- By Steven A. CookSteven A. Cook is the Hasib J. Sabbagh senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Struggle for Egypt: From Nasser to Tahrir Square.
Every three weeks or so, within a few hours of one Israeli leader or another making a statement about the threat of Iran’s nuclear program, my phone starts lighting up. It’s never the press, which has becomeinured to Israel’s periodic warnings. Rather, it is nervous hedge fund managers and securities research analysts calling to find out if this is "it." Are the Israelis on the verge of attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities? No doubt, should Israel launch air strikes against the Bushehr reactor or the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, it would be a market-shaking event. "No," I assure the financial whiz kids on the other end of the line, explaining that "if Israel’s leaders were going to strike, they would not be broadcasting it to the world." The phone will then go quiet for a few weeks until the next time Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu, an Israeli security consultant, or my cousin Ari warns that time is running out.
Yet, despite my best efforts to walk a few financial analysts off the ledge, a mystery remains: Why haven’t the Israelis attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities? After all, Israel is a country borne of the blood-soaked history of Jews in Europe, and Iran’s leaders seem to be promising a new Holocaust. One would think there is already justification enough to dispatch every plane in Israel’s arsenal to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. Also, between 2001 and 2009, the Israelis enjoyed the support of what was indisputably the most pro-Israel American administration in history. President George W. Bush and his advisors helped enable the Lebanon war in 2006 in the hopes that the vaunted Israel Defense Forces would deal Hizballah a fatal blow, so why not take out the Iranian mother ship, which poses a far greater threat to Israel and U.S. interests in the region than Hizballah’s guerrilla army?
The standard wonk answers to these questions are that Israel does not have the capacity to fly its F-15s to Iran and back, that there is uncertainty about the actual targets, that there is too much risk of an inadvertent clash with possibly Turkish or even American air crews, and that the Israelis are in fact giving diplomacy a chance — despite all evidence that Jerusalem is profoundly skeptical that anything Washington can offer Tehran will bring its nuclear ambitions to heel.
The New York Times caused quite a stir in January when it reported that Israel’s defense and political leaders repeatedly sought permission from the Bush administration "to go," but were denied U.S. approval. Still, why didn’t Israel attack anyway? Would Bush have ordered U.S forces to shoot down Israeli F-15s as they streaked across the Baghdad sky on their way to Iran? Unlikely. Confronted with a fait accompli, the Bush White House — even if it were so inclined — would not have been in a position to condemn an Israeli attack. Given his axis of evil and "with us or against us" rhetoric, it would have been decidedly awkward for Bush to come down on the Israelis for striking a blow against Iran. Moreover, the Israelis set a precedent for not informing the U.S. of dramatic military operations when on June 7, 1981, the Sunday morning routines of Reagan administration officials were disrupted with reports of the smoldering ruins of what was Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility.
Given Israel’s perception of an acute Iranian threat and its demonstrated ability to act alone, there must be some other factor holding the Israelis back. Most likely, that factor is politics, and more specifically, the importance that close relations with Washington has on the domestic political calculations of Israeli leaders. Unlike 1981, when the United States had barely a toe-hold in the Middle East, Washington occupies two countries in or adjacent to the region, maintains military facilities throughout the Persian Gulf, and relies on Arab governments for logistical support. In the event of an Israeli attack, Washington would surely be accused of colluding with Jerusalem, severely damaging the United States’ position in the region while provoking a ferocious Iranian response in Iraq, Afghanistan, Gaza, and southern Lebanon. The resulting breach between Israel and the United States would be unprecedented, creating a crisis far more serious than President Dwight Eisenhower’s demand that Israel stand down after its invasion of Sinai in 1956 and Gerald Ford’s "reassessment" of 1975 (which suspended all military and economic agreements between the two countries for three months when Israel proved uncooperative in negotiating a second Sinai agreement). This is a scenario with which many Israelis, including Netanyahu, are unlikely to be comfortable.
The Israelis have always claimed that they did not want a formal defense treaty with the United States for fear that such a pact would limit their freedom of maneuver. David Ben Gurion sought close relations with Washington, but not at the expense of Israel’s "independence or its existence." Yet, the historical record does not track consistently with Ben Gurion’s bravado. The 1956 and 1975 episodes are instructive because the Israelis backed down, establishing an informal pattern for future relations in which Israeli prime ministers tend to tread cautiously when it comes to the United States.
Of course, there are exceptions. Notably, Menachem Begin’s refusal to heed Ronald Reagan’s demands that Israel stop bombing Beirut during the summer of 1982. Yet, Begin’s successor, Yitzhak Shamir, Israel’s prime minister and foreign minister in a number of governments during the 1980s and early 1990s, learned the perils of bucking Washington the hard way. During the Gulf War in 1991, Shamir had to absorb Iraqi Scud attacks while the United States, nervous that its anti-Saddam coalition might unravel, pressured him not to retaliate. Months later, Shamir defied President George H.W. Bush’s insistence that Israel limit settlement construction while simultaneously requesting that the United States guarantee $10 billion in loans the Israeli government planned to secure from commercial banks. Bush said no to the guarantees unless Israel promised not to use the money for settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The Israeli prime minister balked, provoking a mini-crisis in the bilateral relationship marked by a thinly veiled war of words and provocative actions like the announcement of a new settlement every time Bush’s secretary of state, James Baker, visited the region.
In June 1992, Israel’s voters booted Shamir from office in favor of Yitzhak Rabin, who enjoyed a sunny relationship with Bush until the U.S. president lost his own re-election bid. Shamir’s defeat at the polls was due to a combination of factors, including an Israeli economy that was struggling to absorb hundreds of thousands of Soviet immigrants, but the relationship with the United States loomed large during the campaign. Rabin’s platform, in part, accused Shamir and his Likud Party of wrecking U.S.-Israel relations. In the end, Israeli voters believed the country "was not being run right," as some commentators argued that Likud had compromised Israel’s ability to defend itself because of the deterioration of relations with Washington.
Most of the conventional wisdom about the importance of the bilateral relationship in Israeli politics is based on Shamir’s defeat and from the anecdotal evidence that is trafficked in Israel’s major papers and punditocracy. Indeed, Shamir’s experience has fueled speculation among observers in Israel and elsewhere that U.S. President Barack Obama is attempting to undermine Netanyahu’s coalition by heightening tension with Jerusalem over settlements. A recent poll designed to gauge prevailing Israeli views of the United States demonstrated that large majorities had strong positive views of the United States and regarded Washington as a staunch ally. Yet, the April poll, conducted for the Begin-Sadat Center at Bar Ilan University and the Anti-Defamation League by the Israeli firm Maagar Mochot, found that 49.5 percent of Israelis believed that Israel should defy the United States on Iran, but at the same time 91 percent said that the relationship with the United States is vital to Israel’s security.
There is no way of knowing for sure what the Israelis will do, but the Maagar Mochot study holds some clues. Iran and its nuclear program remain a threat to Israel and nearly half of all Israelis would choose to bomb Iran even if the Obama administration did not approve. It seems like an opportune moment for Israel’s leaders to order up the air strikes. Yet, observers need to ask why the Israelis are waiting. If the Iranians actually managed to build a nuclear weapon, that would be a major and alarming step, but the Israelis have long maintained that the mere fact that the Iranians are enriching uranium is a grave danger. Under these circumstances, Israel’s patience — despite the tough rhetoric — suggests that Israeli leaders do not believe that the political environment is ripe to go it alone. The historical record, combined with the 91 percent of Israelis who believe the relationship between Israel and the United States is "vital," and the slightly more than half of Israeli Jews who remain reluctant to defy the United States, strongly implies that when push comes to shove, Jerusalem will defer to Washington. As a result, all those indicators portending an Israeli attack — the strike against Syria in September 2007, the large air exercises over the Mediterranean in the summer of 2008, and the recent countrywide drills that the IDF’s Home Front Command conducted — might actually indicate that Israel is trying to figure out how to deter Iran, rather than attack it. An Israeli strike does not seem to be in the cards, so the finance guys in New York can relax for now. They can be sure, however, that if Israel decides to act they will not hear about it first on CNBC.