Thanks to Prof. Yoav Peled for entrusting this essay to me for publication here. In it, he critiques an interview Ehud Barak (cloaked under the pseudonymous moniker, “Decision-Maker”) gave to Haaretz in which he argued that an upcoming Israeli war against Iran should be seen in the context of the losses suffered in 1948 or 1967. Peled argues, however, that these overly optimistic projections should instead use the far more destructive 1973 War as their benchmark.
by Yoav Peled
In the interview he gave Ari Shavit, Ehud Barak (sorry, the “Decision Maker”) (Haaretz Magazine, August 10, 2012) used interesting analogies to two of Israel’s past wars in order to illustrate the country’s present predicament: 1948 and 1967. He compared Israel’s present situation vis-à-vis Iran to its situation in 1967 vis-à-vis Egypt. In both cases, he said, a sharp sword was placed on Israel’s neck, but this time the sword is sharper.
This analogy is telling, both in itself and in relation to the apocalyptic visions promoted by Benjamin Netanyahu. Contrary to popular belief, especially in the US, no serious historian today claims that in 1967 Israel faced a threat to its existence. This view is confirmed by the protocol of the famous joint session of the IDF general staff and the Israeli cabinet that took place on June 2, 1967. The only danger discussed at that meeting, aside from the economic difficulties that resulted from mass mobilization, was a threat to Israel’s deterrence if it does not respond to Egypt’s provocation by military means.
Unlike Netanyahu, Barak does not claim that today Israel is facing a danger to its very existence either, as a result of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons. The danger is only that “our existence will not be the same existence” if Iran is empowered by possessing the bomb. The purpose of the planned attack, he claims, is to delay the development of Iran’s nuclear weapons until after the fall of the Islamic regime.
As is well-known, in 1967 it was Israel’s military leadership that pushed for an attack on Egypt, while the cabinet, until it was joined by Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan, tried to pursue every diplomatic measure for solving the crisis. At that time, the IDF general staff knew Israel could inflict a devastating blow on Egypt without risking any danger to Israeli society. Today, most military experts believe that Israel cannot inflict a devastating blow on Iran, or even on its nuclear program, while the price that would be paid by Israeli civilians will be very heavy indeed.
How heavy? To answer this question Barak evoked the 1948 war. In the past, he estimated the number of Israeli civilian dead in Iran’s counter-attack at less than 500. In the interview he said, without citing any number, that the figure would be lower than that of the fatalities suffered by the Fourth Battalion of the Palmach Harel Brigade in 1948. (The website of the Palmach Generation Association mentions 110 fallen soldiers belonging to the Fourth Battalion.) Barak is a calculating man, and his mention of the Harel Brigade is not without meaning. That brigade, under the command of Yitzhak Rabin, carried most of the burden of fighting in and around Jerusalem in 1948. Its Fourth Battalion was the Palmach’s core battalion. By using this analogy, Barak is conveying the message that just as Rabin was willing to suffer a certain number of casualties in order to ensure that Jerusalem belong to the State of Israel, so he, his successor, is willing to sacrifice the same number in order to delay Iran’s nuclear weapons until the fall of the Ayatollahs.
One does not have to be a military expert in order to realize that the number of Israeli civilian casualties cited by Barak is extremely optimistic. Even a cursory calculation of Iran’s offensive capabilities, Israel’s defensive capabilities, and the state of preparedness of Israel’s home front, would conclude that, without American support, the number of dead Israeli civilians would be much closer to the number of soldiers killed in the one war not mentioned by Barak – 1973 – when nearly 3000 Israeli soldiers were killed. (One missile that would hit the concentration of petro-chemical plants in the Haifa Bay area would result in tens of thousands of casualties. But let’s leave such doomsday scenarios aside.)
It stands to reason, although there is no evidence for that yet, that in their internal deliberations, Netanyahu and Barak discuss the number of civilian casualties in these terms. They probably tell themselves that if, under the leadership of the Labor Party, Israel suffered nearly 3000 dead in order to hold on to the Sinai and the Golan Heights, it is certainly worthwhile to suffer the same number in order to delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by a number of years.
And now to the role of the US. In the interview, Barak denied the allegation that he and Netanyahu plan to attack Iran before the US elections in November in order not to leave President Obama any choice but to join in the attack. But the pilgrimage of senior American officials begging Israel not to attack before the elections, as well as the recent Romney-Adelson-Netanyahu premature triumphal parade in Jerusalem, indicate otherwise. Moreover, the uniform position of the top hierarchy of Israel’s security establishment against an attack without American cooperation, raises an acute question as to the real purpose of the planned attack. Is delaying the Iranian bomb until after the fall of the Ayatollahs (Barak must know for sure that their successors will be friendly to Israel) worth the heavy price Israel is bound to pay, or is the real purpose of the attack to confront Obama with a dilemma that would guarantee his losing the elections, no matter what course of action he takes?
Prof. Yoav Peled teaches political science at Tel Aviv University.