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Israel and Iran: both sides now
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Israel and Iran: both sides now

I’ve always respected the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, not just for the quality of its scholarship but for its willingness to brook internal disagreement.

A year or so back, the right-leaning BESA distributed two articles on J Street, one critical, the other a defense.

David Weinberg called J Street a “new form of Jewish apostasy.”

Dov Waxman wrote that J Street is “enlarging the pro-Israel tent, allowing more American Jews to identify themselves as being pro-Israel without having to be uncritical knee-jerk supporters of Israeli governments.”

It’s pretty rare for one think tank to offer a forum for such divergent views. Every think tank, in the Jewish world anyway, likes to call itself nonpartisan and non-ideological. But each tends to be fairly predictable and one-sided in the kinds of analysis it produces, right or left (proving “knee-jerk” is not just a liberal affliction).

In an increasingly polarized Jewish community — especially around the subject of Israel — that small “c” catholicism is a good thing.

Some of that spirit was on display this week at a BESA-sponsored conference held at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. Planned in part as a showcase for Bar-Ilan’s supporters in the United States, the all-day conference on U.S. Mideast policy featured a half-dozen BESA scholars. Added to each panel was an “outsider,” usually but not always to the left of the Israelis.

It turned what could have been a partisan rally into a real dialogue, quietly highlighting the real differences and dilemmas facing policy-makers on the Middle East.

On the subject of Iran, for instance, BESA political scientist Ephraim Inbar offered a meat-eating justification for a U.S. military intervention to halt Iran’s nuclear program. (The metaphor is Inbar’s; he referred to current economic sanctions as “vegetarian.”) Saying Tehran is determined to get the Bomb, Inbar said the current strategy — sabotage, Stuxnet, the (ahem) “removal” of Iranian scientists — may gain Israel and the West some time.

However, the Obama administration’s diplomatic strategy, including “engaging” the enemy, only “signals weakness.”

“In the Middle East, you don’t engage your enemies; you kill them,” said Inbar. (The idea that the Middle East isn’t Kansas was a leitmotif of the day; over coffee, I heard a BESA scholar tell a guest, “The only game played by Americans according to American rules is the World Series; the U.S. just doesn’t get the Middle East.”)

Inbar called proponents of nuclear containment and deterrence “irresponsible,” saying one cannot expect Ahmadinejad and the imams to act rationally. “If the U.S. is not ready to flex its muscles via a naval blockade or a military strike, Iran will remain unimpressed,” thundered Inbar. “Only the use of force can give containment a chance.”

In the question-and-answer session that followed, Columbia’s Gary Sick (the chief White House adviser on Iran during the hostage crisis) waved a yellow flag. “If Iran wants and needs a nuke so desperately and hasn’t done it yet, what’s holding them back?” he asked. “Twenty years is a long time.”

(That extremely uncomforting thought put me in mind of something I heard once while covering a peace march: “The only lesson I draw from the fact that there hasn’t been a nuclear strike since World War II,” said my interviewee, “is that there hasn’t been a nuclear strike since World War II.”)

Sick said he hears generals discussing the military option, but not politicians. “If anyone was running on [a] platform [saying], ‘We are going to show them who’s boss; we’re going to bomb Iran and put boots on the ground,’ I would not give that person a very strong chance of becoming president.”

But it is not just “irresponsible” Americans who are wary of bombing Iran. In a later session on domestic politics, a dovish Israeli scholar also challenged Inbar’s martial tone. “We Israelis I think need to be very careful and very modest before we prescribe to Americans where they should go to war,” said Shai Feldman of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies. “These are American lives at stake and [we should] count to 10 before we do that, lest Israel provide one more footnote to some of Israel’s detractors.”

Feldman added that he considers himself both responsible and “a strong believer in deterrence.” Besides, he wondered, if Israel does not believe in deterrence, what is the point of its own nuclear program? “If it is not possible to deter a far-away adversary like Iran then what is the rationale in having invested six decades in a project?” asked Feldman. “It’s not meant to deter Palestinian terrorists.”

Netanyahu is a convert to nuance on the Iranians, Feldman suggested. Where once he would compare a nuclearized Iran to Nazi Germany, Netanyahu hasn’t repeated those kinds of references since becoming prime minister.

I sensed Feldman wanted to leave the conference with a message: “There is a rich internal Israeli debate and it is very sophisticated on almost all the issues,” he said. “There is no ‘Israeli view’ on these issues, but multiple Israeli views.”

Those multiple views are often lost in the campaign to demonize Israel. Credit BESA and Bar-Ilan for airing them.

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