In a normal world, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to a joint session of the US Congress would have been roundly mocked by the audience for its hypocritical fear mongering. In a normal world, 70 years beyond Hiroshima, major powers would have long since acceded to the wishes of their constituents and established far more extensive arms reduction treaties. In a normal world, there would be a single, not a double, standard challenging the undiluted evil of nuclear weapons, no matter who possesses them. That single standard would underpin not only a regional but also a planet-wide effort at nuclear disarmament. And in a normal world, a foreign leader would not have been handed the most prestigious possible venue to undermine delicate, complex negotiations merely to allow him to score political points in two countries simultaneously.
To focus upon the existential danger of a nuclear Iran is to miss the point Albert Einstein, one of the most prophetic Jewish thinkers, made back in 1946: “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” By making Iran into Israel’s nemesis, Netanyahu particularizes and localizes what should be universal and planetary: for Israel to be secure, all nations must be secure. Every nuclear point of tension on the planet today is equally an existential threat to all of us: Ukraine-Russia, India-Pakistan—and Israel-Iran.
Netanyahu did not call for general nuclear disarmament because he is stuck in an old mode of thinking based in his limited identification with his own nation, a nuclear-armed nation tied in ethical knots by the need to choose between democracy and privileging a particular ethnicity. In this old mode, self-interest is defined in terms of what’s good for my own country, in particular for the Jewish citizens of my country, rather than the planet as a whole. The scenario of a nuclear-free zone in the region is dismissed because it doesn’t fit with the Israeli—and American—right wing’s hyper-macho view of response to perceived threats. The drift toward nuclear catastrophe continues, even accelerates, in an atmosphere of mutual paranoia and denial.
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In this obsolete mode of thinking, “we” are exceptional and “they” are the axis of evil. “We” project our own unacknowledged aggressiveness onto adversaries and dehumanize them, justifying endless mistrust, closed hearts, and killing that resolves nothing. “We” become more and more like the very thing we fear and hate, descending into torture, unjust land appropriation, secret arms sales, assassination, imperial expansion of spheres of influence—dysfunctional tactics common not only to both Israel and Iran, but also to the US. Fear of non-state actors having the same power as the nine nuclear states to incinerate millions in seconds rationalizes extreme behavior against perceived extremists. Would the United States have descended into torture so quickly and completely without the specter of an extremist Muslim with a suitcase nuke?
A new mode of thinking would acknowledge that the nuclear genie cannot be put back in the bottle, that the impossibility of victory in a nuclear war is a challenge shared by all nations, and that it is imprudent to let the tail of fear wag the dog of arms sales, both conventional and nuclear. In the new mode of thinking, the emphasis is taken off bilateral conflict and becomes a cooperative international effort to inventory, control, and lock down loose nuclear materials everywhere. This would cost infinitely less than the trillion dollars the US is planning to spend over the next decade to refurbish its nuclear arsenal.
Netanyahu is inarguably right to assert that Israel lives in one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world, but there is much that he and his fragile coalition could do to begin to make it a safer neighborhood for themselves—beginning with restraining illegal settlement colonization of Palestinian land.
An alternative vision of global security is taking shape, based in initiatives that slowly build trust on the basis of overlapping environmental crises and other challenges that simply cannot be addressed by militarism. To grow this embryonic vision toward robust maturity, we need fewer empty suits, pawns in the dangerous game of arms sales and endless war, and more servant-leaders, figures like Dag Hammarskjold, Oscar Arias, Vaclav Havel, and Aung San Suu Kyi, people who exemplify the new mode of thinking for which Einstein implied the need if our species is to survive beyond the nuclear age. As Netanyahu’s hero Churchill once said, “To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war.”