For all the bluster by Americans, Israelis, Iranians and others, about if/when Israel might initiate military action against Iranian nuclear facilities, there are no tealeaves. Secretary of Defense Panetta just postulated April/May/June 2012 in a David Ignatius column in The Washington Post. President Obama, in a pre-Super Bowl interview contradicted him, saying, “I don’t think that Israel has made a decision on what they need to do.”
Secretary Panetta is more likely extrapolating than spilling any real intelligence beans. The president, on the other hand, appears not to be paying attention. Israel has indeed “made a decision” and has been nothing if not clear. Believing Iran to be a threat to the international community, not just to Israel, and willing to give time to diplomacy and sanctions, Israel nevertheless insists that the Government of Israel is responsible for the continued existence of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland – there will be no Holocaust on its watch.
Beyond that, every permutation of military and political thinking is fair game and so lots of reasonable propositions have been proposed as the “true” understanding of Israeli policy:
- That Israel will give time to diplomacy and sanctions;
- That the world is tired of hearing Israel complain about Iran;
- That regime change is better than military action;
- That military action can take many forms;
- That Israel isn’t Godzilla in Tokyo;
- That Iran isn’t The Fortress of Solitude;
- That military action won’t destroy the program;
- That setting the program back might allow for political/military changes that can have a longer impact;
- That there are targets in Iran that can be hit;
- That there will be collateral damage in Iran that will make the Iranians rally around their government;
- That there will be collateral damage in Iran that will make the Iranians overthrow their government;
- That there will be retaliation by Iran;
- That retaliation is survivable;
- That everything is hard but nothing is harder than accepting that someone else gets to determine the date of the onset of genocide against the Jews.
A case can be made for each, but too many cases being made just produces chaos. Former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin told Israel Radio last week, “I think we have reached a surfeit point, a climax, and it would best to lower the tone.” A wise thought, so let’s turn to history for a diversion.
In May 1967, the United States and Israel agreed that Egypt’s closure of the Strait of Tiran constituted an act of war and that Israel had the right to enforce freedom of navigation. Feeling the chill wind of an existential threat, Israeli Prime Minister Eshkol wrote to President Johnson:
Such resistance [to Nasser] would encounter, we believe, broad international understanding, and would encourage those forces in the Middle East which you and we regard as basically peace-loving and dedicated to stability. If present trends continue unchecked, there will be further erosion of the Western position in the Middle East. President Nasser’s rising prestige has already had serious effects in Jordan, as proved by the agreement between President Nasser and King Hussein in Cairo The time is ripe for confronting Nasser with a more intense and effective policy of resistance.
The people of Israel is the remnant of a nation which suffered tragic blows in the Hitler era. It is determined to defend its rights and its integrity with the utmost resolution. In this hour of destiny I appeal to you, Mr. President, to give effective response to what I have here written.
Appearing to miss the point, President Johnson replied:
I have already publicly stated this week our views on the safety of Israel and on the Strait of Tiran. Regarding the Strait, we plan to pursue vigorously the measures which can be taken by maritime nations to assure that the Strait and Gulf remain open to free and innocent passage of the vessels of all nations.
I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities. Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone. We cannot imagine that it will make this decision.
What looked to Israel like the potential for slaughter twice in one generation, looked to Johnson like any other international crisis to be managed – preferably multilaterally and preferably without Israeli drawing attention to itself. The threat of withdrawing support for Israel wasn’t even subtle.
Well, that wasn’t very diverting. But it is a reminder that Israel and the United States can look at the same problem and see two very different threats. Eshkol’s words ring as true in 2012 as they did in 1967.