A Dangerous Time for Israel
See also: Can Israel Survive Obama?
Forty years ago last month the Israeli government faced a critical decision -- whether or not to launch pre-emptive strikes on Egypt and Syria. Israeli intelligence had belatedly determined that the Arabs were about to begin a coordinated surprise attack on the holy day of Yom Kippur. The always ready Israeli air force could have launched pre-emptive strikes on the enemy, disrupting their final preparations and robbing them of the initiative. The government of Golda Meir held back, requiring the Israel Defense Force (IDF) to absorb the initial Arab blows at a substantial cost in men, munitions and equipment. There was really only one reason for this Israeli restraint -- the Israelis knew that the United States opposed such a strike, and that strong American support would be critical in the coming war.
Today the government of Benjamin Netanyahu faces a similar dilemma, though not on the same perilous time frame of mere hours and minutes. But if the time pressures are not as critical as they were on the morning of October 6, 1973, the stakes are just as high. A nuclear-armed Iran is probably more dangerous to Israel than were the massed Syrian and Egyptian armies on that long-ago October day, and the calculations that the Israeli government must make are similar. What will be Netanyahu's solution?
There are many parallels between Israel's situation on the eve of the 1973 war and now, and also substantial differences. Let's examine the similarities. Israel is and was perceived as a dominant, almost militarily invulnerable power, before the outbreak of hostilities. The opposing Arab/Islamic governments were and are historically unstable, and have consistently seen conflict with Israel as a convenient way to divert attention away from domestic problems and crises. Domestically weak, indifferent, even hostile presidents (Nixon and Obama), head American governments, supported by cold and ambitious secretaries of state (Kissinger and Kerry). Finally, in both cases, the Soviet Union/Russia plays a heavy and destabilizing role in support of the Arab/Islamic axis.
Yet in October 1973 the Israelis were fairly confident, despite Nixon's domestic problems and unsympathetic views toward Jews and Israel, that he could be counted on in a crisis, if only because he was a reliable Cold Warrior and knew that Israel stood as a bulwark against Soviet ambitions in the area. Nixon was the first American president to supply the Israelis with first-line American military equipment, and ties between the IDF and American armed forces were, if not as close as today, growing in mutual admiration and cooperation. Nixon and Kissinger were both capable realists when it came to foreign policy, and the Israelis correctly calculated that they could be counted on in a crisis.
In the event, the Israeli evaluation proved true. Nixon initiated an airlift of emergency supply to Israel in the first week of the war, and promised to make good Israeli losses in equipment and munitions. After the IDF turned the tide against the Arabs, Nixon put American forces on nuclear alert to deter Soviet intervention in the conflict. Though Nixon and Kissinger forced hard bargains on the victorious Israelis after the war, the Meir government's decision to forgo a pre-emptive strike seems on balance to have been correct.
In calculating whether to launch a pre-emptive attack on Iran, the Netanyahu government has to size up President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, in the same way the Meir government did Nixon and Kissinger. When it does, it is likely to come to different conclusions.
Obama has long opposed an Israeli pre-emptive strike on Iran. Israel has deferred to Obama's preference in the hope that international sanctions might eventually force Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Those hopes now appear to have been dashed, with the Obama administration's weak, even delusional leadership of negotiations in Geneva. Indeed, were it not for surprising French toughness, it is likely that Iran would have already been freed from serious sanctions, without any meaningful curtailment of its nuclear program. And in the end, it appears likely that French resistance or no, Obama and his other P5+1 partners (Russia, China, Great Britain, and Germany) are determined to let the Iranians off the hook.
In the current situation, Israel can no longer be sure that the Obama administration would have its back even if it declined to strike. Nothing in the administration's current actions, statements, or past history suggest that this is the case. Obama dislikes Netanyahu. Obama's best friend in the region is the vociferously anti-Israel prime minister of Turkey Recep Erdogan. He is a natural ally of the Palestinians, and at gut level, sympathetic to the Arab and Iranian points of view. Obama subordinates have repeatedly and recklessly leaked word of Israeli strikes on Syria, the only consequence of which has been to weaken Israeli deterrence and provoke conflict with Syria and by extension Iran. The administration's Chamberlain-like cave on Iranian sanctions, taken in concert with Secretary of State Kerry's pointless and self-aggrandizing "peace effort" with the Palestinians, will erode Israeli confidence of American support even in the event they show restraint.
Finally, there is the simple question of competence. Nixon and Kissinger might have been unsympathetic toward Israel, but they were effective and competent stewards of American defense and foreign policy. Obama and Kerry are entirely the opposite, and the Israelis surely know it. Ironically, as with so much else in President Obama's feckless and careless stewardship of state, his weakness and duplicity make an Israeli strike on Iran more, not less likely. If his waffling on Syria justifiably pushed Israel in the direction of pre-emption, American actions in Geneva may well be the final straw. Viewed from a more Machiavellian perspective, perhaps this is just what Obama wants, as an excuse to break America's tight relationship with Israel. October 1973 was a perilous time for Israel. Forty years on, in November 2013, it still is.
Jonathan Keiler's Israeli commando adventure novel Upfall is available at Amazon and other online retailers.