‘We don’t know where we’re headed,” an Israeli librarian said to me during a visit my husband and I made to Israel last month. She was speaking, of course, about Iran, which fills the newspapers there as it does here. We were in the country during the peak of speculation about when Israel would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, with headlines blaring that Benjamin Netanyahu had decided to attack within the next four months, or two months, or maybe one month. At the same time, some commentators suggested that Israel end its long-standing policy of nuclear “opacity,” acknowledge its nuclear capability as a warning to Tehran, and openly identify enemy targets it might strike. And with that saber rattling, ordinary people were standing in line to get gas masks and learn how to use them.
Much of the imminent war talk has died down now, as Israelis debate what they can do on their own to stop Iran, and how much they need the United States in the process. The best thing, an Israeli historian said to me, would be for the American government to set a clear deadline for Iran to cease its nuclear project — say by June, 2013 — with a definite commitment to take military action if it doesn’t adhere to that deadline. Easier said than done, with the country in the midst of a presidential campaign, and neither party eager to indicate any willingness to plunge America into another war.
Meanwhile, everyone in Israel is waiting, although they’re not sure for what. Those on the left, and many in the center, don’t trust Netanyahu, and are convinced his loud railing against Iran is designed to shift attention away from Israel’s internal problems. Those on the right, and some in the center, don’t trust Barak Obama, and are convinced that if elected to a second term he will feel free to throw Israel under the bus. It’s a strange conviction in light of Defense Secretary Ehud Barak’s statement that in terms of Israel’s security, the Obama administration has done more than any before it, and Dennis Ross’s statement, as reported by Gary Rosenblatt, that the level of strategic cooperation between Washington and Jerusalem today is unprecedented (Jewish Week, Aug. 24). Still, those feelings linger on.
People old enough to remember the Six-Day War in 1967 compare today’s anxious waiting to the weeks before the war broke out. We usually think only in terms of Israel’s amazing victory in that conflict. But the weeks beforehand were filled with fear and foreboding and confusion about the stand of the United States. The Egyptians had massed troops in Sinai, the Syrians had backed guerrilla raids into Israel, and the Soviet Union was egging on the Arab governments during that Cold War era. When Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, Israel felt it had to act. But even then, there was disagreement about what that action should be. President Lyndon Johnson, a friend of Israel, promised that the United States would find a peaceful means through diplomacy and pressure to get the Straits reopened. Opposing a pre-emptive strike, he warned Abba Eban, Israel’s foreign minister, “Israel will not be alone, unless it decides to go it alone.” Yet America remained equivocal about what it would actually do to help the beleaguered country. Some Israeli diplomats had the feeling that while the superpower would not give Israel the go-ahead to attack, it would not oppose Israeli action. Some even wondered whether America wanted Israel to attack, although it would never admit that. There are people who raise the same possibilities today.
To be sure, enormous differences separate today’s waiting period from the one before the Six-Day War. Israel does not face the immediate danger it did then, and going to war is not necessarily the best or even a good option. But the uncertainty and anxiety that grip the country and its fears of an existential threat if Iran acquires nuclear weapons stir up memories of that earlier time.
Thinking about Israel’s history arouses other thoughts as well. During this trip I did some research in several film archives. Watching black and white news clips of the nation at war in 1967 and 1973, looking at documentaries about the millions of immigrants who poured into it during the 1950s, listening to the speeches of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir, reliving the handshake on the White House lawn between Yitzchak Rabin and Yasir Arafat, I was awed once again by how much this country has endured and accomplished in its 64 years. Yes, Iran now poses a grave threat, but it cannot destroy Israel. Israelis are too strong and resourceful for that. In spite of problems they will figure out where they are headed. Most likely it is to ever greater heights.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day.” She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.