On Friday July 18 the New York Times published an op-ed by the Israeli historian Benny Morris. It is entitled "Using Bombs to Stave Off War." Morris chose this American venue to announce that Israel would "almost surely" attack Iran some time in the next few months. And he indicated that America would be well advised to support the attack.
The reputation of Benny Morris is founded on unquestioned scholarly achievement and a far more dubious political stance. As one of Israel's "new historians," he recovered the record of harassment, murder, and expulsion of the Palestinians in the war of independence -- a finding that largely discredits the Israeli myth that the inhabitants fled from their own timidity, or because they were told to flee by Arab governments.
But speaking as an Israeli citizen, more recently, Morris has declared his view that the mistake of Ben-Gurion and the leadership of 1948 was that they did not carry the expulsion of the Palestinians all the way. Morris sees Israel in 2008 as a state under perpetual siege and the focus of a clash of civilizations; he sees Palestinians -- and to a degree, all Arabs; and Iranians, too -- as a species of animals not yet inducted into full humanity. Thus in a well-known interview
with Ari Shavit, published in Haaretz on January 5, 2004, Morris described the Israeli problem with the Palestinians:
"Something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another."
In the years since Benny Morris spoke those words, the construction of the Israeli wall in the West Bank, and the blockade of Gaza by land, sea, and air have created the cage he believed was necessary.
Now, writing from Israel for the American newspaper of record, Morris offers his advice concerning the proper treatment of Iran and Iranians. Since Iran is five years from being able to make a nuclear bomb (Morris says one-to-four years), Israel is compelled to bomb Iran "in the next four to seven months."
One may notice that the Israeli attack goes on a much faster schedule than the Iranian pace of research and discovery. Why the haste for destruction? Could it have something to do with the American presidential election of 2008 (which comes at Morris's four-month lower limit), or something to do with the inauguration of a new president in 2009 (thirty days before his upper limit of seven months)? Morris does not say. He writes, he says, because people need to realize that the success of Israel's coming "conventional assault" on Iran will be good for Israel, for the United States, and even for Iran. If, on the other hand, this conventional assault fails, Israel will some day launch a nuclear attack; and that will be less good.
The choice, Morris concludes, lies with the rest of the world, and especially with the United States. If Iran does not submit rapidly to the next round of international pressure, the world had better support Israel and hope for the success of its first aerial assault against Iran.
Morris confesses, or implies, one reservation. It would better if the United States could launch the attack. But, being realistic, he remarks the lack of enthusiasm among Americans "for wars in the Islamic lands."
"Which leaves," says Morris, "only Israel."
There is an irritant driving this article, a motive more deeply lodged than Morris is willing to avow. For he suspects Israel alone cannot do the job well enough. So having first dismissed the U.S. and the American public as faint-hearted and unequipped for "wars in Islamic lands," and having then come half way to ask again, Morris at last accuses the United States. If we do not soon intervene, and attack Iran as he counsels, the result will be further nuclear progress by Iran. This will be terminated eventually with a nuclear attack by Israel against Iran.
A nuclear attack on a nation of seventy million people (a great many of them innocent of the desire to wipe Israel off the map) is morally indefensible. How can Morris defend it? He can because he knows -- not believes but metaphysically knows -- that the moment that Iran comes into possession of its first weapon, the leaders of Iran will commit national suicide in order to obtain the pleasure of destroying Israel.
Morris alludes to his ulterior knowledge in two sentences so full of blandness, abstract jargon, and bureaucratic euphemism that their meaning is not initially clear; but if one reads with care, one sees that the message is never in doubt:
"Given the fundamentalist, self-sacrificing mindset of the mullahs who run Iran, Israel knows that deterrence may not work as well as it did with the comparatively rational men who ran the Kremlin and the White House during the cold war. They are likely to use any bomb they build."
Iran will use a nuclear bomb, Morris is sure, as soon as it has one, even knowing that to do so means the destruction of Iran. The Mullahs will do it because that is the kind of people they are.
Here then is the way around the charge that Israel, in attacking Iran some time before March 2009, will be committing a crime. By Morris's logic the attack by Israel will be an act of self-defense. Indeed, it will be preemptive -- hardly more than common sense -- given the knowledge that Benny Morris possesses of the "fundamentalist, self-sacrificing" nature of the leaders of Iran. No evidence for his intuition is ever offered -- evidence from (say) the history of Iranian foreign policy over the past fifty years, or 200; evidence founded on actions rather than words. What if Iran's words since 1979 have been wilder than its deeds? What if Israel's actions since 2002 have been wilder than its words (wilder, even, than Benny Morris's words of 2004)? These findings could not possibly touch the argument. Morris writes as a man in possession of a racial and religious knowledge that is superior to evidence.
Of course, he hopes that Israel will not be forced to go all the way (though he has deplored Ben-Gurion's failure to go all the way with expulsion of the Palestinians). He imagines most Iranians would prefer not to see "Iran turned into a nuclear wasteland." Morris has thus given the readers of the New York Times a vision of a hellish future, but then atoned for the extravagance by suggesting that, if things fall out so, it will be the fault of Iran and the United States. Israel will have done the best it could with a monstrous and implacable enemy and a reluctant ally.
All circumstances taken together, this New York Times op-ed by Benny Morris is at once the most overt and the most peculiar intervention we Americans have witnessed thus far, by an Israeli attempting to influence U.S. policy in the Middle East. The article is weakly founded on partial facts and conjectural truths. It passes without transition from mock-prudential calculations to a tyrannical threat to destroy a civilization for the good of the world. Yet, though unpersuasive, it acquires significance when published between a recent visit to the U.S. by the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and the current visit by the defense minister Ehud Barak. Morris's article is meant to be read in the context of such recent assurances as Olmert's, for example, that President Bush "understands the severity of the Iranian threat and the need to vanquish it, and
intends to act on that matter before the end of his term in the White House."
But let us return for a last look at Benny Morris.
No person into whose mind had entered the idea that an Iranian may be a human being--and that there are millions of innocent Iranians -- could have generated with such casual facility the image of Iran as a "nuclear wasteland." Yet this was the image of Iran that the Israeli Benny Morris decided to conjure up for American readers in the New York Times.
In the Haaretz interview of January 5, 2004, the following exchange occurred between the interviewer Ari Shavit and Benny Morris:
"Would you describe yourself as an apocalyptic person?"
"The whole Zionist project is apocalyptic. It exists within hostile surroundings and in a certain sense its existence is unreasonable. It wasn't reasonable for it to succeed in 1881 and it wasn't reasonable for it to succeed in 1948 and it's not reasonable that it will succeed now. Nevertheless, it has come this far. In a certain way it is miraculous. I live the events of 1948, and 1948 projects itself on what could happen here. Yes, I think of Armageddon. It's possible. Within the next 20 years there could be an atomic war here."
This apocalyptic danger Morris may conceive himself to have put off a few more years by writing an editorial on behalf of Israel's coming attack. But whether the attack on Iran comes sooner or later, whether it is executed by Israel or the U.S. or both, and whether carried out with conventional or nuclear weapons, Morris has no doubt of one thing. It will have served the "apocalyptic" vision of the "whole Zionist project," and it will coincide with the highest values of
humanity properly defined.