Denial of the deployment of missiles is an old American tactic in the Middle East. After negotiating a cease-fire along the Suez Canal between Israel and Egypt in 1970, American officials rejected Israeli claims that Egypt was moving anti-aircraft missile batteries to the Canal. This was in violation of the agreement that forbade either side from “changing the military status quo within zones extending 50 kilometers to the east and west of the cease-fire line.” Within weeks, however, Egypt had deployed more than 100 batteries along the Canal, anti-aircraft weaponry that would provide cover for the Egyptian attack on Israeli lines during the October 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Israel was furious about the Egyptian violation. Henry Kissinger reported (The White House Years, Volume 1, page 587) that Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir sent a demarche via Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin with evidence of Egypt’s violations and deployment of missile batteries. Rabin was brought into President Nixon to show him the evidence and to “complain bitterly about the reluctance of our intelligence community to accept Israeli evidence.”
Kissinger continued with words that echo true 40 years later whether applied to the Iranian, Syrian, or Palestinian front:
“There was some merit,” Kissinger wrote, “in Rabin’s complaint of the reluctance of the U.S. intelligence community to find violations. As I explained to the president:
‘Israel, with her survival at stake, cannot afford to take chances. … The nature of the Israelis’ situation is bound to influence their interpretation of ambiguous events. We, on the other hand, have an incentive to minimize such evidence, since the consequences of finding violations are so unpleasant. Violations force us to choose between doing something about them and thus risk the blowup of our initiative; or doing nothing and thus renege on our promises to Israel, posing the threat of her taking military action. Accordingly, we tend to lean over backwards to avoid the conclusion that the Arabs are violating the ceasefire unless the evidence is unambiguous.’”
A recommendation to Israel: Don’t trust U.S. assurances. Take the threat seriously.
Déjà vu, once again
Despite the failure to destroy Iraq’s Scuds in 1991, “the United States was very eager that Israel not intervene in any way.” Moshe Arens recently related. He continued:
So, despite the previous U.S. assurance that Israel would be free to take action if the missile threat could not be eliminated within 48 hours, after 72 hours President Bush called Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Jim Baker called me, insisting that we not take any action, that we not in any way “spoil” the operation that was underway.
“Keeping Israel out of the conflict [was] a central strategic concern of our diplomacy,” says Secretary of State James Baker, according to a 1999 study on U.S.-Israel relations during the Gulf War. The study continued:
The prevailing conventional wisdom among American policymakers was that any direct Israeli action against Iraq or indirect participation with U.S.-led forces would likely fray the multinational coalition. If Israel took military action against Iraq, Arab members of the coalition … would withdraw. This would have both strategic political and military implications for the United States, and also hinder Washington’s operational capabilities in the Gulf.
Compare American policy under Baker 20 years ago with the present, with the American reaction to the looming threats to Israel of a nuclear Iran and Scuds in Lebanon. The U.S. administration is again warning Israel — perhaps even threatening — against undermining their fantasy policy world. Like James Baker, they fear that Israeli actions such as building in a Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem, attacking Hizbullah Scuds, or taking action against Iran’s nuclear threat will have strategic political implications for the United States.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on April 15:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has assumed a role in the global geostrategic environment that carries great weight. … Comprehensive peace is critical, not just to Israel and not just to the Palestinians and not just to the United States, but to the future of this world we share.
President Obama expressed a similar theme at the Nuclear Security Summit on April 14:
I think that the need for peace between Israelis and Palestinians and the Arab states remains as critical as ever. … It is a vital national security interest of the United States to reduce these conflicts because whether we like it or not, we remain a dominant military superpower, and when conflicts break out, one way or another we get pulled into them. And that ends up costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure.
Years ago, a New York senator complained about a president’s “even-handed” policy in the Middle East. “Even-handedness,” he complained, “means the palm of the hand to the Arabs and the back of the hand to the Israelis.”
It appears that for now the U.S. administration recognizes that it went too far with the back of its hand and has publicly rolled back some of the pressure on Israel. Speakers from the president on down have recently praised U.S.-Israeli strategic cooperation. But the harm has been done. Confidence in the relationship has been shaken, and the Arabs and Iranians probably believe that United States support for Israel has lessened.
Here’s a recommendation to Israel. Déjà vu is not only hindsight. Use it for 20-20 foresight. Take all threats seriously.