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Thank You, But…

Virtually without exception, the United States has always opposed Israel’s decision to go to war

By Michael Oren

In May 1948, while David Ben-Gurion and other Zionist leaders deliberated whether or not to declare Israel’s independence, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall strongly objected to the move, predicting the massacre of the country’s entire Jewish population, and President Truman declared an arms embargo of the emerging Jewish state.

Similarly, in the Suez Crisis of 1956, President Eisenhower denounced Israel’s decision to join with Great Britain and France in eliminating the threat of Nasserist Egypt and tried to punish Israel with sanctions. President Johnson in 1967 repeatedly warned that, if it struck the Arab armies preemptively, Israel would stand alone.  Twice, Israel destroyed enemy nuclear reactors—in Iraq in 1981 and in 2007 in Syria—over and above Washington’s resistance.


The United States consistently said “no,” but sometimes Israel had to reply, “Thank you, but…” And every time it did, Israel earned not America’s resentment but rather its respect.


Truman made the U.S. the first nation on earth to recognize the State of Israel and Eisenhower later admitted the error of his decision-making in Suez. In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, Johnson inaugurated the U.S.-Israel strategic alliance. Israel’s airstrikes against the Iraqi and Syrian reactors earned it the admiration of Presidents Reagan and George Bush.


Conversely, every time America told Israel not to resort to force and Israel buckled to that demand—every time Israel said, “thank you, yes”—the response was disdain.


That was the case in 1973, when Prime Minister Golda Meir disastrously yielded to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s insistence that Israel refrain from attacking the Egyptian and Syrian armies first. Again, during the 1991 Gulf War, Israel wanted to retaliate against Iraq for firing 39 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv, but Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir acceded to President George H. W. Bush’s request not to weaken the anti-Saddam coalition by responding. In both cases, Israel received not a word of gratitude but rather only pressure for territorial concessions.


The record in more recent years has been mixed, with America supporting Israel’s need to defend itself against Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists but then criticizing Israel for inflicting too many civilian casualties and pressuring it to cease firing far short of decisive victory.

Then came the Gaza War and departed from this norm—at least initially. Days after the horrors of the October 7 attack, President Biden announced historic backing for an Israeli military campaign to destroy Hamas. He consistently rebuffed efforts to impose a ceasefire. Unlike President Obama in 2014, who refused to resupply certain vital munitions to Israel, President Biden sped military supplies to the IDF and even went around Congress to ship more. Israelis were deeply moved and appreciative.


But then the Gaza War began to follow familiar patterns. Despite Israel’s extraordinary efforts to avoid causing civilian casualties, administration officials began to complain that we were not doing enough. “Far too many Palestinians have been killed,” declared Secretary Blinken, and Vice President Kamala Harris suggested that Israel had failed to abide by international humanitarian law. Biden, himself, complained to American Jewish donors that Israel was losing international support due to its “indiscriminate bombing.”


While not yet indicating a date on which it expects the war to stop, the administration is now urging Israel to move to a more surgical stage and demanding to know Israel’s scenario for the day after the war. The policy certainly reflects the interests of an administration which has paid heavily for its support for Israel both internationally and domestically. On the eve of a presidential election year, with Biden’s numbers already at a near-historic low, such a price could prove prohibitive.


The fact is, no matter how close our alliance, American and Israeli interests cannot always dovetail. The U.S. has opposed Israeli warmaking not out of a commitment to pacifism but out of fear of getting caught up in an unnecessary and costly conflicts. That reluctance was greatly hardened by the hugely expensive and ultimately disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even America’s material support for Ukraine has become contentious. Perhaps the one issue on which Democrats and Republicans agree on today is opposition to further foreign entanglements, especially in the Middle East.


American isolationism led the Obama administration to seek a reconciliation with Iran that would facilitate America’s withdrawal from the Middle East. Now, ironically, an Iran further empowered by that policy has dragged the United States back into the region. In response, President Biden sent the USS Eisenhower and the USS Ford, together with their formidable carrier strike groups, to the Middle East. Their goal was to deter Iran and its proxy Hezbollah from coming to Hamas’s aid—in the administration’s word, “Don’t.”


But the carrier groups were on another, no less critical, mission. By dispatching these ships into an active war zone, President Biden is assuring Israel that America has its back and that the IDF need not open a second front against Hezbollah. In that sense, the carriers are deterring Israel as well.


From a U.S. perspective, that policy makes perfect sense. Were Israel to fully attack Southern Lebanon, Hezbollah would unleash its massive arsenal of 150,000 rockets on Israeli cities. No system—not Iron Dome, not David’s Sling—could stand up to that onslaught. To defend its skies, Israel will have to call the THAAD, Aegis, and Patriot anti-missile batteries borne on American warships. But Hezbollah could then retaliate and strike and perhaps sink one of those vessels with significant loss of life. The United States would then be at war.


Avoiding that scenario is a paramount American interest.  The same fear of conflict has led the administration to respond minimally to the more than 100 attacks by Iranian-backed militias on U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria and on international shipping through the strategic Bab al-Mandeb straits. Short of a barrage that kills a large number of its service people, the U.S. response will continue to be muted. Indeed, it just announced that the USS Ford was returning to base. Little wonder that Washington is exerting maximum pressure on Israel not to attack Hezbollah.


At stake for the U.S. is another unnecessary war, but Israel’s interests once again diverge. For Israel, already engaged in a desperate struggle with Hamas, degrading Hezbollah is a matter of national survival.


Hezbollah represents a threat many times greater than that posed by Hamas. In addition to its far more numerous, longer range, and more accurate rockets, Hezbollah fields a 100,000-strong terrorist force experienced in the mass massacre of Syrians. There is no doubt what they would do to the Jews, exceeding even Hamas in monstrosity. Israel can never restore its basic security and return its citizens to their northern homes as long as Hezbollah looms across the border.


The casus belli is clear. For nearly three months, with a fraction of its total forces, Hezbollah has tied down half of the IDF and rendered the northern part of Israel uninhabitable. Hezbollah has killed Israelis, soldiers and civilians alike, and in recent days has exceeded Hamas in the number of rockets fired. The terrorists may simply be waiting until Israeli forces are sufficiently bogged down in Gaza, low on energy and ammunition, before launching an all-out assault.

The situation would be intolerable for any sovereign state, much less one already fighting for its survival. Israel ultimately has no choice but to take on Hezbollah.


The White House undoubtedly knows this yet continues to pressure Israel not to attack. At the same time, the administration is poised to mount a diplomatic initiative designed to enforce UN Resolution 1701. Passed in 2006 at the end of the Second Lebanon War, 1701 instructed Hezbollah to move its forces several miles north of the Israeli border, across the Litani River. Hezbollah, of course, immediately ignored the resolution and proceeded to mass on the border.


The question arises why, in the absence of compelling American leverage, would the terrorists now comply? And even if they did, what difference would a Hezbollah withdrawal a few miles from the border really make to Israel and the displaced population of the north? What would stop Hezbollah from doing as it has in the past, temporarily withdrawing and then steadily returning to its briefly abandoned positions?


America’s diplomatic initiative is, from Israel’s perspective, something of a “Hotel California.” Once enlisted in the process, Israel will find it almost impossible to leave. The military option will essentially be forfeited.


Israel must not yield. As in 1948 or 1967, Israel has no choice but to address and remove an insufferable threat. It must act to neutralize if not eliminate Hezbollah.  The decision will undoubtedly be opposed by the United States, even to the point of delaying the supply of vital munitions, but still Israel has to fight.


“Thank you,” we must say to our esteemed American allies. “Thank you, but...” The result, if history is to judge, will not be American contempt for Israel but rather enhanced admiration.

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