As this New Year approaches, I find myself having difficulty concentrating on my failures and shortcomings, which have been amply exhibited in the past year. This is neither the result of false self-righteousness nor a weakness of will. My difficulty stems from the fact that I find myself increasingly engulfed by concern for the year that is dawning. In particular, anxiety over a potential Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear sites.
Like most of us, I have no inside knowledge of Israel’s capacity to pull off such an attack; nor do I know whether success will merely delay or permanently set back a nuclear Iran. I am not in possession of the secret position papers which analyze the potential short- and long-term consequences of either a successful attack or a nuclear Iran. I don’t even know whether the ensuing bombardment of Israel’s cities will result in “only” 500 civilian casualties, as Defense Minister Ehud Barak is reported to have stated, or whether the consequences in lives and well-being will be far more significant. Given the fact that there is so much that I do not know, I have hesitated for months to write about Iran, leaving this arena to others – who also do not know.
As the New Year approaches, however, I have been reminded that the purpose of teshuva is not merely to repent for past mistakes but to reflect on one’s future and to commit to avoiding making new ones. In this context silence is also a position, and one that I am increasingly uncomfortable with.
There is much that I do not know, but there is also much that I do. I know that a nuclear Iran poses grave dangers to much of the world, to its interests in the Middle East, be they political, moral, or economic. I know that a nuclear Iran is dangerous for Israel and significantly increases the threats that we must confront. I know that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the ministers of his government are serious people who in the end will always place the well-being of Israel ahead of their political futures and self-interests. I know that Israel will only choose to attack when it feels sufficiently endangered and after military assessments that such an attack will likely succeed.
While I know all of the above, I not only have increased trepidation but serious questions about the legitimacy of such an attack, for there are other things that I also know. I know that blind faith and trust in any human institution is a mistake, a mistake that we Israelis have inclined to in the past, in particular when it comes to the institution of the military and our government, when security issues are at stake. We have discovered all too well that our military is flawed and that individuals in leadership can make wrong decisions despite their good intentions. The blood of our family members has taught us that we are most loyal and loving when we challenge our leadership and when we have a healthy dose of skepticism with regard to Israel’s military might.
I also know that there are multiple obligations if one is to comply with the conditions of just warfare. Just war theory limits military action to instances of self-defense. It allows for a measure of preemptive attacks when the threat is approximating actualization and all other measures have been exhausted. Like most Israelis, I am not concerned with the legitimacy of attacking Iran from the perspective of the harm it would cause Iranians. Their deceitful pursuit of nuclear weapons, their ongoing participation and support for terror and the murder of Israelis and Jews, and the continuous declarations of their leadership calling for the destruction of Israel, have created, I believe, sufficient grounds for classifying a preemptive attack as self-defense and thus legitimate and just.
The conditions of just war, however, do not apply only to the Iranians, but also to Israel’s citizens, who themselves would be put in harm’s way. The covenant we Israelis have with our army is that it is not merely subordinate to the government but to the citizens who are drafted into its service. We willingly endanger ourselves and our children only to the extent that our military maintains its mission, which is embedded in its name, the Israel Defense Forces. The standard of just war for Israeli society requires not merely the existence of a threat but the knowledge that military force is to be used only as a measure of last resort, only when all other measures have been exhausted, and only when there is a high level of certainty that the new threat which will ensue is not greater than the threat being eliminated.
While I do not know with certainty the answer to whether these conditions have been met, I do know that too many of the most serious people within our defense establishment in the immediate past and the present believe that these conditions have not been met. It is not clear that economic sanctions have failed. It is not clear that an attack will do more than merely delay Iran’s nuclear capabilities. It is not clear that Israel has the military capacity to attack Iran alone and succeed. It is not clear that the consequences of such an attack on Israeli lives and life in Israel will not be catastrophic. With so much that is unclear, I do not feel that the criteria of just war have been met.
I know that, as a general rule, when one thinks that one is the only one who “gets it,” in all probability one does not. Those who think so, more often than not have fallen prey to the sin of arrogance and self-righteousness. I know that Israel has real friends in the world and that a nuclear Iran concerns not merely us but many of our allies. Consequently, I believe that if we have to act alone, we probably shouldn’t.
I do not envy our prime minister, who as the democratically elected leader of Israel has not merely the responsibility but the legal right to make decisions which hold Israel’s survival in the balance. In a democracy, we the citizens, however, are the true sovereign, and our leadership serves at our pleasure, and the majority of Israelis have come out over and again against an attack by Israel alone. Our voices do not count merely at the ballot box but every day.
As we approach the New Year, I who know very little believe that I know enough to say: No. Let us not merely repent for past mistakes but learn from them and employ military options only as a truly last resort, and even then with great hesitation, skepticism, and humility. Only then will our Defense Forces be true to its name and the standards of justice met not merely toward the Iranians but to us Israelis, as well.