AUS DEM SPIEGEL
Ausgabe 26/2009

Potential for Apocalypse Is War between Iran and Israel Inevitable?

By Erich Follath

Part 4: The Duty to Fight Amalek


In December 2005, Netanyahu celebrated his comeback as Likud chairman and, in early 2009, led the party into elections as the frontrunner. That election, not unlike the recent election in Iran, did not produce clear results, even though -- as could be expected in the Middle East's only democracy -- it was free and fair. Netanyahu's party came in second, while Kadima, the party of the popular Tzipi Livni, who was open to negotiations with the Arabs, managed to secure one additional seat in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset.

Netanyahu was forced to form a coalition with an ultra-religious party and to strike a deal with right-wing populist Avigdor Lieberman, a man Haaretz has called a "racist and fascist." Lieberman, to the chagrin of many Israelis, was made foreign minister in Netanyahu's new cabinet.

Netanyahu has not forgotten his roots. He often mentions the two people who shaped his life and his way of thinking. He dedicated a fiery book on fighting terrorism to his father, and he published a book of the letters of his fallen brother. Despite living up to his reputation as a hardliner in the first few months of his new term, he demonstrated at least the willingness to compromise. In response to pressure from the Obama administration, in a keynote speech on foreign policy that he gave last week, Netanyahu spoke for the first time of a "Palestinian state." It was an important moment even if the hurdles he set for its establishment were so high that even moderate Palestinians had trouble recognizing any real willingness to budge.

It is certainly possible that Netanyahu will retreat from other positions in the coming months, perhaps, under pressure from Washington, abandoning the expansion of settlements -- which he is currently pursuing, in violation of all commitments under international law, under the euphemism of "natural growth." But Netanyahu is almost certain to remain unbending on the question of Iranian nuclear bombs, steering Israel toward an attack. Why does he believe that a red line has been crossed? And why does he seem to yearn for his adversary Ahmadinejad to remain in office, as even the respected German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported with astonishment, citing Israeli sources?

When American author and Israel expert Jeffrey Goldberg recently asked a Netanyahu confidant to explain this fixation, he simply replied: "Think Amalek." This is the Jewish concept that forms a potentially disastrous parallel to the Islamic Haqqani school -- a pair of mirror-image concepts that could spell war. In a biblical context, Amalek was the grandson of Esau who, with his tribal warriors from Canaan, launched a treacherous and unprovoked attack on the Hebrews as they were traveling to the Holy Land, Eretz Israel. In a broader sense, the term Amalek refers to the existential threat to Judaism at all times, under all circumstances and by all enemies. The Torah, Devarim 25, Fifth Book of Moses, reads: "Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt--how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear."

No Jewish generation is permitted to forget the conflict with Amalek, because Amalek embodies the intrinsically evil and destructive. Fighting Amalek is the duty of every devout Jew, a "mitzvah aseh" or commandment of action. According to some interpretations of ancient scripture, this mitzvah is more far-reaching, namely a commandment to eliminate the original enemies of the Jews.

Rabbis like Bibi Netanyahu's grandfather taught, and continue to teach today, that Jews are forced to combat the Amalekites, who are constantly, as Goldberg puts it, "reappearing in new forms": the soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar and of the Spanish Grand Inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada, Adolf Hitler's thugs, and now the hardliners who are vowing to destroy Israel, together with their president, Ahmadinejad. Those who, like Netanyahu, see Iran's nuclear program as Amalek's arsenal of weapons, are not just entitled, but are in fact obligated, to take preventive measures to destroy it. According to Jewish apocalyptic constructs, a Jewish state would cease to exist after a possible Iranian nuclear first strike. In other words, it is better to attack first in the case of doubt.

The notion that Iran, if it were to use nuclear weapons, would be acting suicidally and would see its government and hundreds of thousands of innocent people wiped out in the inevitable counter-attack is irrelevant. In fact, say the anti-Amalekites, Ahmadinejad literally yearns for such an inferno, because it would pave the way for the return of the Mahdi in the resulting end-time scenario. The Israelis reject as naïve the idea that Ahmadinejad is "merely" a populist and, with his nuclear program, could "only" be pursuing tactical goals like the regional strengthening of Iran to bring it to the same level as Israel, a nuclear power.

Is a coming war virtually unavoidable? In Israel's more recent history, hasn't it always been the hardliners who have managed to achieve important compromises and who, like Begin or Sharon, or possibly Netanyahu in the current conflict, were also able to convince the people of the need for such compromises? Isn't it possible that Ahmadinejad could be interested in, or forced to, scale back his demands?

The solutions for monitoring the Iranian nuclear program are on the table. The West will have to be prepared to fundamentally grant the Iranians the right to uranium enrichment -- under strict international supervision. The Iranians will have to agree to limit their arsenal to a few dozen centrifuges for scientific research, and to purchase the nuclear fuel for their civilian program from other countries. In return for Tehran's willingness to compromise, the West would agree to a "grand bargain" involving unrestricted trade, the transfer of scientific know-how and diplomatic recognition by Washington.

But the signs are currently pointing to stormy weather ahead: to Haqqani versus Amalek, and to a showdown between the unlike twins.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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