Thursday, May 17, 2012

Post #269 - Battening Down the Hatches

The conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, seen in the Washington Post and on NPR's Inside Washington, wrote the following piece for the Post this week:

Echoes of ‘67: Israel unites

In May 1967, in brazen violation of previous truce agreements, Egypt ordered U.N. peacekeepers out of the Sinai, marched 120,000 troops to the Israeli border, blockaded the Straits of Tiran (Israel’s southern outlet to the world’s oceans), abruptly signed a military pact with Jordan and, together with Syria, pledged war for the final destruction of Israel.

May ’67 was Israel’s most fearful, desperate month. The country was surrounded and alone. Previous great-power guarantees proved worthless. A plan to test the blockade with a Western flotilla failed for lack of participants. Time was running out. Forced into mass mobilization in order to protect against invasion — and with a military consisting overwhelmingly of civilian reservists — life ground to a halt. The country was dying.

On June 5, Israel launched a preemptive strike on the Egyptian air force, then proceeded to lightning victories on three fronts. The Six-Day War is legend, but less remembered is that, four days earlier, the nationalist opposition (Menachem Begin’s Likud precursor) was for the first time ever brought into the government, creating an emergency national-unity coalition.

Everyone understood why. You do not undertake a supremely risky preemptive war without the full participation of a broad coalition representing a national consensus.

Forty-five years later, in the middle of the night of May 7-8, 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shocked his country by bringing the main opposition party, Kadima, into a national unity government. Shocking because just hours earlier, the Knesset was expediting a bill to call early elections in September.

Why did the high-flying Netanyahu call off elections he was sure to win?

Because for Israelis today, it is May ’67. The dread is not quite as acute: The mood is not despair, just foreboding. Time is running out, but not quite as fast. War is not four days away, but it looms. Israelis today face the greatest threat to their existence — nuclear weapons in the hands of apocalyptic mullahs publicly pledged to Israel’s annihilation — since May ’67. The world is again telling Israelis to do nothing as it looks for a way out. But if such a way is not found — as in ’67 — Israelis know that they will once again have to defend themselves, by themselves.

Such a fateful decision demands a national consensus. By creating the largest coalition in nearly three decades, Netanyahu is establishing the political premise for a preemptive strike, should it come to that. The new government commands an astonishing 94 Knesset seats out of 120, described by one Israeli columnist as a “hundred tons of solid concrete.”

So much for the recent media hype about some great domestic resistance to Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran. Two notable retired intelligence figures were widely covered here for coming out against him. Little noted was that one had been passed over by Netanyahu to be the head of Mossad, while the other had been fired by Netanyahu as Mossad chief (hence the job opening). For centrist Kadima (it pulled Israel out of Gaza) to join a Likud-led coalition whose defense minister is a former Labor prime minister (who once offered half of Jerusalem to Yasser Arafat) is the very definition of national unity — and refutes the popular “Israel is divided” meme. “Everyone is saying the same thing,” explained one Knesset member, “though there may be a difference of tone.”
To be sure, Netanyahu and Kadima’s Shaul Mofaz offered more prosaic reasons for their merger: to mandate national service for now exempt ultra- Orthodox youth, to change the election law to reduce the disproportionate influence of minor parties and to seek negotiations with the Palestinians. But Netanyahu, the first Likud prime minister to recognize Palestinian statehood, did not need Kadima for him to enter peace talks. For two years he’s been waiting for Mahmoud Abbas to show up at the table. Abbas hasn’t. And won’t. Nothing will change on that front.

What does change is Israel’s position vis-a-vis Iran. The wall-to-wall coalition demonstrates Israel’s political readiness to attack, if necessary. (Its military readiness is not in doubt.)

Those counseling Israeli submission, resignation or just endless patience can no longer dismiss Israel’s tough stance as the work of irredeemable right-wingers. Not with a government now representing 78 percent of the country.

Netanyahu forfeited September elections that would have given him four more years in power. He chose instead to form a national coalition that guarantees 18 months of stability — 18 months during which, if the world does not act (whether by diplomacy or otherwise) to stop Iran, Israel will.

And it will not be the work of one man, one party or one ideological faction. As in 1967, it will be the work of a nation.

Here is one reader's reponse to Mr. Krauthammer's essay:

Changing times in the Middle East

Charles Krauthammer’s May 11 column, “Echoes of ’67: Israel unites,” glorified an era in international relations that is long gone. No doubt Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would like to believe that a military attack on the Iranian nuclear program would stop Tehran’s leaders dead in their tracks in terms of both the weapons and the persistent threats against Israel. The columnist’s comparison to 1967 suggested that Israel can once again take on and defeat a traditional army of a regional nemesis. Yet, this is not the point in 2012.

The counterattack would most likely not come from an army. It would come in the form of terrorist tactics on civilians in Israel and abroad. Moreover, an Israeli attack would give the regime in Tehran a rallying cry, one it desperately needs to offset economic troubles.

The world has changed in the 45 years since the Six Day War. Mr. Krauthammer’s comparison is na├»ve.

Brigid Starkey, Baltimore

I think a bit more deserves to be said, as well.

First, the way in which actual facts can morph into accepted conventional wisdom that is quite a bit different, as when Krauthammer asserts that "Israelis today face the greatest threat to their existence — nuclear weapons in the hands of apocalyptic mullahs publicly pledged to Israel’s annihilation — since May ’67. "  It is not actually the case the such a threat exists as of today, May 17, 2012.  It may in the future, of course, but as of now -- according to the best available intelligence -- Iran has neither acquired an offensive nuclear weapons capability, not has it pledged to annihilate Israel.  This is not insignificant semantic nit-picking.  It is, in fact, the principle difference between the Israeli position and that of the United States.

Second, he says that "Israelis know that they will once again have to defend themselves, by themselves."  This rests on an assumption that all public statements on the subject by the last eight U.S. presidents have been disingenuous and meaningless -- that America would not defend Israel even if it faced destruction.

Third, the columnist scoffs at "recent media hype about some great domestic resistance to Netanyahu’s hard line on Iran"  It has been widely reported that no less a figure than Netanyahu's new coalition partner, Shaul Mofaz, has counseled strongly against a strike on Iran.

Lastly, Krauthammer ends with " if the world does not act (whether by diplomacy or otherwise) to stop Iran, Israel will" -- as though the world has not been acting.  The harshest sanctions yet seen have been imposed on Iran.  Diplomatic talks are occurring.  Covert operations have been launched within Iran.  Inaction is not our problem.  The prospect of yet another war in the Middle East is.

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