"The Last Israelis"
Reading Noah Beck's novel "The Last Israelis," I got the gut-level sense that I was taking in a tale that was all too plausible. It wasn't a comfortable feeling.
Beck's novel focuses on the crew of one of Israel's three nuclear submarines, the Dolphin, as it heads out on an extended mission under secret orders. Everyone knows the situation with Iran is tense; in the book, that nation, after considerable diplomatic stalling, has transferred its nuclear weapons program into facilities that conventional weapons can't touch. Meantime, Iranian politicians have ratcheted up anti-Israel rhetoric to a fever pitch, and all of this has taken place while the United States and other Western powers have stood by flapping their lips but doing nothing of substance to intervene.
Two events have pushed the already-volatile situation into a critical zone. Iran has acquired working nuclear missiles from Pakistan -- and the Israeli Prime Minister has suffered a stroke, leaving him in a coma and the nation's legislative body, the Knesset, mired in fractious dithering.
I have been to Israel twice, both times for an archaeological dig in the Biblical city Bethsaida. This long-lost city, having been located and now undergoing the long, meticulous process of archaeological investigation with the participation of some two dozen American colleges and universities, was located, two millennia ago, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, also known as Lake Kinneret; now, after twenty centuries of geologic activity, the lake bed has shifted and the great body of fresh water upon which Jesus supposedly walked, and in which a number of his disciples earned a living as fishermen, lies about five miles away from Bethsaida's ruins.
My actual knowledge of the country's inner workings and its political importance are spotty, however, although having been in the country at the start of a brief war in 2006 did drive home the sense that Israel spends every day in peril.
It's that sense that Beck's book so adroitly emphasizes. The book is dialogue-driven, and as the crew of the Dolphin speculate as to the nature of their mission, the facts they reference underscore the enmity Israel faces from surrounding nations -- most of them bigger, more populous, and aggressively anti-Israel. When a devastating conventional and nuclear attack destroys their homeland, the crew have one final debate, and one last choice: Do they carry out their mandate, and launch their nuclear missiles in a last strike that will punish their enemies and remind history that Israel went down fighting? Or do they forswear retaliation, which is certain to doom innocents in the target countries?
Some version of the events in Beck's novel seem all but certain to happen sooner or later. Even now, as the United States inches closer to military action in Syria, the cracks in our national resolves are widening. Can we afford another ill-advised elective war in the Middle East? After the farrago that George W. Bush plunged us into in Iraq, with all its bloodshed (mostly Iraqi, but at the cost of thousands of American lives as well) and an exorbitant outlay of cash (billions of which went missing, in what might well be one of the century's greatest non-scandals: Hardly anyone paid attention to what smells like a massive theft of taxpayer money), can our Great Recession-battered economy and our highly polarized internal politics withstand another episode of American intervention?
I asked Beck about this, and other issues the book raised for me. He pointed out that while U.S. intervention in Syria may not be popular, either at home or abroad, in the greater scheme of things it might well be the lesser of two evils.
"It is more dangerous for the Middle East region (and US interests there), and for US security and global stability more generally, if the US is perceived as weak and unable to enforce its declared 'red lines' or even the international treaties it has entered (specifically the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention banning their use)," Beck noted in the course of our email exchange.
"I think the Syrian crisis degenerated as badly as it did over the last two years -- to the point where over 110,000 people have died in that time -- precisely because the US has tried to stay out of the conflict," the author continued. "Given that Syria, Russia, Hezbollah, and Iran are so committed to the victory of the Assad regime, it's no surprise that US hesitation to support the rebels only emboldened Assad to use increasingly lethal methods in the pursuit of his military objectives.
"Imagine if Assad's latest chemical attack (which claimed over 1,400 lives) goes unanswered. The next attack might claim 20,000 Syrians. Then what? The US would face the same bad choices it faces now but would be seen as doing too little, too late (even more than may be the case now). And Assad would feel that much more confident that he could use the same chemical weapons against any perceived external threat (e.g., Israel, Turkey, US soldiers in Jordan, or the Gulf region, etc.). And Iran and North Korea will view the US as a paper tiger and will then hasten their nuclear efforts.
"As hard as it may seem to address these nuclear threats diplomatically today, it would become all but impossible after these rogue regimes conclude that the US was timid and impotent in confronting a weakened and war-weary state like Syria."
If we grant all of this -- for the sake of argument if nothing else -- then we still need to ask whether it's realistic, as his book posits, that if Iran were to come much closer to gaining a nuclear arsenal of its own (or simply buy weapons from Pakistan), the United States would stand by and do nothing about it.
"Unfortunately, I think Israel is very much on its own," Beck opined. "First, it's worth noting that in Israel's existential wars (in 1948, 1967, and 1973) no soldier from any foreign army (including the U.S.) ever died in defense of Israel, and no foreign army (including that of the U.S.) was ever deployed into battle to help Israel survive (although the U.S. and other countries certainly provided Israel with key military supplies).
"Second, look how hard it has been for President Obama to reach the decision to intervene in Syria," Beck added. "100,000 people had to die over a two-year period. Chemical weapons had to be used multiple times. People forget that Israel is so tiny that it doesn't have the luxury to withstand two years of war before the world powers come to its rescue. Israel is the size of New Jersey, so it could be snuffed out in weeks, or even days, if nuclear weapons strike a few key strategic points in the country.
"Even without nuclear weapons, there are well over 100,000 missiles that could be launched against Israel, and a massive coordinated attack could probably destroy the country as well."
Indeed, the book paints a grim picture of the size of the arsenals pointed at Israel by neighbors whose leaders seem hell-bent on its eradication.
But support for Israel has also been a major part of U.S. policy in the decades since the tiny nation was carved out of the British Mandate. My sense has always been that this is due to the influence of Evangelical Christians, who see Israel's existence as necessary for Christ's (ever-imminent) Second Coming. Surely, the powerful Christian right would never allow us to watch idly as Israel faced a nuclear, or even coordinated conventional and / or chemical, attack?
"I think that's a common misconception of US support for Israel," Beck responded. "Of course, there are many Evangelical supporters of Israel and many of them are at least partly motivated by certain theological beliefs, but the US support for Israel goes way beyond any particular religious group or theological notion."
Next: Democracy in the Desert