Note: This post is dedicated to the memory of Marie Colvin, an American war correspondent who was allegedly killed by the Syrian government while covering the uprising there. If you want to learn more about the lives and sacrifices of war correspondents, I recommend watching the documentary “Dying to Tell the Story,” which I first saw in 1998 when I was a journalism major at Boston University.
By Samuel Scott
JERUSALEM — “The real fear is not that Iran will nuke us; it is that a nuclear Iran will have a greater ability to sponsor and commit terrorism in Israel and worldwide without having to fear significant retaliation.”
That was a comment that an official at the Israeli Foreign Ministry told me in fluent English recently over dinner and beers when I asked him whether the Israeli government actually thought that Iran was seeking a nuclear weapon and that it would use such a device to kill millions of Israelis. (The official, of course, asked not to be identified on my blog, and I agreed.)
I say this not to seem as though I have some secret source high in the Foreign Ministry. I had gone to a local pub to watch the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball game on a Thursday, and I wound up sitting next to the official, who had come to eat dinner after work. I struck up a conversation, and we talked for a while.
Most Israelis I know will shriek with excitement on seeing someone famous or quasi-famous (and then post an excited update to Facebook or something), but every time this happens to me, I just want to question them. Yes, remember that I am an online marketer whose first career was in newspapers. I become intensely curious about everything whenever I randomly meet someone interesting. And in the four years that I have lived in Israel, I have (politely) questioned people including the Foreign Ministry official, U.N. staff in Jerusalem, Arab-Israeli Christians, and U.S. soldiers stationed in Israel for mysterious purposes on which they could not elaborate (even “off the record”).
Most of the time, the conversations revolve around Iran since that is the news of the moment and the situation is the “black cloud” hanging over the head of Israelis, even though most of them do not want to admit it. In addition, I get understandably-worried e-mails from friends and family in the United States asking whether I will be vaporized in a nuclear attack soon and if I want to go back to Boston or St. Louis. So, I ask everyone what they think because both the journalist and the person in me want to know.
And I get everyone’s stories through a tried-but-true tactic that I learned when I was a Boston newspaper reporter and editor: jokes and beer. Jokes are a way to make a person feel comfortable, and beer makes the truth come out. From the time that I was a bartender in London at the age of twenty to the times that I have spent as a regular at pubs on three continents, I can attest that alcohol is indeed a “truth serum.” In Boston, sources and government officials would open up over beer at a pub and the Boston Red Sox or New England Patriots game on television. Here in Israel, I usually do the following:
- Strike up a conversation with the person next to me. If he or she is not Jewish, I’ll joke, “Then why are you in this crazy, godforsaken part of the world?!” If the person is here on business or a non-Jewish tourist, I’ll joke, “Make sure you have a helmet for the rockets from Gaza!”
- If the person is a Jewish tourist, I’ll joke, “Then why not make aliyah [the term in Hebrew for moving to Israel and becoming a citizen, like I did]?”
The point is that whether a person is, say, a guy from Wales here on business, a Japanese couple touring Jerusalem, or a group of young Jews visiting Israel on Taglit-Birthright Israel (the free, ten-day trip to Israel that any Jew aged 18-26 in the world can get), I want to hear everyone’s story. Whenever I was a journalist in Boston or an online-marketer now in Israel for The Cline Group, I love gathering a good story (of a person then or a company client now) and then communicating it to the public. And joking and being humorous is the best way to get someone else to feel comfortable and “open up.” Then, buying the person a beer or chaser (the Israeli term for “shot”) helps them to tell you what they really think.
Now, in regards to Iran, I have heard the most-interesting comments from the following people: The Israeli Foreign Ministry official, an Israeli-Arab Christian, and a U.S. Navy officer. Since I am not an official journalist anymore and do not have the time to be one, I cannot investigate, confirm, or deny these statements. I am merely presenting them out of objective interest.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry. The first question I asked him was, “Does Israel think Iran is a rational actor or a fanatical regime?” The difference is crucial to understand. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union were rational actors — each wanted to survive as a country and pursue its interests. As a result, neither one would nuke the other because such an action would guarantee its own destruction in return. This was the principle of MAD (Mutually-Assured Destruction), and it kept the peace (however shaky it had been through the decades). The question today is whether Iran has the same attitude. And the answer, which no ones knows, is whether Iran views the world through a realist international-relations prism or an idealistic one.
In the realist view, Iran wants to be the regional power in the Middle East, and it is fighting with Turkey (see here and here) and Saudi Arabia (the country with the two holiest sites in Islam) for that role. (Egypt and/or Iraq had that role, but the countries are in anarchy and disarray after the internal revolution and U.S. invasion, respectively, in recent years.) So, Iran would not nuke or engage in a significant war with Israel because its own military force and political status would be decimated as a result. A major war with Israel would result, regardless of the damage to Israel, in a loss of the ability of Iran to remain a leading power in the region. Israel does not take threats or invasion lightly.
In the idealistic view, however, Iran is an Islamist country that will do whatever it takes to spread Islam and destroy Israel and the (Christian) West. Just as businesses have overall goals and then form and enact strategies to achieve those goals, so do countries. The realist paradigm says that Iran, like most countries, will do whatever it can to increase and preserve its power; the idealistic one says that Iran will do whatever it can to advance an idea. Which one do I think is accurate? More on that below.
Israeli-Arab Christians and Muslims. My readers might think that Arabs and Muslims (not always the same thing) would love any attempt to hurt Israel. But they would be wrong. In just one example, I spoke with an Israeli-Arab Christian whose day job is working for the Vatican in the Old City of Jerusalem. His comments again Iran were even stronger than I have heard from Israelis. Pardon my language, but I present thoughts here exactly as I hear them. “Don’t trust the fucking Persians,” he told me in English. “They will kill anyone who gets in their way.” I do not know whether his comments were rooted in a generations-old historical memory of the Persian Empire conquering the Middle East thousands of years ago or the fact that Palestinians are treated horribly outside of Israel still today, but I understood his opinions.
The Israeli-Arab Christian told me that untold numbers of Arab Christians have left the Middle East for Western countries as a result of Islamic harassment. (It is easier, he said, for Christians to get visas and Green Cards than Muslims, and Arab Christians tend to have more money and fewer children than Islamic Arabs, so they can tell governments that they will not need welfare.) As Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick has noted as well, Arab Christians are now routinely persecuted and attacked throughout the Middle East. The Arab-Israeli Christian told me that he loves Israel because he has complete freedom here to practice his religion. (Although, I must note, it is reportedly illegal in Israel for Christians to evangelize among Jews, but I have been unable to find concrete details.)
It is not only the once-significant-but-now-declining number of Arab Christians who have some level of support for Israel. A poll of Arabs (mainly Muslims) in East Jerusalem found that many of them would prefer to live in Israel rather than a future Palestinian state because life would be better here than there.
A political axiom in the United States is that “people vote with their pocketbooks,” and people elsewhere, even the ideologically-rigid Middle East, are often the same. When the Palestinians elected Hamas to have a majority in Parliament, they did so, according to polls, not because the wanted the terrorist group to wage war on Israel but because Hamas funded schools and hospitals while Fatah, under Yasser Arafat and others, diverted millions of dollars in international aid into officials’ foreign bank accounts and bought weapons rather than food.
And the fact remains that despite the discrimination like that which I have personally seen, Arabs in Israel have more freedom and a better quality of life than Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East. (Israel, perhaps paradoxically, wants to be both a Jewish state and a fully-democratic one.) In just one recent example, the Israeli version of the reality show “The Voice” featured Dana Dor, a teenage Israeli-Arab girl who sang Coldplay’s song “Fix You” in Arabic:
Dor’s performances are not without controversy. Most Israelis with whom I have spoken think that she does not objectively have a good-enough voice and was advanced by judge Aviv Geffen out of so-called “political correctness.” (Geffen is an Israeli modern-rock singer whose biggest hit was “Machar (Tomorrow).”) Still, it is true that no Jewish person in an Arab country could ever sing a song in Hebrew on TV. Many Arabs in Israel do not want to see the country be destroyed by Iran — in addition to the obvious fact that many would die in such an event (and be called “martyrs” by Iran even though they had no choice in the manner of their deaths), Arabs in Israel have better lives and more freedom than Arabs in Arab countries.
Those U.S. pundits and politicians who imagine an gigantic Islamic conspiracy ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt to Israeli Arabs and Palestinians to the Syrian opposition to Iran are painting with too large of a political brush. More Muslims than Christians have been killed by Islamists in recent years, just as more Christians than Muslims in history have been killed by fellow Christians. Minute differences within the same community often inspire more conflict that the major differences between two unrelated communities. (See the classic Christian joke here posted by the user Marrow Man.)
In marketing, you will often see the most-aggressive advertising and promotional campaigns by one brand against another that, for all intents and purposes, is the exact same thing — because it is very easy for the customer to switch from one to the other. Imagine that I am Colgate, and I compete against Crest. We both sell tubes of white paste that fight cavities. In the end, it really makes no difference whether you, as the consumer, buy one toothpaste or the other. So, I will design extravagant packaging, attack Crest in advertisements, and maybe shave a few cents of the price to differentiate myself.
Now, take this paradigm and apply it to politics and religion. The candidates for the U.S. Republican presidential nomination, for the most part, are the exact same thing: They all repeat the political mantras of lower taxes, smaller government, and conservative stances on social issues. Still, to distinguish themselves from the others, they exaggerate small details and increase the personal attacks. (To be fair, Democrats do the same thing in their primaries.) In religion, however, the costs are often even higher. Sunni and Shi’a Muslims kill each other more than they kill Jews and Israelis — it is laughable to think that they could ever unite under a single authority and Caliphate. Turkey, even though the people elected a moderately-Islamist government, is at odds with Iran. I could go on.
My point is that people who think Israel is facing a united, Islamist front are sorely mistaken. Saudi Arabia and Egypt (at least, perhaps, before the revolution), would quietly cheer while Israeli jets were bombing Iran, even if they could not support Israel publicly out of domestic, political concerns. Power in international relations in a zero-sum game. If Iran’s power would decrease, then that of Saudi Arabia and Egypt would increase. The Iraq War only decreased Iraq’s power while increasing that of Iran since the two had been enemies. Iran is a single, special issue.
So, what does Israel think the United States will do?
U.S. Navy Officer. “The United States considers Israel to be the greatest intelligence risk.”
That was what a U.S. Navy officer newly-arrived in Israel told me. But before anti-Israel activists and anti-Semites (often, but not always, the same thing) use that quote to condemn the country, it is important to understand one thing: Every country spies on every other country all the time. It’s a geopolitical practice that everyone does but no one acknowledges. Israel is a country that, rightly or not, has a “Holocaust mentality” in which its survival is constantly at stake. So, Israel has a motivation to collect as much information as it possibly can.
And what does that mean in practice? “Every time I go through Passport Control here, I am flagged, and someone will eventually find me and talk to me in an attempt to get information, even if it’s too subtle for me to realize,” the officer told me. “I just hope it will be a hot girl with black, curly hair and big breasts,” he joked.
“Well, I’m sorry you got me!” I joked in response as I bought him a chaser. Although the officer would not tell me too many details, he did say that the United States has sent a fleet of warships to the coast of Israel to help Israel to shoot down any incoming Iranian missiles and to attack Iran itself should a war would arise. Later that evening, I joked before I left to go home that I was going to call Bibi (the nickname of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) with all of the information. He laughed and gave the bartender ten dollars. “Tell the bar to save that and use it to buy beer for any U.S. soldiers who come here in the future; I want to “pay it forward.” I did. Ten dollars will buy three cheap beers in Israel, and I, as a dual citizen, always admire the sacrifices of American and Israeli soldiers.
So, as a result of my conversations, what do I think will happen? I am not an expert; I just talk to people and, like Israelis themselves, I have an addiction to the news. My thoughts:
- U.S. President Barack Obama and the U.S. government in general are firmly committed both to helping Israel and preventing the rise of Iran
- Even if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon — which I think will not occur as a result of crippling economic sanctions — it will not use it to attack Israel
First, U.S. policy towards Israel has been generally consistent for decades, and any current criticism of Obama is largely political posturing and a distortion of his opinions. Every U.S. administration — including those of George W. Bush and Barack Obama — has supported a two-state solution based on the 1967 cease-fire lines and land swaps to compensate for Israeli settlements. Those who think otherwise have largely fallen for propaganda coming mainly from the right wing.
Second, the international community has an interest in preventing Iran from gaining more global power. After all, Iran allegedly bombed a facility in Argentina and plotted to kill the Saudi Arabian ambassador in the United States. If Iran would have a so-called “nuclear umbrella,” then there is no telling what the country would be able to do after no longer needing to fear retaliation.
Earlier in this essay, I asked whether Iran is a rational actor or a fanatical regime in geopolitical terms. My answer is mixed. In my view, Iran has an idealistic goal that it attempts to achieve through realistic means. My reasoning is simple: You cannot sponsor and export Islamism if you are dead. When Yasser Arafat, Fatah, Islamic Jihad, and others waged an intifada against Israel in the late 1990s and early 2000s, they manipulated teenage kids into blowing themselves up in suicide-bombing attacks. Arafat, of course, never sacrificed himself personally. The same is true in democratic countries: Civilian presidents are often far too willing to send kids into wars in which their own lives would not be at risk.
Iran wants to become a regional power and continue to inspire Islamism throughout the world. This much is obvious, and anyone who thinks otherwise is willfully blind. However, Iran would not have the ability to do so if the entire country were decimated in an Israeli attack. The mullahs who run Iran may have evil ambitions, but they are not stupid. They send others to die; they do not want to die themselves.
If Iran were to destroy Israel, its own country would be destroyed in response. It would lose its ability to influence the world on a level of the Persian Empire. Moreover, the country is teetering on the brink of economic collapse and social anarchy. The recent move by SWIFT, the international-banking system, to stop Iranian banks from selling oil will have a devastating effect as well. Iran’s economy depends on oil, and any threat to that need will crush the country. You cannot sponsor Islamism worldwide if you do not have the money to pay for it.
So, as an American Israeli in Jerusalem, what can I say? To be honest, I am more annoyed with the constant stream of loud military planes and helicopters flying over my home and office every few minutes during the latest rocket barrages from the Gaza Strip. I just want to work without interruption. I really do not think much about Iran because a war or nuclear attack is extremely unlikely, in my opinion. Of course, I could be wrong — and perhaps I should heed the advice of my friends and family and return to the United States straight away.
Still, I remain in Israel partly out of Jewish sensibilities and mainly out of a journalistic desire to see what happens. Like Marie Colvin, I want to see what happens and then tell the world. Whether I am in a pub or interviewing people elsewhere, I love telling stories.
Samuel Scott is a former Boston newspaper editor who now lives in Israel and works as Senior Director of Digital Marketing and SEO Team Leader for The Cline Group. You can follow Scott on his personal Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter accounts as well.