JERUSALEM — It is an affectation of history textbooks to describe the periods immediately preceding wars as pregnant with portents of impending conflict. We all grew up reading about storm clouds gathering across the horizon and nations being placed on war footings, generally at the end of chapters. It seems likely that many of those battles began suddenly, with the citizenry of both countries suspecting little, but this does not suit the dramatic needs of classroom presentation.
Still, we have all experienced the kind of tense prewar buildup where everyone knows what is coming. In the first Gulf War, the first President Bush first gave Saddam Hussein an ultimatum to pull his invaders out of Kuwait by January 15, 1991, or else. The else was taking shape by the day, as over half a million of American troops were being shipped on huge destroyers to Saudi Arabia. Mister Hussein was not impressed, responding only by threatening to bomb Israel if he was attacked. I was living in Israel at the time and I vividly recall how we counted down the days to the inevitable.
In the end, the war started only one night late and went exactly as expected. America liberated Kuwait, Hussein dumped 39 Scud missiles into Israel, with the Israeli government biting its official lip and staying out of the fireworks. Twelve years later the second President Bush did something similar, although without the precisely dated ultimatum, and no one was surprised when the bombing of Iraq began, followed shortly thereafter by the American invasion.
Now in 2009, here I am again in Israel, this time as a tourist, and the situation is roughly the same, with the players altered somewhat. This time everyone knows that Israel must attack Iran, and relatively soon, but the timing is not quite definitive. For a best guess, most of the cagy codgers here who have seen it all are betting on early October. There have been some indications that the Obama administration has given Iran until September to accept Uncle Sam’s outstretched hand or else. The Obama else will be more of an Elsie, speaking loudly and carrying a small stick. But Israel does not consider itself bound by American long-range assessments, nor has the President won its trust. Israeli Knesset members on the right have taken to referring to our chief executive as Barack Hussein Obama, but it is unlikely this represents an expression of friendly familiarity.
The biggest danger for Israel would have been if Iran suddenly accepted the American overtures and began some phoney diplomatic process designed to buy time. This would have trapped Israel in a pincer, placing it in a no-win situation. If it did not act Iran would complete its nuclear weapon while stalling Obama at the negotiating table. If it did act it would be seen as needlessly undermining the well-crafted, showing-progress, breakthrough initiative of the debonair American President.
Here fate has interceded in the form of the contested Iranian election. With the Islamic regime killing protesters on streets and in prisons, it is essentially forced to back this up with uncompromising rhetoric. This is hardly a moment it can exploit to show a smiley-face to the American public. Moreover, if Iran agreed to sit down, the U.S. would have to insist on a complete end to overt repression of political opponents. Israel should have the breathing room it needs to take care of business.
Among potential winners of a successful foray by Israel is the Republican Party. Thus far the party has not taken a strong position against Obama squeezing Israel. An Israeli effort against the Iranian nuclear capacity would be met by very strong condemnation among Obama’s Democrat colleagues. They would wind up sounding like Europe redux. If Republicans stood alone in lauding this action, it could go a long way towards clarifying who supporters of Israel can really trust.
All of this is easy to say, but the reality is fraught with margin for error. If Israel gets it right, as it did with the Iraq nuclear plant in Osirak during the Reagan administration, the odds are the complaints will die down quickly enough. On the other hand… there is no other hand. If ‘twere done ‘tgotta be done well. Failure is not an option.