MONTREAL — Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has no intention of “wiping Israel off the map,” a respected Israeli historian and academic said.
Quite the contrary, Prof. David Tal said in a recent talk at Concordia University. “Iran is not an aggressive state. It has never attacked its enemies first.”
Tal, considered an expert on Israel’s security history and, since 2009, holder of the Kahanoff Chair in Israeli Studies at the University of Calgary, departed from conventional wisdom in his remarks to a small audience at the event, sponsored by the Azrieli Institute of Israeli Studies.
While Ahmadinejad certainly said Israel “should not exist,” he never pledged to “wipe Israel off the map,” said Tal, who taught at Tel Aviv University until 2005.
“There’s a difference between saying, ‘I’m going to kill you’ and saying, ‘I wish you didn’t exist.’”
Tal also downplayed the overall threat of a nuclear Iran, voicing doubt about Iran’s oft-cited determination to acquire a nuclear weapon.
This article appears in the April 12 print issue of The CJN
“I’m not sure about Iran wanting to have nuclear weapons,” Tal said, although it does want that “capability.”
Iranian leaders tend to be “very knowledgeable” and unlikely to be reckless enough to attack the Jewish state, he added.
“I see no threat to Israel.”
Tal made the comments after delivering an overview of Israel’s “conception” of its national security, a word he also used in one of his books, Israel’s Conception of Current Security – Origins and Development, in 1998.
Israel’s historical security sensibility, he said, resulted from two major factors: the Holocaust and Israel’s demography and geography.
For David Ben-Gurion and his contemporaries who fought for a Jewish state, losing the 1948 War of Independence would have meant not only the end of the new state, but also the beginning of the next Holocaust, a mindset that resonated with Israelis in that war and in every war since then.
“It was and still is in the Israeli psyche,” Tal said.
Similarly, Israel’s tiny size and population and its close proximity to the comparatively huge Arab world cultivated an always-be-prepared-for war attitude and a reflex to strike first.
Even if an Arab country was not necessarily mobilizing to go to war – and they weren’t always, Tal said, “that was the Israeli perception. The great necessity was to be prepared. Israel could not afford to be attacked first.”
The 1956 war of attrition with Egypt was “unnecessary,” he said, because Egypt “made and posed no immediate threat” to Israel, but Israel feared that Egypt was about to attack.
“It was a war of prevention.”
But it also convinced then-Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser that Israel was an “aggressive” nation.
“Ben-Gurion even referred to [Egypt] as the third kingdom of the Sinai.”
Tal reminded listeners that until 1957, when France first sold weaponry to Israel, Israel had not yet amassed the number of planes and tanks it needed to fight a war more professionally. “It only began to get its military education in the first years.”
In the 1967 Six Day War, Israelis mobilized in response to Egyptian and Syrian threats and readied itself with its reserve forces and small standing army.
It was the first Israeli-Arab war, Tal said, that relied heavily on access to American weaponry. “The U.S. never gave Israel the green light to attack, but it did give them an orange one” – to proceed with caution.
In 1973’s Yom Kippur war, Tal said, there was a “deep gap” between Israel’s security conception and the reality.
Despite the fact that Israel came close to losing that war, Tal feels Israel’s “last conventional war” with an Arab country served to ultimately pave the way for the peace agreement with Egypt under Anwar Sadat in the late 1970s.
The Israeli-Palestinian situation, however, is another matter, a chronic “low-intensity conflict” that will not end until the Palestinian statehood issue is resolved, Tal contended.
It will be no easy task, he suggested, since the West Bank is not illegally “occupied” by Israel and has never really had its own sovereign status, just previous occupiers including Turkey and Transjordan.
Can U.S. President Barack Obama help?
While Israel sometimes acts in ways that clash with American interests, the United States will always basically be there for Israel, Tal said.
“The U.S. does not recognize Israel’s ‘occupation,’ but will not force Israel to leave,” he said.
At the same time, Tal does not believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace will end terrorism against Israel.
In the meantime, “we are in a situation of a deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians,” Tal said. “In a way, they deserve each other.”