When I traveled to Israel in 1996, things were pretty calm. Minus a couple brief side trips to Jordan and Egypt, I was there for about a month.
Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu was serving his first term as Prime Minister, but was much less “conservative” than he is now. The only violence deemed front-page worthy by the media was the stabbing murder of two West Bank “settlers.”
Israel is, not surprisingly, a pretty militarized place, and that can be a strange experience. All young people must serve in the military (excepting, curiously, ultra-Orthodox Jews who have been given a pass for religious reasons), and it was not uncommon to find myself sitting next to a beautiful female member of the Israeli Defense Forces on an Egged bus, her rifle resting lightly between her knees as she slept.
And all around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I picked up on the pride Israelis feel in their ability to protect their tiny nation, surrounded from its founding by potential enemies. In particular I remember seeing a T-shirt with a photo of an American-made F-16 fighter and the message, “Don’t worry America — Israel is behind you!”
Intended as a winking defiant inversion of a message Israelis must tire of hearing, the shirt conveyed a certain pugnacious grit: After the triumph of the Six Day War in 1967 and the near disaster of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, many citizens of the Jewish state came to believe they could withstand any assault.
Things are more complex now, following more dubious military actions and the continued occupation of territories taken from Jordan, Egypt and Syria. To boot, Israel has taken unilateral, pre-emptive action to forestall what it saw as future threats. That’s what happened in 1981, when IDF planes bombed Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear facility in Iraq and Syria’s incomplete al-Kibar nuclear installation in 2007.
In both cases, the United States government stood firmly behind the nation that receives more American foreign aid each year than any other (about $3 billion annually, or nearly one out of every six U.S. foreign aid dollars; most of it is in military aid).
Now we hear that Israel is prepared to take matters into its own hands and attack several nuclear facilities in Iran, amplified by American politicians eager to seem “tough.” Netanyahu’s government and many Americans are convinced that the big dog of the Persian Gulf (for that we can thank the ill-advised war in Iraq) is pursuing nuclear weapons.
President Obama said Monday that the United States “will always have Israel’s back.” At the same time, he has criticized all the cheap belligerence emanating from GOP presidential candidates and Israeli hawks. On Tuesday, he rightly called out the Republican war hounds for not taking war seriously enough.
“This is not a game,” the president said.
No, it’s not. But it’s all to easy for many Americans to treat it as if it is. The media is generally more than happy to aid and abet that thinking.
After listening to (but in my case, never believing) the lies we were told about the extreme dangers of Hussein’s “weapons of mass destruction,” the recent drumbeats for war against Iran have sounded distressingly familiar.
First, there is not unequivocal evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons, at least not yet. As Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told a Senate committee hearing on Feb. 28, “I think they’re developing a nuclear capability (but) our intelligence makes clear that they haven’t made the decision to develop a nuclear weapon.”
And according to many careful military analysts, it’s far from certain that Israel could effectively carry out a mission to destroy or cripple three Iranian facilities, due to limitations in aircraft fueling, among other logistical issues.
And that would mean the U.S. would be forced to enter the fray.
Such a move would almost certainly catalyze further anti-American fury across the Muslim world, set Hezbollah and Hamas aflame on the borders of Israel, kill thousands of Iranian civilians and create chaos on the region — probably the world. What’s more, it could even make it more likely that the Iranians would develop nuclear weapons.
“Should Israel rush to war, Iran might follow Hussein’s example (after the Osirak attack) and rebuild its nuclear program in a way that is harder to detect and more costly to stop,” wrote Colin H. Kahl of the Center for a New American Security in The Washington Post on March 2.
Let’s say Iran does wind up with a nuclear weapon or two. As North Korea has learned, that’s pretty good protection against an attack, which might make it easier to build more nukes.
Netanyahu continually raises the specter of another Jewish holocaust at the hands of a nuclear-armed Iran. And, he suggests, failing to attack preemptively would be the equivalent of appeasing Hitler, Neville Chamberlain-style.
But is Iran truly “insane” enough to attack Israel, the only nuclear-armed nation in the Middle East, with an estimated 200 warheads poised for delivery? To read the Western press, yes, the Persians are all mad, mad I tell you, bent on Israel’s destruction even at the cost of their own annihilation. As someone rather vividly put it to me, if Iran launched prospective nuke(s) at Israel, “It would immediately become the world’s largest ash tray.”
Americans are tired of war, according to most polls. Even so, 48 percent polled by Rasmussen in February said the U.S. should join any effort by Israel to attack Iranian nuclear facilities.
Yet that’s more than the 43 percent of Israeli Jews — compared to 42 percent of all Israelis — who think their nation should attack so long as America joins in. (A solid 32 percent say they don’t think Israel should attack at all.)
Could it be that Israelis, who have tasted the bloody fruits of war, take it more seriously than Americans? We were rightfully aghast at the deaths of some 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001. Why is it that so many of us don’t seem to feel that same horror when tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, are killed in other nations — sometimes at our hands?
All “those who are … beating the drums of war should explain clearly to the American people what the costs and benefits would be,” Obama said last week.
And if we do take such stock, is it too much to ask that we consider the potential death and suffering of people other than ourselves into those costs?