Analyze This: Disquiet on the 'third front' between the US and Israel

Parallels between cold war and current situation with Iran.

lyndon johnson 224 88 (photo credit: White House Press Office)
lyndon johnson 224 88
(photo credit: White House Press Office)
"I know that your blood and your lives are at stake. Our blood and our lives are at stake in many places and may be in others. I think it is a necessity that Israel should never make itself seem responsible in the eyes of America and the world for making war. Israel will not be alone, unless it decides to go it alone." So said Lyndon Baines Johnson in a dramatic Oval Office meeting with then-Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban, just ten days before the outbreak of the 1967 war. Johnson was making a plea to Israel to give multi-lateral diplomacy one last chance to break Egypt's closure of the Straits of Tiran, and force it and Syria to back down on threats to drive the Israelis into the sea. There was much at stake in that explosive situation - arguably, even more so than the current one between Israel, the US and Iran over the latter's nuclear program. The Soviet Union was a staunch ally of Jerusalem's Arab enemies back then, and there was real concern that a military response by Israel could spread beyond a regional conflict into a potential superpower confrontation. Although an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and Teheran's possible retaliation would likely have a global impact, 2008 is not 1967 and such Cold War scenarios are no longer relevant. But there are some significant ways in which the echoes of that period do reverberate in the standoff over the Iranian nuclear threat, including the potential strains it could introduce into the strategic relationship between Washington and Iran. A direct link between the two popped up the past few days with reports that during the discussions held here last week between Israeli military commanders and Admiral Michael Mullen, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the inadvertent Israel Air Force attack on the USS Liberty during the '67 war was cited as the type of incident that needed to be avoided in any future military actions in the region. Mullen has already gone on record as among those top American officials not only opposed to a US military response to the Iranian threat, but expressing concern over a unilateral Israeli response, telling the press last week he was concerned that the repercussions could open up a "third front" for US forces already strained by their missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Four decades ago, the American military was also over-stretched by its faltering war in Vietnam, and similar worries vexed Washington over being dragged into a conflict between Israel and its Arab enemies. The big difference, though, is that despite the isolated Liberty incident, the US did not have significant forces in the immediate area, as it does today in Iraq and the Persian Gulf. That not only raises the ante of possible American involvement (and casualties) in connection with an Israeli security operation; US military control of Iraqi air-space may require from Jerusalem greater coordination with - and approval from - Washington in advance of such action than at any time in the past. There is an irony here worth noting; some critics of the Iraq War have emphasized the benefits to Israeli security accrued by the removal of Saddam Hussein's regime as a supposed leading motivation for supporters of the invasion, especially among Jewish neo-conservatives. But many Israeli security and governmental officials, while certainly welcoming Saddam's downfall, were always more cautious and skeptical about a venture that involved a long-term commitment of direct American military involvement in the region, especially the extended stationing of US troops on Arab soil as part of a supposed effort in democratic nation-building. The complications of that situation are now abundantly clear in the face-off over the Iranian nuclear threat, to the extent of it possibly limiting an Israeli response to a potential existential threat. Some security pundits are even asserting that given concerns in the American military establishment about a possible "third front," and Jerusalem's desire to do nothing that would endanger its crucial strategic relationship with the US, Israel will not act against Iran until obtaining explicit approval from Washington, or will rush its timetable in the belief that the best time to obtain that green-light is while George W. Bush is still in office. There are sound reasons to accept that scenario, as well as historical precedent - unfortunately, not all of it positive from the Israeli perspective. Similar considerations were part of the reason Israel failed to launch a pre-emptive strike on Egyptian and Syrian forces in 1973, a precedent that still haunts Israeli policymakers. Yet the premise that Washington has - or even wants - straight-up veto power over the Israeli response to the Iranian threat, or that Jerusalem would cede it, is a gross simplification of a more complex reality, both past and present. As in '67, the bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 and numerous other incidents, Israel has acted more than once against Washington's express wishes when it perceived it necessary to defend its essential security interests (and vice versa, needless to add). But such tactical disagreements have never done more than temporary damage to the strategic US-Israeli relationship, because it is based not on short-term diplomatic interests, but on basic political, geo-political, historical and cultural links between the two nations. So it will ultimately be with the Iranian situation, despite fears of a "third front," a steep rise in the price of oil, or a temporary upsurge in terrorism. The route of diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions against Teheran will play itself out in the coming year, resulting in either success or failure. At the end of that day, though, a day that increasingly cannot be too long in coming, if Israel has to act alone to protect itself it will do so - but only because once again, the world has left it alone. [email protected]