Anxious Nations Don’t Compromise

What the Israeli reaction to the NIE report means for the peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

On Nov. 12, 1963, future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—then deputy chief of staff—landed in Washington for talks with Phillips Talbot of the State Department, Robert Komer of the National Security Council, and other officials. Israel was worried about Egypt’s arms-race gains, while the Americans felt they were overstating their case. As far as Washington was concerned, the Egyptian threat was not as severe as the Israelis claimed.

Later in the week, Rabin met one-on-one with Komer. He opened up a map and showed Komer how Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser might attack the Jewish state. Komer didn’t understand Rabin’s position. America has supported you so many times over the years, he said, don’t we deserve some credit for that? Why don’t you trust us?

A memo drafted by Komer, dated Nov. 18, reveals Rabin’s response: because of the war of 1948—when Israel was established, attacked by its neighbors, and when the United States cut off arms shipments. Komer was astonished. That was a long time ago, a lot had happened since. “I have a long memory,” replied Rabin. He had fought in 1948 and still carried the scars of battle.

More than 40 years have passed since this meeting—years of unequivocal U.S. support for Israel. But last week—when the National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran stated that Iran is no longer developing nuclear weapons—this long memory came back into play. Israel, again, felt the chilling threat of possible abandonment by its closest ally. So much so that an Israeli Cabinet member compared the reactions to the NIE report to those detailing the “transports to Auschwitz.” A long memory indeed.

“With today’s NIE, we see the entire U.S. intelligence community not only, in effect, coming down on the side of the doves but concluding that the threat animating the hawks doesn’t even exist,wrote Fred Kaplan in Slate. The next day, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that his working assumption would not change. As far as Jerusalem is concerned, Iran still has an active nuclear program.

The NIE was a wake-up call for all Israelis who believed that America and Israel saw the Iranian threat through the same lens. How easy it was to forget that the “strategic threat” perceived by Washington is not the same as the “existential threat” Israel’s policy-makers see in Iran. According to the report, by 2009 an Iranian nuclear device is a “very unlikely possibility.” But how unlikely? For an American calculating the level of risk and the consequent need for action, some risk might be acceptable. The calculation is different for Israelis. The smaller the country, the smaller the margin of error it can afford. The “unlikely” scenario that calms the American feels like an unacceptable risk to an Israeli.

For Kaplan and most other observers, Israelis included, the NIE put to rest all the talk of a military strike against Iran. Without this threat of force, Israelis and some American officials believe, the probability of meaningful sanctions is severely reduced. This is liable to push Israel, which will feel isolated, to consider making “difficult decisions” in the (now even more likely) case that diplomatic efforts to rein in Iran fail.

Olmert still believes that if he concludes that Israel is in danger of annihilation, President George W. Bush will permit him to launch an attack. But without such approval, it is doubtful Israel can act. With U.S. forces deployed all over the region, there are tens of thousands of American soldiers who would be at risk from an Iranian response, were Israel to attack the nuclear installations at Natanz and Arak. And anyway, the Israeli air force would need the U.S. codes that would open the flight path and prevent a collision between friendly forces.

Israel received early signals of the expected change in the U.S. position a few weeks ago, but nevertheless, the strong language of the NIE report came as a surprise. Senior sources in both the United States and Israel agree that the basis for the information in the new American assessment and that in Israeli hands is very similar. Professionally, Israelis were astonished by the way this information was presented to the public. They say no one can dispute the fact that Iran is closer to having the capability to produce nuclear weapons today than it was two years ago—when U.S. intelligence was still saying that Iran was developing nuclear weapons. Their conclusion is logical: This was an attempt to kill any remote possibility of the use of force by the Bush administration.

As I wrote last week in Ha’aretz, the freedom Israel enjoys now is mainly “the freedom to grumble.” Its complaints came across “like a musty old tune from a different era, when the world still believed that Iran wants nuclear weapons.” Israel suffered a public-opinion hit. The report provides a cast-iron excuse to those who never wanted to deal with Iran in the first place.

To Israel, it will be a trigger for second thoughts about the peace process. In the 1970s, Henry Kissinger believed that Israel would be more likely to make concessions if it felt secure and edgier in its responses to policy crises if it felt threatened. That’s one of the reasons he supported U.S. military assistance to the Jewish state. Now it is going to be a lot harder for Americans to persuade the Israeli public—if not the government—to take security risks vis-à-vis the Palestinians or the Syrians.

In their talks back in 1963, as the different assessments of Egypt’s capabilities came to light, Rabin warned Komer: If Nasser gains confidence, he might be tempted to attack. But Komer was not impressed. Intelligence agencies tend toward hyperbole, he argued. Komer then gave Rabin a lecture about the folly of America’s overblown estimates of the “missile gap” with the Soviets. Komer argued that Israel’s fears were unwarranted, that it was time for a calmer assessment of Egypt’s capabilities.

To give Komer his due, he was right about the threat from Egyptian missiles, the topic under discussion at the time. But four years later, the Six-Day War erupted.