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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Why Israel will strike Iran

Somehow I missed this last week - probably because it came out in the middle of the night on the second night of Passover.

At Slate.com, David Samuels gives what he calls the 'rational argument' for why Israel will strike Iran. While I don't buy everything he says about the price of an Israeli attack on Iran (a 'Palestinian' state), a lot of what he says makes sense.
The key fact of the American-Israeli alliance that most commentators seem eager to elide is that Israel is America's leading ally in the Middle East because it is the most powerful country in the Middle East. Critics of the American-Israeli relationship love to conflate American support for Israel before 1967 with America's support since then by citing statistics for tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military credits and aid given to Israel "since 1948," when the Jewish State was founded. In fact, Israel's rise to becoming a regional superpower was accomplished without any significant help from United States. Israel's surreptitious program to build nuclear weapons was accomplished with the aid of the British and the French, who joined with Israel to seize the Suez Canal from Egypt's rabble-rousing President Gamal Abdel Nasser, and who were then forced to give it back by Dwight D. Eisenhower. The Israeli air force pilots who destroyed the Egyptian, Syrian, and Jordanian air forces on the ground flew French-made Mystère jets—not American-made F-4 Phantoms. The U.S. Congress did not appropriate a single penny to help Israel accommodate an overwhelming influx of Holocaust survivors and poor Jewish refugees from Yemen, Iraq, Egypt, and other Arab countries until 1973—25 years after the founding of the state.

By shattering the old balance of power in the Middle East with its spectacular military victory in the Six Day War, Israel announced itself to America as the reigning military power in the region and as a profoundly destabilizing influence that needed to be contained. The parallels between Israel's rise to superpower-client status in the 1950s and 1960s and the Iranian march toward regional hegemony over the past decade are quite striking. Both Israel circa 1967 and modern-day Iran are non-Arab states that utilized innovative military tactics to panic the Arabs. Yet where Iran is a non-Arab country with a population of more than 70 million, Israel was and is a tiny non-Arab, non-Muslim country whose small population and seat-of-the-pants style of leadership made even the country's modest colonial ambitions seem like a stretch. In the absence of any fixed plan of expansion, or any long-term plan for dealing with its neighbors, Israel decided to use its excess military power and captured lands as a chit that it could exchange for resources provided from outside the region by its wealthy American patron.

Israel earned its role as an American client with a series of daring military victories won by a tiny embattled country with a shoestring budget and its back against the sea: the capture of the Suez Canal from Nasser in 1956, the audacious victory in 1967, and the development of a nuclear bomb. Yet the terms of the bargain that Israel struck would necessarily relegate such accomplishments to the history books. Israel traded its freedom to engage in high-risk, high-payoff exploits like the Suez Canal adventure or the Six Day War for the comfort of a military and diplomatic guarantee from the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. As a regional American client, Israel would draw on the military and diplomatic power of its distant patron in exchange for allowing America to use its control over Israel as leverage with neighboring Arab states.

With each American-brokered peace move—from Camp David to the Madrid Conference to Oslo and Annapolis—the United States has been able to hold up its leverage over Israel as both a carrot and a stick to the Arab world. Do what we want, and we will force the Israelis to behave. The client-patron relationship between the United States and Israel that allows Washington to control the politics of the Middle East is founded on two pillars: America's ability to deliver concrete accomplishments, like the return of the Sinai to Egypt and the pledge to create a Palestinian state, along with the suggestion that Washington is manfully restraining wilder, more aggressive Israeli ambitions.

The success of the American-Israeli alliance demands that both parties be active partners in a complex dance that involves a lot of play-acting—America pretends to rebuke Israel, just as Israel pretends to be restrained by American intervention from bombing Damascus or seizing the banks of the Euphrates. The instability of the U.S.-Israel relationship is therefore inherent in the terms of a patron-client relationship that requires managing a careful balance of Israeli strength and Israeli weakness. An Israel that runs roughshod over its neighbors is a liability to the United States—just as an Israel that lost the capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region would quickly become worthless as a client.

A corollary of this basic point is that the weaker and more dependent Israel becomes, the more Israeli interests and American interests are likely to diverge. Stripped of its ability to take independent military action, Israel's value to the United States can be seen to reside in its ability to give the Golan Heights back to Syria and to carve out a Palestinian state from the remaining territories it captured in 1967—after which it would be left with only the territories of the pre-1967 state to barter for a declining store of U.S. military credits, which Washington might prefer to spend on wooing Iran.


Short of an Iranian-hostage-rescue-mission-type debacle in which a small Israeli tactical force crashes in the Iranian desert, or a presidential order from Obama to shoot down Israeli planes on their way to Natanz, any Israeli air raid on Iran is likely to succeed in destroying masses of delicate equipment that the Iranians have spent a decade building at enormous cost in time and treasure. It is hard to believe that Iran could quickly or easily replace what it lost. Whether it resulted in delaying Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb by two years, five years, or somewhere in between, the most important result of an Israeli bombing raid would be to puncture the myth of inevitability that has come to surround the Iranian nuclear project and that has fueled Iran's rise as a regional hegemon.

The idea of a mass public outcry against Israel in the Muslim world is probably also a fiction—given the public backing of the Gulf states and Egypt for Israel's wars against Hezbollah and Hamas. As the only army in the region able to take on Iran and its clients, Israel has effectively become the hired army of the Sunni Arab states tasked by Washington with the job of protecting America's favorite Middle Eastern tipple—oil.

The parallels between Israel's rise to superpower client status after 1967 and Iran's recent rise offer another strong reason for Israel to act—and act fast. The current bidding for Iran's favor is alarming to Israel not only because of the unfriendly proclamations of Iranian leaders but because of what an American rapprochement with Iran signals for the future of Israel's status as an American client. While America would probably benefit by playing Israel and Iran against each other for a while to extract the maximum benefit from both relationships, it is hard to see how America would manage to please both clients simultaneously and quite easy to imagine a world in which Iran—with its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, its control over Hezbollah and Hamas, and easy access to leading members of al-Qaida—would be the partner worth pleasing.

Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities is the surest way for Israel to restore the image of strength and unpredictability that made it valuable to the United States after 1967 while also eliminating Iran as a viable partner for America's favor. The fact that this approach may be the international-relations equivalent of keeping your boyfriend by shooting the other cute girl he likes in the head is an indicator of the difference between high-school romance and alliances between states—and hardly an argument for why it won't work. Shorn of its nuclear program and unable to retaliate against Israel through conventional military means, Iran would be shown to be a paper tiger—to the not-so-secret delight of America's Sunni Arab allies in the Gulf. Iran's local clients like Syria and Hamas would be likely to distance themselves from an over-leveraged Persian would-be hegemon whose ruined nuclear facilities would be visible on Google Earth.

Read it all. You should also read David Horovitz's extensive discussion of Samuels' article (and some great quotes from a previous Samuels article on Yasser Arafat) here. I agree with Horovitz that Israel is a lot less likely than Samuels thinks to agree to a 'Palestinian' state. But Samuels is dead on when he says that Israel has a lot to gain by attacking Iran. An awful lot. Even Horovitz admits:
Away from the microphones, however, there most definitely are key Israeli officials who believe that the window of non-military pressure has already closed, and that the international diplomatic community, quite simply, is not going to stop Iran.

All that is left now, these officials believe, if Iran's nuclear program is to be thwarted, and with it the relentless drive to dominate this region at Israel's emphatic expense, are more radical options.
Two other articles that came out on Friday expecting an Israeli attack are also worth reading: I would advise Netanyahu to attack Iran (Yossi Mehlman in Haaretz, also citing Samuels' piece in Slate) and Jitters over expected Israeli air attack (Armand De Borchgrave in the Washington Times).

I believe it's going to happen. The question is when.


At 3:30 AM, Blogger Thud said...

I despise the argument against a raid the left use...it would only delay the Iranian bomb by x years....I'll settle for a few more years freedom from Iranian missiles anyday.Perhaps Israel needs to look towards new allies?

At 6:47 AM, Blogger NormanF said...

Agreed, Carl. The only question is one of timing. I believe the decision to strike has already been taken. Quite simply put, Israel is not going to let an enemy strike her first. That is why Israel will seize the initiative and take the war to the enemy. Iran may believe Israel is a paper tiger that will do nothing and that is exactly why Israel is going to respond in strength. A bully respects someone who hits him back. And respect in a dangerous neighborhood is something Israel very badly needs.

At 12:32 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Carl, it's like this: Israel bombs Iran today; by tomorow, Israel is no more.

At 2:51 PM, Blogger Iron Chef Kosher! said...

It disgusts me that Israel is once again going to do the world's dirty work (Surely I am not the only one who remembers Osirak?)- only to be reviled and punished for even defending itself - and only to have Iran whine & cry that it's the victim. Hopefully, for one, Israel will be loud & clear in her proofs for why she did this - hopefully her foreign ministers have been taking careful notes of everything that demented idiot, Ahmadenijehad has been saying.


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