Late in the afternoon of Yom Kippur, Jews read the Book of Jonah, the story of the recalcitrant prophet who wanted his words of warning to go unheeded. There’s a lesson here for the current situation in the Middle East.
Jonah, you’ll recall, is instructed by God to go to Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and tell the inhabitants to repent their evil ways or they will be destroyed. Rather than obey the divine command, he heads off in the opposite direction, boarding a ship in Tarshish for points west. But he gets his comeuppance with the storm and the big fish, and thus makes his way to Nineveh, preaches repentance, and lo and behold the Ninevites repent.
The prophet, however, is anything but happy. Indeed, he tells God that’s precisely why he didn’t go to Nineveh in the first place:
That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.
In other words, Jonah wants God to destroy Nineveh, which represents the greatest foreign threat to him and his fellow Hebrews. Instead, the Hebrew prophet has become the agent of its salvation.
At the present moment, there are plenty of Jonahs, especially in Israel, who are wishing that President Obama’s threat of destruction hadn’t persuaded Bashar al-Assad to repent of his chemical weapons. Of course, they suspect the repentance isn’t real — as Jonah perhaps suspected that the King of Nineveh’s wasn’t.
Of course, for the Israelis, the real Nineveh of today isn’t Damascus and its weapons of mass destruction but Tehran and its. Talking with George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s This Week yesterday, President Obama spoke to that issue:
I think what the Iranians understand is that – the nuclear issue – is a far larger issue for us than the chemical weapons issue, that – the threat against Iran– against Israel, that a nuclear Iran poses, is much closer to our core interests. That – a nuclear arms race in the region – is something that would be profoundly destabilizing.
And so I – my suspicion is that the Iranians recognize they – they shouldn’t draw a lesson that we haven’t struck – to think we won’t strike Iran. On the other hand, what is – what– they should draw from this lesson is that there is the potential of resolving these issues diplomatically.
The fear in Israel is that Obama’s threat to strike Tehran has become far less credible as a result of the deal with President Putin of Russia. And like Jonah, they don’t want the latter-day Nineveh to be given the message that it can, diplomatically, avert the harsh decree.