Israelis look on as Israeli air force jets fly in formation over the Mediterranean Sea.
Israelis look on as Israeli air force jets fly in formation over the Mediterranean Sea during celebrations for Israel's Independence Day, April 26, 2012.
Nir Elias / Courtesy Reuters

The Obama administration is hoping that its recent deal with Iran will make the Middle East more stable. But the opposite outcome is at least as likely. For Israel in particular, the deal is a bad omen -- not because of what it says about the prospect of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons but because of what many fear it says about the United States’ commitment to Israeli security. In addition to believing that the agreement itself is no good, Israelis suspect that the United States’ pursuit of it signals the end of deep U.S. involvement in the region, upon which Israel has long relied to overcome isolation. Without the American safety net, Israel could now defy U.S. expectations and attempt to deal with emergent threats preemptively, disproportionately, and entirely unilaterally.

By some estimates, Israel has never been safer. The peace treaty with Egypt, the cornerstone of Israel’s security for the last 30 years, survived an uncertain period of Islamist rule in Egypt and is now guarded once more by an Egyptian military government that seems intent on staying put. The peace with Jordan looks as durable as ever, and further to the east, Iraq is decades away from rebuilding a military strong enough to threaten Israel. Events in Syria are even more fortuitous. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, stripped of chemical weapons -- his poor man’s answer to Israel’s impressive nuclear arsenal -- seems likely to survive his civil war. With events in Syria getting under control, the Golan Heights will presumably remain quiet. It will be a long time before the Syrian army can credibly threaten Israel.

Despite these objectively good conditions, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has taken to the hustings to decry the U.S.-backed interim agreement as a horribly misguided policy that will lead to Iran’s eventual emergence as a nuclear power. Israel’s reaction should not come as a surprise, since the country’s strong opposition to the prospect of any other nuclear power in its region is an established fact. Israeli raids on Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, both of which aimed to destroy nascent nuclear infrastructure, have proved as much. The fact that Israel has not yet launched a similar raid against Iran is likely a reflection of the technological and political challenges -- both internal and international -- that attacking Iran would entail.

To understand why, one needs to look back. Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that, given Israel’s position as a small and regionally unwelcomed Jewish state in the otherwise Muslim region, his country’s security required a great-power patron. Although Israel would always have to fight its own battles, he believed, a patron could provide the arms for waging them and the diplomatic resources for protecting the gains resulting from them. Historically, Israel’s security policy has been the most restrained when its relationship with its great-power patron was at its most robust. For example, Israel’s acceptance of a premature end to the fighting in the Sinai in October 1973 came at the behest of the United States, with whom its ties had never been stronger. So did its restraint in the face of Iraqi Scud missiles in 1991. In both cases, Israeli behavior went against the grain of its preferred policies. In the first, the end of fighting before Israel fully encircled and expelled Egyptian forces from the eastern bank of the Sinai gave Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat the political victory he sought. In the second, Israel’s non-retaliation in the face of Iraqi Scuds arguably encouraged organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to believe that Israel’s commitment to bloody retribution, which had been firmly established in the 1950s, was waning.

Contrast Israel’s behavior in both of those cases with its policy in May 1967, when Israel felt abandoned by a great-power patron. Following the closing of the Straits of Tiran by Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdel al-Nasser, Israel sought the reassurance of its traditional partner France that it would either pressure Egypt itself to open the straits or stand by Israel if the latter sought to reopen the straits on its own. French President Charles de Gaulle, looking to repair France’s reputation in the Middle East after the extreme violence of the Algerian civil war, rebuffed the request. With neither the United Kingdom nor the United States offering Israel a place under their defense umbrellas, Israel found itself, according to Golda Meir, who later became its prime minister, hauntingly alone. Israel’s response to its sense of profound isolation was a paroxysm of violence that, in the span of six days, transformed the Middle East and created problems for Israel and the rest of the world that remain unresolved today. 

The United States’ realignment of its foreign policy after the costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the face of an increasingly powerful China and a weakened economy, threatens to plunge Israel back into those haunting days. Washington needs to recognize that if it is to understand Israel’s reaction to the U.S. deal with Iran. The Obama administration maintains that this deal is only an interim agreement and that, should it fail, military options remain on the table, but those claims are quite suspect. Since the invasion of Iraq, the United States has signaled deep reluctance to use force in any circumstances that are likely to cause U.S. casualties or to seriously jeopardize other interests. The United States’ tepid participation in Libya was one such signal. Its decision to allow Syria to breach the “red line” on chemical weapons was another.

American calculations are causing unease in Israel. For Israel, its long-term security outlook remains troubling for three reasons. First, the Arab Spring has revealed strong popular tendencies toward Islamist politics in the region, which gives Arab politicians who attempt to ride popular will significantly less inclination to accommodate Israel than the autocrats who preceded them. Such shifting priorities suggest that even the peace that Israel enjoys with Egypt and Jordan may be a thin reed. Israel must prepare for the worst -- abrogated peace treaties and sincere popular backing for active opposition to Israel within the Arab world. Second, Israel’s ability to deter aggression is eroding. If its deterrent credibility was plotted on a graph, the high point would have been at the end of the 1967 war. Starting with Israel’s incomplete victory in 1973, through the decision not to retaliate against Iraq in 1991, and on to Hezbollah and Hamas’ success in winning territorial concessions through insurgency, the costs of opposing Israel appear to have decreased. Third, the lack of U.S. resolve on Syria and Iran leaves the impression that the United States is seeking to disentangle from the Middle East as its gaze turns elsewhere. If the United States should, for whatever reason, seek to downgrade its relationship with Israel, it is not clear where Israel would turn for weapons and diplomatic cover. Domestic production of cutting-edge arms is likely beyond Israel’s economic (although not technological) means, as the failed effort to produce an Israeli-made fighter in the 1980s demonstrated. Add to that that the chilly reception that Israel receives from most actors in the international system other than the United States and it is clear why Israel is worried.

Some will say that Israel’s concerns are overblown and that U.S. support for Israel is unshakable. Indeed, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been making that very argument for weeks. Israel can be forgiven for taking only cold comfort from these reassurances. In the end, as Lord Palmerston’s dictum goes, states have no permanent friends, only interests. To gauge how Israel is likely to react from here on out, the most likely point of insight is from Thucydides’ observations on why Sparta initiated its war against Athens. A power in fear of being eclipsed has every incentive to strike first in the hope of delaying its potential downfall.

Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been threatening action against Iran for years, many see him now as the boy who cried wolf. They believe that Israel would not dare attack Iran in the midst of a U.S. diplomatic gambit. But such observers would do well to remember Sadat, who declared both 1971 and 1972 to be the year of decision against Israel, only to be ridiculed at the years’ ends when his armies never left their barracks. Israel made the mistake of dismissing Sadat and received its comeuppance when he finally did attack in 1973. Similarly, no one should assume that the threat of war has passed. The United States’ diplomatic engagement with Iran may, ironically, make Israel more likely to attack now, because later could be too late.

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