(Lawrence Solomon’s presentation to the First Sabina Citron
Annual International Conference: Approaching Nuclear Showdown —
Israel, Iran and the US after Geneva, Toronto, Feb 9 2014)
Many consider the Geneva negotiations over Iran to be a betrayal of Israel by America. Yes, it certainly is a betrayal. But is anyone really surprised?
It should surprise no one that President Barack Obama didn’t have Israel’s back – he has too many personal associations with Israel-haters to make him a reliable ally. But more fundamentally, it should surprise no one that an American president doesn’t have Israel’s back.
American presidents have routinely ignored Israel’s security needs, or turned on Israel, when doing so served American political interests. Americans look after American interests and if Israel’s vital interests clash with American interests of the day, Americans will look after their own needs.
Before Israel made its Declaration of Independence in 1948, the U.S. under President Harry Truman demanded that Israel postpone its declaration and place itself under UN Trusteeship. If Israel, didn’t, warned Truman’s Secretary of State, George Marshall, the US would impose an arms embargo on Israel, even though the British, Jordanians and Egyptians were arming the Arabs. The effect of the Arabs being armed and the Israelis unarmed, the Americans said, would be a second Holocaust. The Americans also threatened UN sanctions against Israel.
The American position was understandable – the US expected Israel to lose and didn’t want to needlessly offend the much more populous and energy-rich Arab invaders. The US at the time was competing with the Soviet Union – this was the beginning of The Cold War – and it didn’t want Arab oil to fall under Soviet control.
When Israel declared independence the Americans remained true to their word – they imposed an embargo, although they thought that could lead to a second Holocaust. The Americans maintained that arms embargo throughout Israel’s war of independence, refusing to allow any arms sales to Israel, or even gifts of arms by American Jews, even though Israel was heavily outnumbered and outgunned by six Arab armies.
When it became clear in 1949 that Israel would win its War of Independence, Truman maintained an unfriendly posture to Israel. He demanded that Israel give up its territorial gains and make concessions to the Arabs, even though the Arabs were the aggressors and even though the war was still ongoing. Truman saw Israel’s actions as “dangerous to peace,” according to Truman’s ambassador to Israel, who delivered Truman’s demands to Israel’s Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. Although Israel was then under threat of international sanctions as a result of two UN resolutions, Ben-Gurion stood his ground and refused to capitulate to Truman’s demands.
President Dwight D Eisenhower, who succeeded Truman, was no more sympathetic to Israel’s security needs. When Egypt violated international law and the Armistice Agreement with Israel by blockading shipping in to Israel, the Eisenhower Administration stayed silent – his policy was pro-Egyptian, because he hoped to woo Egypt’s leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to the anti-Communist camp.
Eisenhower also became hostile to Israel. In 1956, after Egypt seized the Suez Canal, an international waterway owned by the U.K. and France, these two countries and Israel jointly invaded Egypt to restore their rights and to open up shipping. Although U.S. president Eisenhower acknowledged that Egypt’s “grave and repeated provocations” had led to the invasion, he was so determined to curry friendship with the Arab world that he forced the British, French and Israelis to withdraw. To force the UK to do his bidding, Eisenhower threatened to financially cripple the UK – America’s ally in World War II — by selling U.K. bonds to devalue the pound and blocking a $1-billion IMF loan that the U.K. desperately needed. And to get Israel to withdraw from territories captured in the war, Eisenhower threatened Israel with expulsion from the UN, adding gravitas to his demands by making them in a radio and television address to the American people from the White House.
Other US presidents also treated Israel harshly. Although we think of Israel as being militarily dependent on the U.S., the truth is far different. In the first decades following Israel’s creation in 1948, the US was less friend than foe, generally siding with Israel’s Arab neighbors. The US not only sold arms to Israel’s enemies, it also lavished them with economic and military aid through a Marshall-type plan for the Middle East. Meanwhile, the US gave Israel little economic aid and no military aid in the early years — the first military grant wouldn’t come until 1974, a quarter century after Israel’s founding. Until the Kennedy Administration in the 1960s, when the US allowed Israel to purchase defensive anti-aircraft HAWK missiles – but no planes, tanks, or offensive weapons — the U.S. refused to even sell arms to help the fledgling state defend itself.
In every war involving Israel, the Arab states were the aggressors yet in every war, the Israelis knew they were fighting not only against the Arabs on the battlefield but against the US diplomatically. The US pressured Israel, generally successfully, to stop its military advances and to give up war gains.
The US under President Ronald Reagan opposed Israel’s decision to destroy Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor, and when Israel went ahead in 1981 Reagan embargoed delivery of F-16 fighters. The US under President George H Bush insisted that Israel not retaliate against Iraq when Saddam Hussein launched 39 Scud missiles into Israel. The US under President George W Bush opposed Israel’s decision to destroy Syria’s nuclear reactor, which Israel did anyway, and it opposed an Israeli military strike on Iran.
The US has historically shown a strong predisposition against Israeli military action – except when it serves US interests. In 1970, the US enlisted Israel’s military to stop Syria, which was a Soviet ally, from invading Jordan and having it fall into the Soviet sphere. The US was then tied down in Viet Nam and couldn’t rescue Jordan on its own.
The undeniable conclusion is that the US acts only in its own best interest, as the US sees it, and that Israel cannot count on the U.S. to remove the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, either over the next few months in Geneva or later. So far, in the hope that the US would come to its rescue or that the mullahs in Iran would be overthrown, Israel has waited rather than taking action.
While Israel has waited Iran has developed more and more nuclear weapons capability, more and more ability to harden its weapons sites to shield them from an Israeli attack, and more ability to deliver nuclear and non-nuclear missiles to targets inside Israel.
While Israel has waited, the number of missiles aimed at Israel by Iran’s allies, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza has grown, from a few thousand to 20,000 by 2006 to today’s estimates of 60,000 or more. While Israel has waited Syria has been drawn closer into Iran’s orbit, becoming a puppet state likely to do Iran’s bidding and a particularly worrisome puppet state at that, because of Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
Waiting has not served Israel’s need for security. It now faces far more complex dangers than it did a year ago, two years ago, or five years ago. Continuing to wait – and to hope for the US or something to save it – would likely only worsen Israel’s predicament.
Because Iran has been allowed to pursue nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states are pursuing nuclear weapons. If Israel waits much longer, it could be surrounded by nuclear weapons states in Egypt, Jordan and Turkey as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia. None of these countries are stable, any one of them could become an extremist state that decides to rid the region of Israel.
There is never a good time for military action but where Israel and Iran are concerned, now is always better than later.
Now, Iran is preoccupied in securing both Syria and Iraq to its sphere of influence. If Iran succeeds in securing these two states against the Sunni rebels and insurgents that are now at war there, it would represent the biggest gains for the Iranian Empire in centuries. Iran would be loath to risk losing these prizes in a prolonged war with Israel and might decide to minimize or ignore any actions Israel took, just as Syria stayed mum in 2007 after Israel took out the nuclear plant it was building.
Later, the story could be different. Should Iran secure both Syria and Iraq, it would be at the height of its powers, with the battle-hardened armies of Syria and Iraq at its disposal, with a sense of invincibility and with scant reason to fear another confrontation.
Now, Hamas is weak, the weakest it has been in a decade. It has lost the support of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and It fears a coup by Egyptians and the Palestinian Authority – Egypt and Jordan with the Palestinian Authority’s blessing in 2008 proposed sending Egyptian troops into Gaza. Hamas once had strong ties to Iran, now those ties are conflicted. If Israel attacked Iran now, Hamas might choose to sit it out.
Later, Hamas might decide to reconcile fully with Iran. Other Sunni states, seeing Iran’s rise, are hedging their bets by warming relations with Iran. In this scenario, Hamas would have every reason to reconcile. According to a report yesterday, even the Palestinian Authority is making moves to renew its relations with Iran, in anticipation that the US-brokered peace talks with Israel will fail.
Israel’s enemies, in other words, all now have major distractions that will leave them conflicted in the event of an Israeli attack on Iran. But there are other reasons for Israel to attack now, too, these ones dealing with Israel’s current friends.
Today, Israel has secret allies in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both of whom fear Iran above all others. Both countries are likely to help Israel in the event Israel strikes Iran without US help.
Egypt’s military government, for example, could quell Hamas in Gaza, which has been aiding terrorist attacks on Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula. Hamas must worry that Egypt could retake Gaza, which it ruled prior to the Six Day War. If Egypt covertly tells Hamas to stay out of a confrontation between Israel and Iran, Hamas could well stand down.
Likewise, Saudi Arabia can do a lot covertly. It’s thought that Israel could not only use Saudi airspace but a Saudi base in the event of a war. The Saudis, who are the main backers of the Syrian rebels, could ramp up military pressure on Syria at the time of an Israeli attack, pinning down Syrian forces to discourage them from supporting Iran. The Saudis and their Sunni friends in the Gulf could also massively ramp up oil exports, to stop the cost of oil shooting through the roof and upsetting Western economies.
Most importantly, an attack on Iran now would eliminate a harsh condemnation from the United States, which is heading into mid-term elections, with the US Senate up for grabs. Obama does not want to lose the Senate to the Republicans, yet that might happen if he is seen to side with Iran, which Americans detest, and against Israel, which most Americans, including mainstream Democrats, solidly support. For this reason, the Obama Administration could be counted on to veto the anti-Israel resolutions that would surely arise at the United Nations.
After the November elections, Obama would have no electoral constraints. He might well pile on Israel as would other countries.
If Israel could count on Obama and the US, Israel would be prudent to wait and act in concert with the US. Because Israel cannot and never could count on either Obama or the US, Israel should go it alone, and soon.
(Lawrence Solomon is a Research Fellow of the Canadian Institute
for Jewish Research and a National Post columnist.)