08/17/2012 05:03 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2012

Israel Debating Iran and Its Own Soul

Shimon Peres is nominally a politically powerless president of Israel, a symbol of its sovereignty and the man who approves clemency requests. But then, Shimon Peres is much more than that, and his T.V appearances last night, in which he expressed his opposition to an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program proved again that the old lion of Israeli politics, a recipient of the Noble Peace Prize is a formidable force to be reckoned with, a man who is on a mission to prevent what he considers to be a potentially disastrous Israeli move.

By going public the way he did, Peres dramatically shed light on the debate which is tearing apart the Israeli political establishment and polarizing public opinion: Israel's policy with regard to a state whose leaders publicly call for the complete liquidation of the Jewish state and which many believe is feverishly developing the weapon which can achieve that exact goal.

On the face of it, the debate in Israel is yet another strategic-security question to be resolved, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, the debate is much more profound, and it touches most delicate issues, which have to do with the very essence of Israeli statehood and national character. To start with, Peres' appearance is an unprecedented move by a state president, and as such calls into question the nature of the relationships between the presidency and the hitherto undisputed center of power in Israel, the prime minister, who in this particular case, is strongly supported by his defense minister. The question aroused yesterday will not be decided by a court of law, rather in the court of public opinion, where the affection and respect felt towards President Peres will be tested against the political support given to P.M Netanyahu.

This is a new situation in the history of Israel, and the result is far from certain. Peres put all his prestige behind his latest move, but he is not alone. Here is another unprecedented situation, and this is the almost unanimous position of the military-intelligence establishment, both past and present, against the P.M and the defense minister, himself a decorated war hero. What adds significance to this state of affairs is the fact that a debate over an issue of utmost national security risk has become so public. Peres' appearance may indicate, that the opponents of an Israeli military strike have become so desperate in their bid to prevent it, that they are ready to go to the last resort and appeal directly to the public.

The Israeli people, for obvious reasons, have developed a long-standing love affair with his military and intelligence leaders. A confrontation between them and the Democratically elected civilian leadership can develop into a real challenge to the foundations of Israel's democratic system, based on the supremacy of the politicians. Netanyahu himself alluded to this aspect of the situation in a T.V interview just a few days ago, when he firmly reasserted his role as the actual, though not nominal Commander-In-Chief. His defense minister, Ehud Barak, reiterated this point stating, that only the elected politicians can make the crucial decision whether or not to go to war with Iran.

The problem, that both Netanyahu and Barak are facing, is compounded by their lack of popularity, as exemplified by many public opinion polls, due mainly to domestic issues. A decision of the magnitude discussed now, surely requires a large measure of public support, and this is lacking now, and may even get much weaker, as it seems so clear to so many Israelis that a lot of their beloved generals and intelligence heroes go against the political leadership. Here is where the alliance between President Peres and these people could be so influential, effectively forcing the hand of the P.M and the defense minister.

But then, there is something else at play, that overshadows even these important issues discussed above. It has to do with a question that has always been in the background of every major, historic decision taken by Israel's leaders during its short history: How much can the Jewish state trust world leaders to come to Israel's help in its time of utmost need? One of the most fundamental convictions of the big majority of Israelis is that ''the world is against us, so we could and should trust only ourselves." This conviction has almost become a sacred cow, though history shows that it has not always been backed up by reality. Ben-Gurion made his fateful decision to declare statehood in May 1948 without being sure about world, particularly American support. Then he went to the Sinai campaign of 1956 only after being guaranteed the cooperation with and support of Britain and France.

In 1967, the Israeli leadership inflicted the inevitable preemptive strike against Egypt and its Arab allies without the outright support of the U.S and in face of stiff opposition from France, then Israel's main weapons supplier. Menachem Begin ordered the destruction of the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 expecting an American condemnation, which indeed came, so past record is somewhat confusing in this regard. Benjamin Netanyahu made it clear on various occasions that his historic horizon is heavily influenced by the Allies failure to bomb Auschwitz. This is a view held by many Israelis, but now, confronting a problem considered to be existential, many Israelis, including many of their leaders believe that Israel could and should trust its greatest ally, the U.S, led by President Obama.

The final decision taken by Israel's leaders will tell us a great deal whether it is still the shadow of the past which determines the present and the future of Israel. It is, therefore, no less than a debate over the very soul of the Jewish state.