Israel, flex some muscles
By Amb Yoram Ettinger
Israel’s battle against Palestinian terrorism and conventional military threats must not be inhibited by its ties with the U.S. and Egypt.
In 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ordered the bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor. In 1982, he launched a comprehensive war on the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s terrorist headquarters in Lebanon. Both operations were executed irrespective of bullying and pressure from the U.S. and notwithstanding the fragile 1979 Israel-Egypt peace treaty. Begin realized that failing to eradicate these threats would imperil Israel’s survival, erode its power of deterrence and thus undermine Israel’s deterrence-driven peace with Egypt and its strategic cooperation with the U.S.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, the Israel-Egypt peace treaty did not collapse. Once again, Arab leaders did not rush to rescue the PLO, demonstrating that the Palestinian issue was not a crown jewel of Arab policymaking. Moreover, Egypt – just like all other Arab countries – would not sacrifice its own national interests on the altar of the Palestinian issue.
While the U.S. Administration condemned Israel for the large scale military operations, and imposed a brief military embargo, these operations resulted in the 1981 and 1983 strategic Memoranda of Understanding between the U.S. and Israel, which enhanced joint national security projects, upgrading Israel’s long-term strategic posture.
From 1983 to 1992, during his two terms as prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir was severely criticized by U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush for crushing Palestinian terrorism during the First Intifada and expanding Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem. At the same time, however, U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation was bolstered at an unprecedented level while he was in power. Washington recognized that U.S.-Israel cooperation never revolved around the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mutually-beneficial U.S.-Israel ties were based upon shared values, common threats such as Islamic terrorism, ballistic missiles and rogue regimes, and joint interests such as research and development and job creation in the high-tech market and in the defense industries.
In August 1948, U.S. Ambassador to Israel James McDonald recorded Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s response to the American demand (accompanied by a regional military embargo) to end the “occupation” of Arab land or agree to a land swap, to accept the internationalization of Jerusalem and to allow the return of the Arab refugees: “Speaking with solemn emphasis, [Ben Gurion] added that as much as Israel desired friendship with the U.S. and full cooperation with it and the U.N., there were limits beyond which it could go. Israel cannot yield to anything which, in its judgment, would threaten its independence or its security. The very fact that Israel is a small state makes more necessary the scrupulous defense of its own interests; otherwise it would be lost … Ben Gurion warned President [Harry S.] Truman and the State Department that they would be gravely mistaken if they assumed that the threat or even the use of U.N. sanctions would force Israel to yield on issues considered vital to its independence and security. [He] left no doubt that he was determined to resist, at whatever cost, ‘unjust and impossible demands.’ On these he could not compromise ["My Mission," 1951, pp. 49-50].”
Ben Gurion’s defiance transformed Washington’s image of the Jewish state from a strategic liability to a potential strategic asset.
In 1973, Prime Minister Golda Meir put Israel’s ties with the U.S. above its own national security concerns, rejecting advice to pre-empt the impending Egyptian-Syrian offensive so that Israel would not be perceived as the aggressor. Irrespective of Israel’s military victory during the battle, the trauma of the 3,000 Israeli fatalities and the fact that the nation was very nearly eliminated still haunts Israelis and embolden their enemies.
In 2011, Israel benefits from a robust economy and military, as well as growing Western awareness of the threat of Islamic terrorism and the violence and volatility on the Arab street. Israel, therefore, should not refrain from flexing its decisive military muscles in the face of military threats, lest it reaffirm the image of a restrained and indecisive Israel which could further fan the flames of anti-Israel, anti-Western terrorism.