A number of commentators have drawn a parallel between Israel’s national elections on Tuesday and the formation of a national unity government just prior to Israel’s preemptive attack on Egypt in June 1967. Despite stern warnings to the contrary from the Johnson administration and being at mortal risk, Israel won the Six-Day War. The decision to strike was preceded by weeks of anguished debate. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is expected to form the equivalent of a national unity government after the elections, with the moral authority to strike Iran.
A great gulf is fixed, though, between the Cold War environment of 1967, when the U.S. feared an escalation of a Middle East conflict into a global confrontation with the Soviet Union, and the world of 2013, where America’s competitors have a marginal role in the Middle East. The Johnson administration feared that Israel might upset its Cold War calculus and give advantage to Russia. To some extent those fears were realized (Egypt’s turn toward Russia culminated in the 1973 attack on Israel), but the advantage that America drew from its alliance with the region’s strongest power more than outweighed other considerations. What does the Obama administration have to lose from an Israeli strike on Iran today? Nothing, it would appear, except its own illusions. It is much easier for Israel to disregard American warnings today than it was in 1967. Lyndon Johnson was genuinely sympathetic to Israel but concerned about spillover into the Cold War. Obama has nothing to lose but his illusions.
As Shai Feldman writes in the current National Interest:
Assuming the January 22 Israeli elections will be followed by some three to six weeks of negotiations on the formation of the country’s next governing coalition, Israel’s new government will be sworn in sometime between mid-February and mid-March 2013. By that time, the decision making environment surrounding Iran’s nuclear efforts is likely to be affected by two vectors: One is the expected further evolution of Iran’s nuclear program. The other is the likely efforts of the United States to reach a negotiated resolution of the nuclear conflict with Iran.
If the pace of Iran’s uranium enrichment activities are projected into the next six to nine months, by late spring or early summer 2013 Iran will likely possess enough uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent to allow the construction of some 2–3 bombs within 2–3 months of a decision to do so being taken. At that point, Israeli leaders will become uncertain about the extent to which the difference between a nuclear-capable and nuclear-armed Iran will remain relevant. Even the more cautious, balanced, and level-headed among the Israeli defense and intelligence chiefs will then become very nervous, as so much would then rest on the ability to detect the decision of Iran’s supreme leader to order the production of nuclear weapons.
But a prospective Israeli strike against Iran will run into a buzz-saw of opposition from the Obama administration, Feldman adds, which will undertake:
…a heroic U.S.-led effort to negotiate a grand bargain with Iran to prevent it from “going nuclear.” This effort will be motivated by the Obama administration’s assessments that following the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States is war-weary; that even a limited military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations might escalate, requiring another major U.S. military commitment in the Middle East; and that given the state of the U.S. economy and that of the national economies of America’s principal trading partners, a military attack aimed at preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons may prove too costly. Given their positions on this issue, the recently announced nominations of senator John Kerry and former senator Chuck Hagel as the next U.S. secretaries of state and defense, respectively, point to this likely effort.
Feldman’s summary is accurate, but dispiriting: the stakes for the United States are trivial today compared to the risks in 1967 at the height of the Cold War.