Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear this week that any decision regarding a strike in Iran will be made by the political echelon and will be executed by the military, adding that if an inquiry commission is eventually established, he will be held accountable.
It is hard to argue with such statements. Netanyahu is following in the footsteps of President Truman, who placed a sign reading "The Buck Stops Here" on his desk. In order to check how responsible Netanyahu really is, we must examine the historic lessons on which he will base such a dramatic and fateful decision: Nazi Germany; Czechoslovakia, which was betrayed by Britain and France; defenseless Jews; and allies who refused to bomb Auschwitz in order to stop the annihilation machine.
This last example has been used by many, but the truth is that since 1945 we have not seen any country with the horrible might of Nazi Germany. In addition, the cruelty of rulers who committed genocide cannot be compared to that of Adolf Hitler.
This is true for Iran as well. It as a second rate power that is vulnerable to economic sanctions and military intervention. Its leaders have proven that, unlike Hitler, who was a compulsive gambler, they pursue a much more cautious foreign policy. The international community (and the US in particular) has learned a lot since it abandoned Czechoslovakia and failed to bomb Auschwitz.
The West is acting with growing intensity to halt Iran – mainly to protect its own strategic interests – and most experts believe the measures it is taking should be given more time before other options are considered. Most importantly, as opposed to the defenseless victims of the Holocaust, Israel is one of the strongest countries in the world and possesses not only massive unconventional force but impressive nuclear capabilities as well.
Netanyahu, the son of a renowned historian, has yet to adopt historic analogies that are more relevant to our times. There is no shortage of lessons he can draw from Israel's own history, which all lead to one conclusion: Israel's cautious and restrained use of force has always been advantageous to the State's security, while using force in a reckless manner eventually destabilized the country's security.
Here are a few examples: In the crisis leading up to the Six Day War, then-prime minister Levi Eshkol faced heavy pressure from IDF General Staff officers who claimed that delaying the war would give the Egyptian army more time to prepare in Sinai and would result in more IDF casualties when an armed conflict does break out.
Eshkol was in favor of accepting the American demand to wait, so that during the war itself Israel would have the US' support. Eventually Washington gave the go-ahead, and the Egyptian army was defeated with relative ease despite the IDF generals' predictions.
Eshkol's restraint contributed greatly to Washington's decision not to pressure Israel into ceding the territories it had conquered without a peace agreement. During the 1991 Gulf War, late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir faced similar pressure, and his restraint also paid off.
However, during the first Lebanon war, Begin, Sharon and Rafael "Raful" Eitan were not satisfied with pushing the terrorists away from the northern border and got Israel involved in one of the most unnecessary wars in its history. The Second Lebanon War provided a similar lesson. If Israel would have held its fire after the first three days of fighting it would have avoided numerous IDF casualties while still dealing a heavy blow to Hezbollah.
It is difficult to tell whether Netanyahu has internalized these lessons in any way or if he is taking them into consideration while planning Israel's next moves vis-à-vis Iran – probably not. The lesson of the Holocaust is so deeply entrenched in our minds that there is no room left for other lessons which, while not as dramatic, are more relevant.
The price of a possible mistake in Iran will be heavy, almost unbearable. It was nice of Netanyahu to declare that he will take responsibility (meaning that he will resign) in case a commission of inquiry is set up, but to the hundreds of thousands of people who may be harmed during a war that he is preaching for, it won't be worth much.
Furthermore, most experts have posited that a unilateral Israeli strike would allow Iran to advance even faster and with fewer obstacles towards a bomb. The final result of such a war would be a nuclear Iran that wants to take its revenge on Israel. Iran has already proven during the war with Iraq that is willing to pay a heavy price of hundreds of thousands of casualties to take its revenge on whoever attacked it. The tragic irony is that an Israeli strike driven by the memory of the Holocaust may eventually lead to an existential threat on Israel.
Uri Bar-Joseph is a professor at Haifa University's International Relations Department