In recent days the world has been remembering the holocaust. Quite right, too! We should recall to mind atrocity on this scale, and ask ourselves what, if anything, could have been done to prevent it.
Whatever conclusions we come to on this point, we need also to ask whether it could happen again, and if it could, what we would need to do to make sure it doesn’t. In a broader sense, I am talking about industrial-scale genocide/ethnic cleansing of whatever kind but I am also thinking specifically of the possibility of a second Jewish holocaust on broadly the same scale as the first.
Of course, the events in Europe in the period 1940-45, which cumulated in the liberation of Auschwitz and which we were remembering last week, were predictable. Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism was evident from his political testament, Mein Kampf, written in the middle 1920s and available in English translation from the 1930s. Mein Kampf also made clear what his territorial ambitions were. These were also ignored in the rush to appeasement. Once WW2 began, it is easy to understand how rumours about the fate of Europe’s Jews were subordinated to the broader strategic interests of the parties concerned.
Be that as it may, it is plausible to argue that we have a chance to do better. A substantial proportion of the world’s Jewish population is again at threat. This time it is the population of Israel and the source of the threat, as it has been since the formation of the Jewish State in 1948, is Israel’s Islamic neighbours. Coincidentally, the numbers are similar. The present population of Israel is a little over 8 million, of whom 25% are Arabs. The number of Jewish victims of the Nazi extermination programme is usually taken as 6 million. This is the same (in round terms) as the number of potential victims in the event that Israel is ‘wiped off the map’.
This latter phrase came from the lips of then Iranian President Ahmadinejad and I first made reference to it in a blog in September of 2009. The context was the Iranian nuclear weapons programme, which gave a clear hint as to how this ‘wiping out’ might be done. Five and a half years later, the world (through the P5+1 group) is still talking to Iran about its programme: which includes the design and testing of nuclear weapon assemblies and the development of appropriate delivery systems, as well as enrichment activity. The programme continues to advance. Most observers are sceptical that the P5+1 group (the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) will have the political fortitude to actually prevent Iran from becoming nuclear (weapon) capable. The temptations of a political fix (until it is a successor’s problem) are ever present, and, of course, President Obama is still looking for ‘legacy’ issues.
For all that, direct nuclear assault by Iran is not the most likely scenario. In my 2009 blog I also quoted the Iranian President, speaking two years before, envisaging that Iran would ‘place its nuclear technology at the service of those determined to confront the US and other Western countries’. At that time, I speculated (following the plot of the Tom Clancy novel, Sum of All Fears) that terrorists might use fissile material to construct a crude nuclear weapon in a shipping container to be landed at a US port. Now, of course, we might envisage that such a device is assembled at the end of a tunnel, which begins in hostile territory and ends in Israel. Absent the weapon, this is a scenario already well-exemplified in the recent conflict between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel. The Israelis have now destroyed all the tunnels they found but it is now widely and plausibly claimed that fresh tunnels are already being built, with (as before) the technical and financial aid of Iran. It is also said that tunnels are also being excavated on Israel’s north-western border by Hezbollah, and with the same sponsor – Iran. There are uncertainties here about the likely success for the project envisaged above but it would have clear potential for denial by the technology-providing state.
There are also non-nuclear scenarios. Least likely of these is another combined attack by the armies of the neighbouring states. Apart from anything else, Syria and Iraq have internal problems which would preclude their participation. Egypt looks intent on maintaining the 1979 Camp David Peace Treaty, and Jordan, notwithstanding its substantial Palestinian population, seems intent on maintaining its more Western-orientated stance – perhaps reinforced by the atrocious burning-alive of its captured pilot. That leaves the virulently anti-Semitic extremists in the region: Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, al Qaeda, operating in an informal and perhaps uncoordinated way. Killing Jews is, perhaps, the only thing they would agree on. Certainly Hamas, which is in an uneasy partnership with Fatah in the Palestinian Authority, has a charter commitment to ‘death for unbelievers’ and ‘the destruction of Israel’, and totally rejects ‘peaceful solutions’ to the Palestinian problem. How successful these disparate parties could be might depend on the extent of covert support they would get from regional states. I am thinking here, of course, particularly of Iran, but the question may also apply to Turkey, which seems to be progressively falling away from the secular modern state that Kamal Ataturk envisaged. It would also depend (as in the other scenarios) on the extent of Western commitment to the defence of Israel. Crucial here is to accept no settlement with Iran that leaves them with any capacity to make nuclear-weapons grade fissile material. Any other outcome provides them with the shield of nuclear deterrence, whatever they may actually do with weapons or fissile material they may have.
There is one other thing. The international community cannot, for the time being, continue to insist on a settlement with Palestinian interests that envisages an independent Palestinian state. Such an entity would be a magnet for anti-Israel interests, who would then find themselves being able to launch their rockets and dig their tunnels from the very outskirts of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. This is the most plausible of all the threat scenarios.
There are some hard political decisions to be made here and there is potential for considerable offence to be caused to parties we would not wish to offend. Last week we wrung our collective hands about Auschwitz and all it implied. If we don’t want to do it again sometime in the future, we may need to take the threat as seriously as do the Israeli people.