“There are two clocks ticking, one in Washington . . . and one in Israel . . . neither of them in sync.”
On the face of it, these words appear as if they were lifted from any report over the past year characterizing the discord over American and Israeli efforts to halt Iran’s nuclear program. But in fact they were spoken forty-five years ago by Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban on the eve of the Six Day War.
Eban had just returned to Jerusalem from Washington, where he was anxiously pressing the Lyndon Johnson administration to provide U.S. guarantees for Israel’s security in the event that Egypt attacked. Previously confident that America would have Israel’s back in the event of renewed warfare, Eban was now despondent at the likelihood that Israel would be forced to face the combined Arab armies alone, again.
For two weeks, Gamal Abdel Nasser had been building up his forces in the Sinai Peninsula to the point where they posed a credible threat to the young Jewish state’s existence. Now, Nasser had dismissed UN peacekeepers from the Egyptian-Israeli border and closed the Straits of Tiran, cutting off Israel’s vital access to the Red Sea, through which it imported a majority of its energy supplies. Nasser had provided Israel with casus belli and then proclaimed that “if war comes it will be total and the objective will be Israel’s destruction.”
Two weeks earlier, President Johnson promised to deliver a consignment of military hardware, food, economic aid and loans to Israel totaling nearly $70 million to demonstrate American support and tide Israel over. The U.S. administration also vowed not to let Nasser close the Straits of Tiran. But as Nasser continued his military buildup, as the Soviet Union egged on Egypt and Syria to war and as the Arab World worked itself into a frenzy over the eminent demise of the “Zionist entity,” the commitments that Washington provided to Jerusalem were not met.
In addition to the backtracking, Johnson poignantly warned Israel against initiating hostilities. “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go it alone,” Johnson wrote to Eban. “We cannot imagine that it will make this decision.”
The wavering of Israel’s only ally in the face of what the Israeli security establishment genuinely felt could be an eminent holocaust had the opposite effect of what Johnson intended. Rather than rely on the noncommittal American administration to provide aid in the event of a combined Arab attack, the Israeli cabinet and army felt they had no choice but to attack first and on their own terms, lest they cede the initiative to Nasser and risk being overwhelmed by Arab forces on three fronts.
That Israeli leaders decided to attack in 1967 should have come as no surprise to anyone who understands the Israeli mentality, which remains largely unchanged.
In the political-security realm, the Israeli psyche is governed by one overriding emotion: fear. This fear is a byproduct not just of the Holocaust, which is still a vivid memory there, but of the wars every generation of Israelis has fought. On a collective level, Israel is a society in a perpetual state of post-traumatic stress. But unlike American veterans who return from war to a "safe" environment, the fear of attack remains a rational constant for Israelis.
Even before Israel's establishment, collective fear derived from the often tragic Jewish history produced the prime tenant within Zionism that Jews should always be strong enough to defend themselves. With the birth of Israel, this belief was translated into the policy that the Jewish state must never rely on another country for its defense.
During its sixty-four-year history, one partial exception has been made to that rule. Since the end of the Six Day War, Israel has allowed itself to be somewhat dependent on the United States because for forty-five years American leaders, strongly supported by the American people, have stood by Israel's right to exist as a secure Jewish state.
It is this unique trust and semidependency that convinced Golda Meir to refrain from launching a preemptive attack on Egypt in 1973. It was the security and financial guarantees offered by President Carter that persuaded Menachem Begin to sign a peace treaty with Egypt in 1978, despite Begin's deep reservations to relinquishing land. And it was similar promises made by the George H. W. Bush administration that kept Israel out of the 1991 Gulf War while Scud missiles rained down on Tel Aviv. By contrast, it was a lack of trust Israel had in the Johnson administration in 1967 that produced an aggressive Israeli action.
Forty-five years after the Six Day War, the names have changed, but a remarkably similar scenario is unfolding. Once again, Israel is threatened by an enemy that is developing a military capability that poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. Once again, that enemy’s leaders speak frequently of seeking Israel’s destruction. Once again, Jerusalem is seeking assurances from Washington that the United States will not allow blatant aggression to stand. And once again, an American administration appears, publicly at least, to be wavering on the commitments it made to Israel at the very moment when the stakes are the highest.
In the wake of IAEA reports that Iran has made substantial progress toward enriching uranium and even on preparations to build a nuclear weapon, the Obama administration continues to be ambiguous as to what milestones Iran would have to reach before it decided to act militarily against the Islamic Republic.
As was the case in 1967, Washington is offering rhetorical support for Israel, with President Obama repeating that Israel’s security is "non-negotiable.” But on the other hand, Israel is, once again, being warned by high-level American officials not to initiate hostilities.
Israel may now posses the most powerful military in the Middle East (with a nuclear deterrent to boot), but the Israeli mentality has not changed.
“Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently.
Netanyahu’s statement should be read in light of rising domestic opposition in Israel to a unilateral strike on Iran and the likely reelection of President Obama—two developments with which Bibi is not pleased. And his recent, literally childish display at the UN will win him no points on the international stage. Nevertheless, Netanyahu's words are instructive of the corner into which many Israelis feel they are being painted—no firm material commitments from Washington regarding preventing an Iranian nuclear weapon and yet strongly warned not to act themselves.
If the Obama administration truly wants to prevent a unilateral Israeli attack against Iran, it must take the opposite course. Rather than simply directing Israel not to act, it should give the Netanyahu administration clear guidelines regarding when Washington will decide the diplomatic option to halt Iran’s nuclear program has been exhausted and the military option will be implemented. Otherwise, history tells us clearly how Israeli leaders will resolve this dilemma: by trusting the only people they have ever fully trusted—themselves—and initiating an attack.
As Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Yigal Alon said the night before Israel launched the Six Day War: “They will condemn us . . . and we will survive.”
Rafael D. Frankel is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and a former Middle East correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor.
Image: רפי רוגל