Israel's Failing Strategy
The Jewish state cannot rely on the United States for its security.
By BRET STEPHENS
So Israel's prime minister is now left to play the part of querulous Uncle Ben, who arrives the day after the funeral convinced his scheming siblings have already absconded with mother's finest jewelry.
Uncle Ben's suspicions may well be right. But he largely has himself to blame for not acting in time.
Benjamin Netanyahu visited the White House on Monday and on Tuesday addresses the United Nations. It's a predictable routine. First he obtains the stylized assurances from President Obama—still exulting from his 15 minute phone call Friday with Iran's Hasan Rouhani—that Iran will not be allowed to get a bomb and that "all options are on the table." Then Mr. Netanyahu denounces Iran at the U.N. and issues unspecified, and increasingly noncredible, warnings that Israel may act on its own.
All hat and no cattle, as they say.
Here's a line I never thought I'd write: I wish Ehud Olmert were Israel's prime minister. Mr. Olmert has many flaws, some of them well known. But he also had a demonstrated capacity to act. It isn't clear that Mr. Netanyahu does.
chris kleponis / pool/European Pressphoto Agency
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House on Monday.
In May 2007 Israel disclosed to the U.S. that Syria was constructing a nuclear reactor in its eastern desert with help from North Korea. Mr. Olmert, then Israel's prime minister, asked President Bush to bomb the facility. Mr. Bush weighed the options, said no, and proposed instead taking the matter public at the U.N.
"I told [Mr. Olmert] I had decided on a diplomatic option backed by the threat of force," the former president recounts in his memoir, "Decision Points."
"The prime minister was disappointed. 'This is something that hits at the very serious nerves of this country,' he said. He told me the threat of a nuclear weapons program in Syria was an 'existential' issue for Israel, and he worried diplomacy would bog down and fail. 'I must be honest and sincere with you. Your strategy is very disturbing to me.' That was the end of the call."
Could Mr. Netanyahu say the same to Mr. Obama? Maybe. The Israeli prime minister infuriated the White House a couple of years ago by treating the president to a public lecture in the Oval Office.
Yet Israeli policy since then has amounted to one big kowtow to Mr. Obama's needs, political and diplomatic. Israel apparently refrained from attacking Iran a year ago, largely out of deference to Mr. Obama's electoral needs. Since then it has given the administration the widest possible latitude to pursue diplomatic initiatives until they prove their futility.
A year on, here is where things stand.
(1) U.S. credibility on enforcing presidential red lines and carrying through on military threats is in tatters thanks to Mr. Obama's Syria capitulation.
(2) America's "diplomatic option" is, for Mr. Obama, a journey not a destination: He will pursue it no matter how flimsy the pretext or the likelihood of success.
(3) Iran has enriched nearly 3,000 kilos of uranium in the last year alone, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA also notes in its most recent report that "the Agency has become increasingly concerned about the possible existence in Iran of undisclosed nuclear related activities . . . including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."
Oh, and (4): Despite this, Israel finds itself on the diplomatic back foot because Iran's new president, unlike his predecessor, has alighted on a less-uncouth way to deny the Holocaust. Israel is now in the disastrous position of having to hope that Iranian hard-liners sabotage Mr. Rouhani's efforts to negotiate a deal that, if honored, would leave Iran first-and-five at the nuclear goal line.
How does Mr. Netanyahu get out of this trap? Here's another line I never thought I'd write: by downgrading relations with Washington.
That isn't to say that Israel doesn't benefit from good relations with the U.S. But the U.S., like Britain after World War II, is in retreat from the world, and Israelis need to adapt to a global reality in which the Americans are willing to do less, and consequently count for less. What Mr. Netanyahu has been doing instead is granting Mr. Obama a degree of leverage and a presumption of authority over the Jewish state to which he is not entitled and has done little to deserve. That needs to stop.
What also needs to stop is the guessing game over Israel's intentions toward Iran. Mr. Obama will not—repeat, will not—conduct a military strike against Iran. Israelis who think otherwise are fooling themselves.
But Israel will soon have to decide whether to act alone. If so, Israelis must proceed without regard to Mr. Obama's diplomatic timetable. If not, they'll need to reconsider the concept and structure of Israeli deterrence, including nuclear ambiguity.
One last thing worth noting: Reflecting on Mr. Olmert's decision to act against his wishes, Mr. Bush wrote this: "Prime Minister Olmert's execution of the strike made up for the confidence I had lost in the Israelis during the Lebanon war. . . . The bombing demonstrated Israel's willingness to act alone. Prime Minister Olmert hadn't asked for a green light, and I hadn't given one. He had done what he believed was necessary to protect Israel."
That is the voice of respect. Better for Israel to have that than any other mark of international approval or popularity.