by Hillel Schenker
In his passionate New Yorker series on the dangers of nuclear war, Jonathan Schell wrote that “The command ‘Never Forget’ so often heard in connection with the Nazis’ genocidal attack on the Jews is important, not only because it may help the world to prevent any repetition, but because remembering is in itself an act that helps to defeat the Nazis’ attempt to send a whole people into oblivion.
“Just because genocide, by trying to prevent the future generations of people from being born, commits a crime against the future, it lays a special obligation on the people of the future to deal with the crime, even long after its perpetrators themselves are dead.”
Mr. Schell then went on to argue that a nuclear holocaust cannot even provide this recourse to justice, because there may be no one left to do the remembering. (Those articles eventually were converted into the book The Fate of the Earth, a cornerstone for anti-nuclear thought and action – Ed.)
We Jews tend to forget sometimes that there were two traumatic holocausts perpetrated against segments of humanity during World War II. One was the systematic murder of six million of our fellow Jews by the Nazis. The other was the opening of the atomic age, when the Americans dropped two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The command “Never Forget” should apply to both holocausts. And Jews, who suffered so much from the Nazi-perpetrated holocaust, should have more than the average empathy and sensitivity towards the victims of the other holocaust. Thus, we are proud to print the impassioned plea from the mayor of Hiroshima against future nuclear dangers. (In 1982, there was no Internet and no Google. Today the Hiroshima Peace Declarations, which have been published every year since 1981 on August 6th, Hiroshima Day, are available on-line, at www.pcf.city.hiroshima.jp/declaration/English/ history.html. ed.)
Israelis, who consider themselves the guardians of the memory of the victims of the Nazi holocaust and the receptacle of the future preservation of Jewish civilization, still believe that they are endangered today by threats to their very physical existence. There is some basis to this fear since there are Arabs, and others, who deny Israel’s right to exist. However, this fear can produce a perspective which distorts the nature and degree of the dangers facing the world today.
Gen. (Res.) Shlomo Gazit, former head of intelligence in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and currently president of Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba), recently declared that “There is only one state in the world which is faced with a military threat to its existence as a state, threatening its very right to exist and endangering the chances of survival of the residents of that state. Sadly, this is the threat hanging over the State of Israel. Simple and brutal, it is the only state among all the states of the world which is faced with this threat.” (Excerpted from a commencement speech delivered to the graduating class from the Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University, 25/3/82).
With all due respect to Shlomo Gazit, who takes some very reasonable and moderate positions concerning the Palestinian question, Israel is not the only state whose existence is threatened today. The reason for the growth of the anti-nuclear movement is the perception people have throughout the world that in the nuclear age, the existence of all states and peoples is threatened.
One of the major purposes of this issue is to help raise the consciousness of the peoples of Israel and of the other Middle Eastern countries to this danger.
We have tended to immerse ourselves in our own local Arab-Israeli conflict, which, when it comes to military blows, has been expressed until now through conventional military means. However, there is no guarantee that the partners to the conflict will continue to abide by the “conventional” rules in the future.
On March 31, 1982, I sat through a long, draining day from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. at the Van Leer institute in Jerusalem, listening to a seminar dedicated to the question: “Will There Be Another War?” And I was in good company. The entire class of the National Security College, Israel’s future military elite, was also sitting in the audience. The lecturers were the cream of Israel’s academic, military, and political minds (though, ominously, there were no representatives of the Likud, or its supporters, on the panel) and they described all of the possible future scenarios, from the Israeli, the Arab, the American and the Soviet perspectives. Almost all the lecturers ignored the nuclear dimensions of the issue.
Until the Final Two
At 9:15 p.m., MK Mordechai (Motta) Gur (Labor) and former chiefof- staff of the IDF said that in the event of another war, Israel would win, but he didn’t see what Israel could gain from such a war. He then added that “another war would bring us closer to the nuclear edge.” Already, in 1973 Gur said that there were nuclear rumors. There were rumors that the Soviet Union had transferred nuclear material to Egypt. We almost activated our force against the Russians, and the United States mobilized massive troops to prepare for the possibility of a confrontation with the Soviet Union. Gur also said that another war would create an atmosphere of fear of a general deterioration in the situation towards a superpower confrontation and the possibility of a regional or superpower use of nuclear weapons. In Gur’s view, this fear “would be justified.” (Clearly, in 1982, no one imagined that the Soviet Union would collapse and the Cold War would come to an end.).
This would produce an atmosphere conducive to an imposed settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In his view, this would take the form of a deeply frustrating settlement, but not a genuine peace. Our only option, Gur said, is to aspire towards a just peace which will realistically take into account the needs of both sides, to the greatest degree possible.
At 10:30 p.m., while summing up the seminar, Prof. Gavriel Ben-Dor (political science, University of Haifa) said that “in entering the Precision Guided Munitions (PGM) stage, the Middle East arms race had entered the last stage before it escalated into the nuclear dimension.” He added that if the Arabs became desperate over the impasse in the peace process, they might feel that they had no recourse but to threaten the use of nuclear weapons, and Israel might then feel that it had no choice but to defend itself with the threat of nuclear force.
As for Defense Minister Ariel Sharon’s claim that Israel would be able to maintain a denuclearized Middle East through preemptive strikes against Arab actors nearing the realization of their nuclear potential, his argument is undercut by the advance of Pakistan’s nuclear program, coupled with the fact (pointed out by Prof. Kapur’s article “Nuclear Proliferation in the Eighties,” New Outlook, May 1982) that Iraq would be able to rebuild its nuclear facilities underground, so that they would become inaccessible to Israeli air-power. (Ironically, it is Iran, and not Iraq, which learned this lesson.)
The normal pressures of Israeli life and of the Arab-Israeli confrontation have made the nuclear problem appear a secondary, almost esoteric issue.
Many dedicated Israeli peace activists have said honestly that they don’t understand the problem. Some doves even advocate the idea that the proclamation of the existence of an Israeli nuclear option would enable Israel to evacuate the West Bank without endangering its security. We hope that this issue, which reflects the first serious attempt by an Israeli magazine to deal with the nuclear problem, will help to educate Israelis, our Arab neighbors, and our friends around the world, to the dangers inherent in the nuclearization of the Middle East conflict. Some of our writers advocate that Israel join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).We support this call. Establishment spokesmen claim that Arab unwillingness to recognize Israel’s right to exist, which constitutes a threat to Israel’s very existence, prevents Israel from signing the NPT. Official Israeli policy calls for the establishment of a pact of all the states in the Middle East for the denuclearization of the region. It appears that the Arab states are not ready to sign such a pact until Israel evacuates all of the territories occupied in 1967 and participates in a just resolution of the Palestinian problem. We should add here that the lack of a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict clearly increases the likelihood of nuclear proliferation and escalates the dangers of nuclear confrontation in the Middle East. Thus, by process of elimination, the only way left to denuclearize the Middle East is to arrive at a just and comprehensive resolution of the Israeli- Arab conflict. All other steps, such as the denial of critical nuclear material to all of the states in the region and support for an effective international safeguard system, should be encouraged, but only a comprehensive peace agreement will provide the background for a mutual Israeli and Arab agreement to denuclearize the region.
And time is running out.
Postscript for 2010
Here we are, 28 years later, and time is still running out. And the urgency of dealing with the potential nuclearization of the region is greater than ever.
What happened during the past 28 years?
1) In 1986, Mordechai Vanunu revealed details about Israel’s nuclear program in the British press; he was kidnapped and imprisoned for the next 18 years. I don’t doubt the principled sincerity of Vanunu’s motivations; I believe he was unfairly treated by the Israeli authorities and should today be allowed to live his life wherever he chooses. However, his story only served to reinforce the generally held assumption about Israel’s nuclear potential; it did not help develop a significant anti-nuclear movement in the country. He did violate a security oath he had signed. His treatment by the authorities served to deter other potential whistle-blowers, and the fact that he converted to Christianity, while a legitimate personal choice, did not demonstrate a caring for the general Israeli collective.
2) Iraqi President Saddam Hussein fired 39 Skud missiles against Israel during the Gulf War of 1991, raising fears that some of them might have unconventional warheads attached to them. In my view, that experience was the major factor in raising general Israeli awareness about the potential dangers of unconventional warfare.
3) From 1992 to 1995, the Middle East Arms Control and Regional Security in the Middle East (ACRS) talks — an outgrowth of the 1991 Madrid Conference — were held. They failed, due to disagreements between the Egyptian and the Israeli governments over which came first — a comprehensive peace or a Middle East NWFZ (Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone).
4) In recent years, Iran’s nuclear program has been a major source of anxiety in Israel. Some might wonder how Israelis, who clearly have the most powerful army in the region, with its presumed nuclear potential, can fear the Iranian program. The fact is that this anxiety is genuine and felt by all sectors of society. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has fanned the flames of this fear for his own political reasons, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s expressions of Holocaust denial and his declarations about the “end of the Zionist regime” have only served to reinforce the perception that the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat to the State of Israel.
So, what can be done today?
1) Any attempt to call upon Israel to unilaterally denuclearize is doomed to failure, given Israeli and Jewish history of vulnerability. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s original motivation for creating a nuclear program was to ensure that the Jews in Israel would never again have to face the possibility of another Holocaust. Thus the only way to promote a nuclearfree Middle East is to do so in the context of the quest for a comprehensive Middle East peace between Israel and all of its neighbors.
2) The major challenge facing Israel and the international community today is the Iranian nuclear program. If Iran crosses the nuclear weapons threshold, there is well-founded concern that it will trigger a regional nuclear arms race, and other countries will want to join in, seriously destabilizing the entire region.
3) Assuming that the lesson of the 1981 bombing of the Osiraq reactor in Iraq was learned in Tehran, and there is no military solution to its nuclear program, those of us who want to prevent a dangerous and destabilizing military attack against Iran must convincingly explain why there really is no effective military solution.
4) A paper entitled “The Length and Conditions for Ending a Future War between Iran and Israel” was recently published by Dr. Moshe Vered of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, Bar-Ilan University (so far only available in Hebrew). The clear conclusion of the study is the catastrophic consequences of such a war for Iran and Israel. During the height of the nuclear tensions between the superpowers during the Cold War, scenarios were created for the possible consequences of nuclear strikes against New York and Washington, Moscow and Leningrad, with casualty and damage predictions, which served as a horrific and very graphic warning about the dangers of the use of nuclear weapons. Anti-nuclear activists could create similar scenarios for nuclear strikes against Tehran and Tel Aviv, as part of a consciousness-raising campaign against the dangers of nuclear warfare.
5) Track II talks between Israelis and Iranians facilitated by various international actors could make a significant contribution to easing the tension between the two countries, and may be able to produce formulas that could help pave the way towards a “nuclear understanding” between the two countries.
6) While the original ACRS talks have failed, a new formula can hopefully be found — given U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world and the May 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York — for the resumption of talks among all the regional parties, together with international facilitators, perhaps in the context of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002.
7) While Israel’s official position is that it will support a Middle Eastern Nuclear Weapons-Free Zone as part of a comprehensive peace treaty, the average Israeli is simply not aware of that. A campaign should be carried out to emphasize the fact of that policy.