“Are we going to war by early summer?” Tammy, a 16-year-old schoolgirl, asked me as I was delivering a lecture to her class on how the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, operates. All of a sudden a serious, heavy silence fell in the lecture hall, and the laughing and chattering crowd of youngsters froze. This was toward the end of the Q-and-A session, and until then most of the questions had been concerned with Israel’s summer of social-justice protests, in which many of the students had participated. I had just completed my closing remarks, explaining why I believe the protests and public outcry for social justice will strengthen my party, Labor, when Tammy broke the taboo and asked her question. Her teachers looked surprised when I commended her for raising the topic. “People in this country are somewhat in denial about it,” I told her. “We cannot foresee what will happen—so much depends on the upcoming Obama-Netanyahu meeting.”
As a nation, and as individuals, we Israelis carry a lot of pain within us. It is the pain of pogroms and disasters, most significantly the Holocaust, that have struck our people throughout the generations. It is the pain of wars, of numerous terrorist acts, of casualties from missile attacks. It is the plight of new immigrants from the heart of Africa or the former Soviet Union relocated to a new homeland. But there is something more—for the past decade, we have been turning on our radios and television sets every morning and listening to leader after leader from Tehran declaring his dream of annihilating Israel and showing us how he intends to do so. We almost get used to it and go on with our daily lives, but every now and then we are reminded of the lessons from our past, as memorial days and Jewish feasts teach us the lesson not to trust anyone but ourselves.
For more than two years, every Israeli has had to prepare for a possible war with Iran. Drills have taken place all over the country day in, day out. Special units of the Home Front command have been established, and national exercises held, with the prime minister down to the last civil servant all participating in a national disaster drill. I will never forget when, as minister of welfare and social services, I attended a drill at a home for mentally challenged adults and escorted them to the shelter amid the sound of the sirens. Command and control centers have been established in expectation of the moment the Iranians and their agents in the region, such as Hizbullah and Hamas, could launch a grand missile attack.
And still Israelis insist on going on with their lives, refusing to change their plans, and acknowledging much less than one would expect the possibility of a war of such magnitude. Deep in their hearts, Israelis agree that to prevent the worst of all evils, there may be no other choice, although they lack confidence in its prospects. They hope that world leadership and international pressure will finally succeed in stopping the Iranians from advancing their nuclear program. The person in the street does not want to talk too much about a potential war, mostly because he or she lacks some of the basic information needed to form a clear opinion on the merits of the issue.
Most Israelis, therefore, prefer to deal with more concrete topics, such as social issues, sports, and politics, as they understand that those who really know more form a very small group of people. They feel that in any case, the outcome will be decided at the White House summit between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu on Monday.
Indeed, most of the reports on the prospects of an attack that Israelis are exposed to flow into the country from abroad, mostly from American sources. Israeli leaders or officials who are asked about it find themselves truly perplexed, as they are limited in what they can say. Some speak of their own volition. Some feel that whatever they can say may hurt the Israeli position or be misinterpreted by the enemy or serve his causes.
In the past few months, whether Israel should attack Iran has become a major news item and a subject of heated public debate, predominantly between security experts and former heads of the military and intelligence services. Visits by top American officials and world dignitaries, aimed at calming us, have had the reverse effect. The Israeli public has become more baffled as the tragedy in Syria unfolds in what should be viewed as one of the worst atrocities of this era, with the world apparently incapable of putting an end to it. The Russians and Chinese siding with Iran and Syria at the United Nations has only strengthened the general feeling that we may have to go it alone.
“When you have nothing to say, turn to humor,” as the old saying goes. The satirical Israeli TV show Eretz Nehederet, or A Wonderful Country, recently ran a skit in which a group of Iranian nuclear scientists miss their deadline to complete the A-bomb because they’re watching too much Israeli television and going out on a dates with their girlfriends instead of finishing their work. Then some of them disappear. This coming Tuesday, Israelis and Jews worldwide will celebrate the feast of Purim, a wonderful Jewish holiday celebrating an ancient miracle that befell the Jews of Persia: Haman the Oppressor, who swore to annihilate the Jews, was hanged just before he could execute his plan. Mixed with the joy of Purim carnivals and costumes, the symbolism will not be ignored by Israelis. This week in Washington, D.C., it should not be ignored either.