Josef Olmert
Josef Olmert

On Dependence and Independence – Israel and the US

The recent Visit of P.M Bennett in the US brought again to light the question of how much freedom of action Israel REALLY has when it faces the need to make crucial decisions, perhaps even existential ones, and in this case we talk about the decisions awaiting Bennett and his government about Iran. On the face of it, this is a rhetorical question, as Israel is an independent nation state which could and should be totally sovereign in making its decisions. However, the reality of the Zionist movement and the independent state of Israel is, that the combination of factors, such as the legacy and burden of Jewish history as well as the geo-political reality of Israel required the Zionist and Israeli leaderships on many occasions, though not always, to make fateful decisions only if given the state the maximum possible sense of confidence that the outcome of them will not lead to the destruction of the third Jewish state in history. This is not a lengthy essay about Jewish history, nor about the theoretical political science aspects of the problem, or a detailed survey of the overall elements which create dependency of one state on another. Rather it is a description of some very important Israeli decisions and the circumstances leading to them, so that we can get a sense of what lies ahead for the Bennett government.

I will survey five situations, and let us start with Ben Gurion and the declaration of the state on 14 May 1948. Ben Gurion convened the Yishuv leadership, called Mihelet Ha’am[the ”people’s administration”] to a crucial meeting on 12 May, knowing then that it was not even clear whether the US would recognize the newly-established state IF declared without prior American consent , and also that an all-out Arab war of aggression was inevitable. The decision to be made was supposedly a political-strategic one, but was it only that? .It was much more than that ,as it was to be taken three years after the end of ww2, when the extent of the Holocaust was already so painfully known. It was a decision which to the ten participants in the meeting was, therefore, an existential one which could put in grave jeopardy the very existence of the Yishuv with possible repercussions for Jews everywhere. Ben Gurion also knew, that British military people were bent on helping the Arabs. Ben Gurion did not know what would be the reaction in Moscow, and we talk cold war already in 1948. Ben Gurion was also aware of the domestic opposition of four out of the ten participants in the meeting. On the face of it, Ben Gurion was to be considered a realistic, cold-headed, logical leader were he to postpone the decision. Yes, Ben-Gurion was all that exactly because he decided to declare, and the rest , as they say is history. The leader himself was so torn apart, that immediately after the declaration he confided in his diary his great fears and concerns.

We are still with Ben Gurion and the Sinai campaign of 1956. In this case, the concerns and fears of the leader led him to a different decision than in 1948, and he opted to go to the campaign only as part of a trilateral agreement with France and Britain, which among other things, gave him a firm guarantee , that the Israeli civilian population would not be an easy prey to Egyptian aerial attacks, enjoying the allies defensive umbrella. Ben Gurion was even then still traumatized by the prospect, which was seen realistic, that civilians would be killed. Holocaust memory again played a role in his decision. Also here the rest is history, but different one than in 1948. The US was the power forcing Israel to withdraw back to the pre-war borders, just shortly after Ben Gurion referred to Jewish history, as in the euphoric days after the great victory he declared the establishment of HABAYIT HASHLISHI. Yet, the campaign was a success because it gave the state eleven years of quiet , peaceful border with Egypt, years which were well used to strengthen the state .

These eleven years ended abruptly in May 1967, when the clouds of war gathered again over Israel, and with an hesitant Israeli government, which could not come to a decision in face of what seemed again as a threat to the the very existence of the state. The mobs marching in Arab capitals with the slogans of ”death to the Jews” were more than mere images of the Holocaust. They were for many Israelis a nightmare in the making, and so it was perceived by the leadership. The decision to go to a war of self-defense with all its obvious risks required, therefore, an whether to go it alone like in 1948, or to repeat the 1956 scenario. We know what it was-When Head of Mossad Meir Amit brought back the news, that the then US president Johnson will not repeat president Eisenhower policy in 1956, the command to go was given to the IDF, and here again the rest is history. Was the green light from Washington the deciding factor in the decision?. Maybe not the ONLY one, but clearly a very important one.

The fourth situation was , of course, the 1973 war, and the Israeli decision by P.M Meir and Defense Minister Dayan not to preempt the expected Arab attack and the main consideration behind this was, that in the case that the air force was ordered to strike before the Arab attack, Israel would lose international support, mostly that of the US. The debate about this decision is perpetual, will never end with one , undisputed conclusion, but it is important to remind us all the American Air lift which played a significant role in the final military outcome of the war.

The last situation is the Menachem Begin decision to destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. When compared to the Iranian situation today with all its complications, one may wonder as to why this action and decision should be considered historic alongside the other four mentioned above. Menachem Begin at that time was convinced and rightly so, that the very existence of Israel may be on the balance with a mini Hitler called Saddam Hussein in possession of the bomb, and Menachem Begin also could not know what would be the US reaction, which in the aftermath of the event was negative. Still, he made the decision to go it alone. Here again the rest is history.

All the above leads us to the inevitable answer, that while it is clearly the absolute right of Israel to take independent action when faced with historic decisions to be made, it is still a matter of circumstances as to what should be the decision.

Among the circumstances, alongside the quality of leadership of Israel and its ability to confront huge risks and overcome them, there is also the level of outside support .This is an important factor, because as we saw in some of the situations described, this support could mitigate otherwise horrendous results. Since 1967 it is American support which Israel on so many occasions solicits and receives, but nothing is a foregone conclusion. Naftali Bennett and his government may soon have to confront one such decision.

It may be the sixth most crucial decision of Israeli leaders and we can only hope that it would be the right one.

About the Author
Dr Josef Olmert, a Middle East expert, is currently an adjunct professor at the University of South Carolina