Israeli President Shimon Peres is seen in Athens. (Thanassis Stavrakis / Associated…)
JERUSALEM — As the war of words heats up regarding a possible Israeli military strike on Iran, now is the time to look at one of the key arguments used by those opposed to such an act of self-defense. Time and again we have heard the question "Why now?" asked whenever an Israeli prime minister must make a decision that placed our nation's very existence in jeopardy. Each time, our leaders knew to focus on the real question — "What is the alternative?" — and then go forward on the lonely path toward a more secure and free Israel.
There are many examples of such decision-making, but three key ones stand out.
In the spring of 1948, it was far from an obvious decision that the pre-state Jewish community would declare its independence the minute that the British Mandate rule ended. The nascent state had been, for all intents and purposes, at war since the approval of the November 1947 United Nations partition plan. As the British were preparing to leave, armed Arab militias were rising up throughout the Holy Land, and the Arab states that surrounded it had begun to amass troops and arms on the borders.
Meanwhile, the Jewish leadership in Palestine was at odds about how to act. Most analysts warned David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel's first prime minister, that a declaration of independence would not be accepted by the international community, and the existing arms embargo and blockade on immigration would continue.
In May 1948, Ben-Gurion was finally able to persuade a majority of the People's Administration (the legislative precursor to the Knesset) to approve such a declaration. The final vote was 6 to 4, with three members missing. Almost half the members were positively considering the alternative of a U.S.-sponsored cease-fire and promises of support if they delayed the declaration. But Ben-Gurion understood that the time for a decision was upon them and that he could not worry about world opinion and warnings of doom if the Jews declared their independence.
Another example was the Six-Day War. In mid-May 1967, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled the U.N. peacekeeping force in the Sinai desert, which served as a buffer between Egypt and Israel, and began amassing troops in the formerly demilitarized zone. On May 22, Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping — a vital waterway that international law had declared must remain open to all countries. As Egypt increased the number of troops in the Sinai, Israeli fears were compounded when Nasser signed military pacts with Syria and Jordan.
During this tense time, President Lyndon B. Johnson implored Prime Minister Levi Eshkol not to attack the Arab countries and promised increased aid and oil supplies to Israel if it waited for an internationally accepted solution. The Israeli newspapers were full of editorials calling on the government not to attack without prior agreements with international powers.
In fact, in a Cabinet meeting June 2, 1967 the Israeli government decided not to attack and to continue to wait for the international community to provide a solution. By June 5, however, Eshkol and his Cabinet had had enough. They realized that no outside power, no matter how friendly, could be trusted to ensure Israel's security or even its survival. The decision was taken to launch a surprise attack that would guarantee Israel's security for years to come.
A more recent example that is perhaps most analogous to today's situation was Prime Minister Menachem Begin's 1981 order to destroy the nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq. As the evidence mounted in the late 1970s and early 1980s about Iraq's nuclear program, the Israeli government was faced with a difficult choice. Saddam Hussein declared repeatedly that his country was working on a civilian nuclear program. All of Israel's allies urged patience and spoke of the need to negotiate with the Iraqis for a peaceful resolution.
The prime minister was not exempt from criticism at home, either. Shimon Peres, then the opposition leader and candidate for prime minister, criticized the Begin government and warned against any strike on the facility without full cooperation from the international community.
Despite the immense pressure from abroad and at home, Begin made the difficult decision to send Israeli pilots on a complicated (many thought impossible) mission to disable the Iraqi nuclear program. International reaction was swift. The U.N. General Assembly and the International Atomic Energy Agency harshly condemned Israel. Even the U.S. voted for a Security Council resolution denouncing the attack and suspended a long-planned delivery of F-16s.
The international community, including the U.S., sounded very different in 1991 when they invaded Iraq to liberate Kuwait. Many of the same countries that condemned Israel in 1981 have since sung the praises of that preemptive attack and thanked Israel for saving them from dealing with a nuclear Iraq during the Persian Gulf War.