In his first public statement on the conflict with Iran, David Grossman, the leading Israeli novelist of the past generation and the strongest voice of his country's moral conscience, told The Nation that he opposed an attack on the Islamic Republic by Israel or the United States, saying the likely consequences were more daunting even than those of Iran building nuclear weapons.
"I don't want Iran to have nuclear weapons, but I think that if the sanctions do not work, Israel and the whole world, painfully, will have to live with it," Grossman said, warning that bombing Iran would set in motion "a nightmare that's hard to describe." Nonetheless, he said he had "a very bad feeling" that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were going to order an attack, even against America's wishes. "There is a dynamic to all these warlike declarations," he said.
He spoke by phone from his home outside Jerusalem on Tuesday. The day before, Netanyahu had brought his militant views on Iran to a White House meeting with President Barack Obama, and later delivered a fright-inducing speech to the AIPAC convention, employing Holocaust analogies and vowing that "never again" would the Jewish people entrust their survival to any nation but their own.
"Israel," said Grossman, "is a deeply traumatized community that finds it very difficult to separate between real dangers and echoes of past traumas, and sometimes I think our prime minister fires himself up in mixing these real dangers with those echoes from the past."
He said he feared that Netanyahu and Barak would bomb Iran partly out of a perceived strategic need to back up their threats with action, but also because of what he sees as Netanyahu's sense of historic responsibility to save the "people of eternity."
"He has this idea that we are the people of eternity, am ha'netzach from the Bible, and our negotiations, as he sees it, are with eternity, with the primal currents of history and mankind, while the United States, with all due respect, is just another superpower like Rome or Athens or Babylon, and we've survived them all," said Grossman. "I'm afraid that this way of thinking might encourage Netanyahu to take the step" of attacking Iran.
Grossman's son, Uri, was killed in the 2006 Lebanon War two days after the author called publicly for a cease-fire, and while he was writing the last chapters of his greatly acclaimed epic of war and peace, To the End of the Land. An impassioned critic of Israeli militarism and treatment of Palestinians, he deplored the overkill of the December 2008–January 2009 war in Gaza, and took part in last year's weekly protests against the dispossession of Palestinians in Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, getting beaten by Israeli police at one of them.
The 58-year-old author said the prospect of war with Iran was "the most basic concern of my life in this period. I wake up with it, I go to sleep with it, and I spend hours every day trying to understand it." He said he discusses it with colleagues, acquaintances and "people who have influence," and everyone he's spoken with is "reluctant" for Israel to initiate a war.
Asked why he hasn't, until now, spoken out on this matter when he's been so vocal in his dissent against past Israeli wars and the occupation of Palestinian territories, Grossman said he is beset by the same doubts and hesitations that have quieted the public at large, including the peace camp.
"We are dealing here with the most crucial existential problem that the State of Israel may ever have faced in all its history," he said, "and most people are reluctant to express their opinions because they feel they just don't have all the necessary information.
"Remember," he said, "we are talking about fanatic, fundamentalist leaders in Iran who have declared openly that they want to eradicate Israel. And they may come into possession of nuclear bombs. It's important to face the complexity of this dilemma—it's not an abstract moral debate, but something very, very concrete."
Nevertheless, Grossman said that if sanctions and diplomacy could not stop the Iranian nuclear program, trusting to deterrence was less dangerous than starting an open-ended war.
He said that in view of Iran's chemical and biological weapons, Israel was already living with a "balance of terror." While acknowledging that Iran's nuclearization would make the standoff "more dangerous and acute," he feared that an Israeli attack would prove "so destructive that it might itself create an existential danger for us. I think we shall find ourselves, Israel and Iran, in a nightmare that's hard to describe.
"True, it would have been created in order to prevent a worse nightmare in the future, but does everyone have the right," he asked, "to make so many people die in the name of this anxiety over an outcome—an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel—that might never take place?"
The author said that while it may be possible to destroy Iran's nuclear infrastructure, it was impossible to destroy the knowledge of how to recreate it. "And the people who have that knowledge will rise from the rubble after we attack," he said, "and they will start to create a new nuclear infrastructure, only this time they will be heavily loaded with humiliation, hatred and desire for revenge, and this time they will have the support of the entire Iranian people."
Citing the large presence of "more secular, educated, realistic" people in Iran, masses of whom protested bravely in 2009 against the regime, Grossman said this face of Iran held out the hope of a future leadership that might be less hostile to Israel. But he warned that this hope would be destroyed, too, in an Israeli attack.
"If Israel bombs Iran," he said, "I think it will be seen as an arrogant, megalomaniacal, violent nation even by the most sober, moderate Iranians." Israel's hope for peace, or even just quiet, with a future, better Iranian government "would be eradicated for generations."