In an interview about the war against Ukraine, the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli public figure, Natan Sharansky, made a key observation.
Commenting in Tablet that both Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, were far from the strongest in the world, Sharansky shared something he had learned from his time in a Soviet prison.
The ringleader in the cell, he said, wasn’t the one who was physically strongest but the one ready to use his knife. “Everybody has a knife, but not everybody is prepared to use it,” he said. “Putin believes that he is willing to use his knife and the West isn’t—that the West can only talk even if it is physically stronger.”
Of course, most people assumed that Putin would never use his knife. They thought he would never invade Ukraine and embark on a horrific campaign against its civilian population. Yet that’s exactly what he has done.
In a similar vein, no one apparently believed that Putin would ever deploy nuclear weapons. Yet with the Russian dictator issuing not-so-veiled threats about nuclear war, Britain and America are refusing to yield to the pleas by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to fly bombing raids against the invading Russian forces for fear that Putin may do just that.
At a stroke, therefore, a key tenet of Western defense policy has been destroyed. For decades, Western leaders have told themselves that the principle of “mutually assured destruction”—under which any nuclear first strike would provoke a devastating nuclear counter-strike—is so obviously suicidal that no leader in his right mind would ever use nuclear weapons.
Yet what Putin is demonstrating is that this doctrine may not apply to him. The West’s nuclear knife is sheathed, but he is brandishing his own in a menacing manner and as a result, has the upper hand.
Once again, the West has made the false assumption that every world leader is fundamentally a rational actor acting in his own self-interest. But some individuals are driven by fanatical devotion to a cause which means they make an entirely different set of calculations.
This is one reason why the Biden administration is making such a catastrophic mistake over Iran.
The United States has reportedly reached a deal with the Iranian regime that will not only enable it to develop nuclear weapons at the end of mere two-and-a-half years, will not only facilitate its receipt of tens of billions of dollars to finance its attempts to annihilate Israel and its war on the West, but will also effectively de-list it as a terrorist state.
Currently, Putin, who is key to bringing Iran into the deal, is demanding that the United States lift its sanctions against Russia over Ukraine to allow it to trade with Iran.
Maybe America will capitulate over this, too. But how can one explain its astounding eagerness to empower the enemy of the West in Tehran?
A key reason is that, like former President Barack Obama who brokered the 2015 agreement, the Biden administration believes that if Iran is offered the prospect of substantial material benefit, it will put its knife away.
This is a really terrible mistake. For the regime is dominated by the Shia “Twelver” sect, which believes that bringing about an apocalypse will cause the Shia messiah, the “Twelfth Imam,” to descend to earth.
With the prize being the messianic end of days, the notion that short-term self-interest can tame Iran is risible. The fanatics in Tehran don’t care if a very large number of Iranians are killed in battle or die of privation. Vladimir Putin doesn’t care if a very large number of Russians are killed in battle or die of privation. The cause is everything.
The same is true of Islamic radicals who blow themselves up in order to cause the maximum possible loss of life among everyone else. “We will win,” they gloat, “because we love death while you love life.”
This is so chilling because it’s absolutely true. It’s the reason for what’s called “asymmetric warfare,” in which those who are relatively powerless in military terms can win against states bristling with the latest armaments.
If even a superpower like America is reluctant to use its weaponry against its enemies because it flinches from sacrificing any of its own people, then those enemies will win.
Israel faces this dilemma every day. The Palestinian Arabs are incited by an evil narrative that teaches them to hate and fear Jews, kill Israelis and steal their land. So they fire thousands of missiles from the Gaza Strip and repeatedly attempt murderous attacks from the disputed territories.
This is because they know that of all people, the Jews will go to the most extreme lengths in the world to avoid loss of life, even among their enemies.
Israel has the firepower to have disposed of the problem of Palestinian Arab violence once and for all. It has the military means to raze Gaza to the ground. It could also have expelled the Arabs from the disputed territories.
This is how other countries have always behaved against regimes and populations that attack them and show no wish to stop doing so. Yet having been under murderous siege for the entirety of its existence, Israel has chosen not to behave in this way.
It deals with the attacks on its population from the disputed territories through policing methods subject to the rule of law enforced by the human-rights-obsessed Israeli courts.
It goes to war in Gaza well after the severity of Palestinian missile attacks has become intolerable. It provides humanitarian assistance to those Arabs, who repay this by continuing to fire missiles at Israeli civilians.
When it eventually goes to war, it kills proportionately far fewer of its enemy’s civilian population than any other military in the world.
Remarkably, therefore, Israel takes significant pain to protect the life of its enemies. For this, the same Western world that is so admiring of the Ukrainians for dying gives it no credit whatsoever. Indeed, the West grotesquely accuses Israel instead of being an abuser of human rights.
The great challenge for the civilized world is how to defend itself while retaining its humanity. It needs to strike a difficult but essential balance between protecting itself against attacks and continuing to adhere to its core moral values.
Israel meets this challenge. America has stopped even trying. From the moment Obama went back on his pledge to enforce a no-fly zone in Syria, the United States started to signal to its enemies that it would no longer commit its people to fight and die for freedom.
Instead, America and the West have told themselves that war solves nothing. Against those who tell themselves that violence solves everything, this Western dogma enables fanatics to win while the innocent are killed or enslaved.
The same deluded Western world that is calling for more measures to protect the Ukrainians backs the Palestinian Arabs who slaughter Israelis. And that same Western world is currently indifferent to the assistance the United States is giving Iran that will facilitate its attempted nuclear genocide of the Jews.
Sharansky is teaching us that if a certain type of guy brings a knife to the fight, he has to be disabled before he can use it. Because otherwise, he will. It’s a lesson the West should have learned in 1939. And yet, it still hasn’t done so.
Ukraine is currently paying the price. Israel now urgently needs to ensure that it is not subjected to Iranian missiles raining down from Lebanon on Tel Aviv and Haifa while the West once again wrings its hands at the slaughter it has helped facilitate and looks on.
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for “The Times of London,” her personal and political memoir, “Guardian Angel,” has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, “The Legacy.” Go to melaniephillips.substack.com to access her work.
Be a part of our community
JNS serves as the central hub for a thriving community of readers who appreciate the invaluable context our coverage offers on Israel and their Jewish world.
Please join our community and help support our unique brand of Jewish journalism that makes sense.