By Avi Davis
As the time for Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress rapidly approaches, the skies around him are beginning to darken in an ominous way.
Yesterday a report from a Kuwaiti paper alleged that some time in 2014 Netanyahu, in consultation with his general staff, had authorized a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities for fear that the United States and Iran had concluded a secret agreement which would have compromised Israeli national security. Yet when informed of the prospective assault, Barack Obama warned that the U.S. military would shoot the Israeli planes out of the sky if they so much as dared to cross into Jordanian airspace.
While the story is almost certainly false (the U.S. army or navy has had a very limited capacity to interdict any squadron over Jordanian airspace – or even more likely Saudi Arabian airspace – since the complete withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011) , the fact that so many people registered their alarm that U.S. and Israeli pilots might be involved in a real military engagement against one another, only illustrates its believability. Relations have apparently sunk so low that the United States government now appears to view the State of Israel itself as the most significant obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
Such a view of course makes a convenient detour around both Islamic State and al Qaeda, both of whom possess a far more serious claim to that title. Netanyahu might then be forgiven for a little exasperation with the U.S. President and his administration – who do not seem to be responding to Israeli intelligence nor its analysis of the situation on the ground.
But the Israeli prime minister knows that he is dealing with an amateur in foreign relations, a leader who has demonstrated time and again a failed grasp of statecraft and whose stubbornness, even in the face of the most exigent facts, blinds him to the consequences of his actions and the catastrophic impact that they might have on the region.
Throwing caution to the wind is not a luxury afforded a tiny state like Israel, surrounded by hostile forces seeking its destruction. But Netanyahu is not coming to Washington to represent just his own nation. When he stands before the two house of Congress on Tuesday, he will, sotto voce, also be representing the governments of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia , Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom have witnessed the United States’ abandonment of leadership in the region and its apparent willingness to appease a determined Iran, glowing with the satisfaction of having gulled and outsmarted the Americans.
For Netanyahu the gambit to address Congress, at the risk of raising the ire of the Obama administration, is a supremely dangerous one; Obama still has now a little less than two years left in office and during that time there are many measures he can take to either punish Israel or else continue to endanger Israeli security – a perilous position in which to be in, considering that Iran’s military advisers now sit virtually on Israel’s very doorstep on the slopes of the Golan Heights.
Democratic supporters of Israel in Congress, alarmed by the widening rift, have urged the Israeli prime minister to cancel the appearance. After all, does he not know that Obama has repeatedly stated over the years that he would not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons ( recycling those very words at a press conference with David Cameron not three weeks ago)? And hasn’t Obama just as often stated the United States’ commitment to the defense of Israel – implying that it would back that commitment with military assistance – if not force – if necessary?
Why is he doing it then?
The first reason is that the negotiations, conducted in camera in Geneva, have not involved the Israelis at all. The country most threatened by Iranian aggression – in fact the one singled out repeatedly by the theocratic regime for annihilation, has also been the one not even consulted about the outcome of the talks. The Israelis are well aware that this is no oversight. And it must surely invoke the memory of the Czechs who were not invited to join the British, French and Italian leaders at their negotiations with Hitler at his Berchtesgarden retreat in September, 1938. The Czechs were handed a fait accompli and thereafter completely abandoned by the Allies – forced to surrender a sizeable chunk of their territory while dismantling their formidable defenses.
And while drifting down memory lane, the Israeli leaders are no doubt recalling the events of November, 1956 and May, 1967.
On November 5, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower, enraged by the surprise joint, coordinated attack by British, French and Israeli troops on the Suez Canal – just recently nationalized by the Egyptian dictator Gamal Nasser, issued an ultimatum to the victorious armies – immediate withdrawal or face a Security Council denunciation at the United Nations. The swift and sweeping conquest of the vast Sinai peninsula by the Israel Defense Forces relieved the country of a direct threat in the south from cross border fedayeen raids and Egyptian military insurgents and the Israelis were not about to give it up without something in return. Eisenhower decided to give them a guarantee – that in the event of a future attack by Egypt in the south, an international force would be stationed from now on in to help defend the southern border.
Fast forward eleven years and Nasser was seen again threatening Israeli national security, this time mobilizing troops in the Sinai Peninsula and sabre rattling, in blood curdling national speeches, for the annihilation of the Jewish state. Israel, pressed on three borders by hostile armies made urgent entreaties to President Lyndon Johnson, pointing to the guarantees offered by the Eisenhower administration. Johnson hesitated, claiming his staff could not find the document but promising to organize an international flotilla to break the blockade of the Gulf of Aqaba imposed by Nasser’s navy. Weeks went by and no such flotilla appeared. Frustrated and alarmed, the government of Levi Eshkol realized it was truly alone – the U.S. guarantees were not worth the paper they were written on. With nothing else to lose he authorized a pre-emptive strike on the Egyptian air force, a mission which was ultimately so staggeringly successful that it essentially determined the outcome of the war – concluded in Israel’s favor within six days.
This history lesson can surely not be lost on the current Israeli leadership. They see the writing on the wall – a President who takes their security concerns with a passive non-chalance; who believes that Iran, for all its 30 years of fostering terrorism and instability in the Middle East, can be transformed overnight into a partner for peace; a leader who cannot grasp that the ideological engine which fuels the nuclear ambitions of the Mullahs in Tehran is the same motor spinning in the minds of al Qaeda and ISIS.
Benjamin Netanyahu, a far more savvy and focused strategist than the American president, knows all of this and knows the limited time the Israelis now have to make to make their arguments- if not to the U.S. president who has ceased to listen, then at least to the American people through their representatives in Congress.
In doing so, Netanyahu will be making the case that the quashing of Iran’s nuclear ambitions is not just an Israeli interest, nor just an American interest – but an interest of the world community which must combine to recognize the most significant threat to world peace since the end of the Cold War and deal with in an unequivocal and final manner.