Israel and Iran: Enmity from Above, Amity from Below

Richard Abernethy

Israeli and Iranian protesters have joined forces against the threat of war between their countries – Editors.

On one level, the threat of war between Israel and Iran is a real conflict, a struggle between two state powers for dominance in the Middle East. On another level, each set of rulers finds in the other a “useful enemy”, an external threat that appears to validate its ideology, and consolidate its rule at home.

In both countries, there is a body of enlightened opinion that opposes the rulers’ drive toward war. In an extraordinary new development, Israeli and Iranian dissidents have come together, firstly over the internet and most recently in person in Berlin, to oppose the drive to war.

In the current balance of power, Israel is the only state in the region to possess nuclear weapons. Iran is developing its nuclear processing plants and building up a stock of enriched uranium, to the point where it has the capability to make nuclear bombs. It has also sent a test missile 1,900 kilometres to the Indian Ocean, giving it easily enough range to reach Israel from any launch point in Iran.

Whether the Islamic Republic intends to proceed from the capability to produce nuclear weapons to their actual production is a vexed question. The supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has denied this, describing nuclear weapons as “useless, harmful and dangerous” and going so far as to call their possession a “sin”. According to public statements by U.S. intelligence agencies, there is no evidence that Iran has decided to acquire nuclear weapons. The question is complicated by an internal power struggle between factions supporting the Ayatollah and the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Perhaps for now Iran’s rulers are keeping their options open, and keeping Israel, the West and the rest of the world guessing.

In the ideological worldview of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, Iran is directly equivalent to Nazi Germany, and the prospect of Iran getting nuclear weapons threatens Israel with nothing less than destruction in a new Holocaust: “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany, and Iran is racing to arm itself with atomic bombs”.

The view of the world put forward in Iran’s ruling ideology is a mix of crude anti-imperialism and anti-Semitism. All the classic anti-Semitic themes are there, except that the political term “Zionist” replaces the religious and ethnic term “Jew”. The Holocaust is declared to be a myth, and Zionists are accused of dominating both politics and finance in the West. On this point, there is no discernible difference between the factions of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. However, to launch a nuclear attack on Israel would be suicidal for the Iranian rulers, since Israel is itself a powerful nuclear-armed state, as well as a close ally of the United States.

The tension between Israel and Iran reinforces Netanyahu’s intransigence towards the Palestinians. Netanyahu supports and encourages the continuing expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem. In response, the Palestinian Authority has broken off negotiations.

U.S. President Barack Obama notionally supports Palestinian statehood and a return to the borders of before the war of 1967 (with mutually agreed exchanges of territory). The antipathy between Obama and Netanyahu is no secret. However, faced with Netanyahu’s intransigence (backed up by the powerful pro-Israel lobby in the USA), the Obama administration has consistently sided with Israel to block Palestinian diplomatic initiatives. In October 2011, Palestine applied and was accepted for full membership of UNESCO. 107 countries voted for this decision, 14 voted against (Israel and the USA, obviously; also Australia, Canada and Germany), while 52 nations abstained (including Britain). The USA withdrew from UNESCO in protest, although Israel did not. Palestine would have applied for membership of the United Nations, but the USA made it clear that it would veto such an application.

On 8 May, Netanyahu announced a new national unity government, formed by a coalition between his Likud Party and Kadima, a party of the centre-right. This strengthens Netanyahu’s general political position, as the new government is supported by 94 of 120 members of the Knesset. Shaul Mofaz, the leader of Kadima , now holds a pivotal political position. Mofaz, who was born in Iran, is a former chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Not long ago, Mofaz declared his intention to remain in opposition and “lead” the social protests against growing poverty and inequality in Israel, saying that “the current government represents all that is wrong with Israel”. It is not clear whether his change of tune extends to an attack on Iran, which he recently opposed.

In Israel there are two kinds of opposition to the warmongering of Netanyahu and defence minister Ehud Barak. Many in the ruling class, quite possibly a majority, believe that an attack would be a strategic blunder and harm rather than serve Israel’s state power interests. A series of senior members, serving or retired, of the IDF and the intelligence agencies Mossad and Shin Bet have made public statements on these lines. So too has the president, Shimon Peres. Then there is the opposition from below, which includes the traditional left and the peace movement, but also many ordinary Israelis who are new to such protests.

Such anti-war sentiment has found a novel and interesting form of expression in the Israel “heart” Iran/Iran “heart” Israel movement on Facebook, which features images such as a couple kissing while holding their passports – one Israeli and the other Iranian. It is expressed also in the brilliant satirical invention of “Mr. Ahmedinyahu”, a composite of the two rulers. Although criticised by some as naive and apolitical, these exchanges between people of the two countries reaffirm and celebrate their common humanity in the face of state power, national and religious conflict.

One Iranian wrote: “I’m from Iran and love your idea and your efforts against war and for peace. I am really happy to get to know you and people like you, and hope to find more people like you. Here in Iran the situation is complicated and many people hate the government and their bullshit”.

On 5 May, a march of 300 “Israelis and Iranians against the war” was held in Berlin, led by a banner with the slogan “Gegen Krieg, Sanktionen, Besatzung & Staatliche Unterdrückung” (Against War, Sanctions, Occupation and State Oppression). This event was organised by a group of eight Iranians and thirteen Israelis, most of whom are women. The march also protested Germany’s recent sale to Israel of a Dolphin-class military submarine, the fourth such vessel, capable of launching nuclear missiles.

One of the Iranian organisers, Arzu, was quoted:

“Calling off the sanctions is very important to us. Prices rose astronomically. My family has a hard time finding medicine. It is only possible to find some in the black market, which is controlled by Iran’s security forces. In fact, they are the primary beneficiaries of the sanctions.”

“The sanctions will not help to stop a nuclear bomb, considering there is a plan to build one. Both Israeli and Iranian governments portray each other as a dangerous enemy, this way they divert the attention from internal issues. The regimes have to keep us in a state of emergency in order to control us. But I am certain the people will win, one day.” (quoted in, 4 May 2012).



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