hoped his theatrics would persuade Trump not to back down from his threat to trash the U.S.-Iran deal. But in Israel, where there was nothing surprising about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it was the enormity of the intelligence coup — and not what the documents revealed — that quickly became the talk of the town.

It was due to that preoccupation with the heist that it took networks a day or two to make much mention of a speech that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave the same day in Ramallah. At a meeting of the Palestinian National Council, Abbas addressed a crowd of hundreds and stated that the Jews have no historic connection to the land of Israel and that the Holocaust was the result not of anti-Semitism, but of Jewish anti-social behavior and money lending. He even let the Jews off the hook for the State of Israel, claiming that it was the British — not the Jews — who wanted to create the State, as part of a larger colonial project.

U.S. officials and Jewish leaders across the board condemned Abbas in no uncertain terms (though a leading Haaretz opinion writer did insist, somewhat incomprehensibly, that Abbas’s anti-Semitism does not indicate his lessening support for a two-state solution). Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Barack Obama administration, tweeted: “It’s over for Mahmoud Abbas. What a disgusting note to go out on.”

If Israelis were not surprised by Netanyahu’s proof of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, they were even less nonplussed by Abbas’s reprise of classic European anti-Semitic tropes. What is worth noting, however, is that Israelis intuit that Iran’s nuclear ambitions and Abbas’s deep-seated Jew-hatred actually share one critical characteristic — neither can be assuaged by territorial compromise.

Iran and Israel were not always enemies. Though Iran, like every Muslim country, voted against the Partition of Palestine (and thus the creation of Israel) in the United Nations vote of November 1947, Iran was the second Muslim nation (after Turkey) to recognize Israel. It was only after the Islamic Revolution and the rise of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979 that Iran severed diplomatic relations with Israel.

Since then, Iran’s vitriol has only intensified. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s then newly elected president, said that Israel needed to be “wiped off the map.” In 2012, the Iranian chief of staff, Hassan Firouzabadi, announced, “The Iranian nation is [committed to] the full annihilation of Israel.” In 2014, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (not to be confused with Khomeini) said that the “barbaric” Jewish state “has no cure but to be annihilated.”

Iran and Israel share no border, and there is no territorial dispute between the two. Yet nothing about radical Islam’s appetite for Israel’s destruction can be sated, and ultimately, Israelis believe, the same is true of the Palestinians as well. What Abbas’s diatribe did was simply to confirm that Palestinian lust for Israel’s demise has not abated in 70 years; in an ironic way, there is relief in Abbas’s ending the charade.

The Mossad heist, the Iranian drone that followed a few weeks later (perhaps in response to the Mossad operation) and Israel’s bombing raids over Syria may be the first shots across the bow in a much larger conflict to follow. No one knows.

What unites Israelis, interestingly, is their largely shared sense that other than ceasing to exist, there is nothing that Israel can do to end the calls for its destruction and avoid periodic armed conflict. In 1923, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the father of revisionist Zionism, wrote his famous essay, “The Iron Wall,” arguing that the Arabs would never accept the existence of a Jewish entity in their midst, and that to survive, Zionists would have to put up an iron wall and be willing to fight, perhaps forever.

Increasing numbers of even left-leaning Israelis sense that Jabotinsky, sadly, may have been right. Few Israelis want a war with Iran. If war does come, however, most will see it not as a fresh conflict, but as the latest tragic battle in the now century-long conflict over whether the Jews have a right to a national home in the Middle East.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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