Postscript: A threat and a promise

A sense of maturity and self-confidence may be emerging in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

Netanyahu speaking in Eilat 311 (photo credit: Avi Ohion/ GPO)
Netanyahu speaking in Eilat 311
(photo credit: Avi Ohion/ GPO)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu chose both the setting and his words carefully. His message, read from pages flapping in the Negev wind at the 38th annual ceremony marking David Ben-Gurion’s death, was clear: Sometimes you have to do what you have to do.
Netanyahu recounted how Ben-Gurion went ahead and declared Israel’s independence despite the knowledge that the consequence would be a war with the Arab world.
“Ben-Gurion understood that the decision would carry a price, but that no decision would carry an even heavier price,” Netanyahu said. “We are all here today,” he added,” because Ben-Gurion made the right decision at the right moment,” drawing an obvious parallel between the dilemmas facing Israel’s founder then, and the heavy responsibilities on the shoulders of his inheritors now.
In 1948, the nascent state was at risk, but the threat was not existential. By 1948 Israel had 12 organized infantry and mechanized brigades, many manned by veterans with battle experience, an arms industry, armored and artillery corps and an air force of 250 pilots, albeit 180 of them volunteers from 15 countries.
The threat, ostentatiously referred to as the “combined Arab armies,” was a force of 23,000 men, under four different commands with no means of communicating between them and no common battle plan other than to throw the Jews into sea.
The toll to Israel in the War of Independence was a horrendous 6,372 dead, around 1 percent of the population, but the country lived on. The toll today would be infinitely higher, and who knows if the country would be able to live on.
Given the density of Israel’s population, its infrastructure, its vulnerability, the consequences of a nuclear attack would be existential, even if there are survivors in the ghost-land that would remain of the Jewish state.
One could link the dots between Netanyahu’s speech, the country’s decision to suddenly show the foreign media its drones, and the constant flow of veiled headlines from “unnamed senior sources” saying Israel can never live with a nuclear Iran, and assume this was another attempt at deterrence, and at telling the Americans that while we appreciate their friendship, there are existential decisions to be made here, and these may have to be made by Israel alone.
But it was more than that.
It was a threat and a promise, made at the right place at the right time; an affirmation to the state’s founder that this generation will not allow all that has been achieved, his legacy, to be placed at irreversible risk; that now, as then, we recognize the threat, and have made preparations to meet it.
The most important among these, Israel’s ability to strike a neutralizing blow against Iran’s nuclear strike force, is near worthless if not used in time. A strike at Iran once a nuclear attack has been sustained by Israel becomes little more than an act of revenge. Great faith is justifiably placed in the Arrow missile defense system, but what if one, or two, or three warheads manage to penetrate it? A missile system can only be a second line of defense, not a panacea to a nuclear threat from a country as technologically advanced as Iran. Like any arms race this too is ultimately a numbers game. Multiple warheads accompanied by dozens of look-alike decoys, is one scenario that could place enormous stress any missile defense system, for example.
A person I highly respect said recently that he would not want the responsibility of being prime minister in the coming few years; that the weight of the decisions he, or she, will have to face are numbing in their implications.
A two-year time frame has been mentioned for when Iran will have passed the point of noreturn in terms of its ability to have a viable nuclear weapons’ capability. We have seen similar deadlines come and go in the past, but if correct, even two years leaves a window for the international community, led by the Americans, to slow the Iranian program by other means such as diplomacy, sabotage and sanctions.
Two days before Netanyahu’s remarks at Ben-Gurion’s graveside, the American secretary of defense and former CIA director, Leon Panetta, told members of the Saban Forum in Washington that, at best, a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities would set them back a mere two years, and warned Israel not to consider acting alone. “We have to work together,” he said several times, “together.”
“Together” is fine, but at the end of the day, as Netanyahu said, Israel’s leaders are burdened with having to make the right decisions at the right time.
Given the nature of the threat and the enemy, and the mercurial nature of American policy that one day claims Iran has given up its military nuclear program and two years later discovers it is back again, makes that burden all the heavier.
Thanks in a large part to his own doing, Netanyahu is often not taken seriously, seen as more a man of “blah blah” and political connivance, than substance.
One sensed watching him Ben-Gurion’s grave last Sunday, a sense of maturity and self-confidence that may be emerging, sustained by the knowledge that barring unforeseen circumstances he is likely to be Israel’s prime minister for a long time to come.
Netanyahu is right to have pointed out that doing the right thing at the right time requires leadership. It takes extraordinary leadership, however, to know what the right thing is, when the time is right, and how to divorce critical, existential, national decisions from any political or other exogenous factors. Ben-Gurion did so in declaring the state. Hopefully, Netanyahu will do so in preserving it.

The writer is a senior research associate at the Institute for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. His most recent book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, was published by Public Affairs, New York, in the fall.