It is 9 A.M. on August 12. Not today, but 1974. The place is the White House. Gerald Ford is in the Oval Office in just his fourth day as president. With him is his mentor, Dr. Henry Kissinger, U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser.
Kissinger, the hero of the peace process following the Yom Kippur War, is briefing the neophyte Ford.
Kissinger: "After 1967 I [I!] operated on the basis of the historical illusion that the Arabs were militarily impotent, and U.S. support was firm. [Yitzhak] Rabin told me, 'We never had it so good' ... Before the October War, we tried to create such frustrations that the Arabs would leave the Soviet Union and come to us... We didn't expect the October War."
Ford: "But wasn't it helpful?"
Kissinger: "We couldn't have done better if we had set the scenario."
Ford: "Even the heavy Israeli losses helped, didn't they?"
This exchange, which was recently made public in a volume of nonclassified State Department documents, took place retrospectively, after the October 1973 war. They describe the conclusion after the fact and not the intent beforehand. There was no conspiracy by then president Richard Nixon, Kissinger, Prime Minister Golda Meir and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to break the diplomatic impasse with an Egyptian military move.
All the documented facts - in both Jerusalem and Washington - disprove that foolish idea, which is sometimes promulgated. Meir and Dayan were to blame for negligence, but not maliciousness. Kissinger's actions to attain diplomatic breathing space for Israel and essential equipment for the Israel Defense Forces contradict the infuriating notion that he did not care whether Israeli blood was spilled.
And yet, the American leaders from 1973 bear some responsibility for the disastrous outbreak of the Yom Kippur War - not because of a nonexistent conspiracy, but because of their patient, indulgent attitude toward the Israeli refusal to give Egyptian president Anwar Sadat a diplomatic outlet from a dead end. History has shown that weak officials in Washington, like Secretary of State William Rogers [in place until September '73], were more right, at least partially so, than those who shied away from leaning on Israel. The cost of the war, as expressed in the heavy losses Ford mentioned, could have been avoided.
A similar responsibility weighs on the shoulders of President Barack Obama. Driven by the desire to show support for Israel and maintain the appearance of a united front, officials persist in leaving the public arena empty. In so doing they signal - even through clenched teeth - their agreement to a premature Israeli attack on Iran.
Without clear statements at the highest levels - publicly, not halfheartedly behind closed doors - the impression will remain that the Americans have come to terms with such an operation. By the time they deny that this is the case, it might be too late.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (and even the latter's spokesman, Liron Dan) embarked last week on a feverish and wide-ranging propaganda campaign to market the attack to the press by means of public opinion - to satisfy the doubters and persuade the persuaded. These are distress signals. Netanyahu and Barak have failed to attain the support of the military and political elite. They are trying to use the press to engender sympathetic public opinion that will manifest itself in the opinion polls to which Netanyahu is addicted, and will thus be presented as a popular demand to go to war.
In the face of this effort, the opponents of war must organize a protest that is loud and clear, sober and not defeatist, whose reasons are rooted in concern over damage to Israel's security. This protest should be led by moderate and centrist forces such as the Council for Peace and Security.
The socioeconomic protests will not last much longer. With war in the background, and ahead of the predicted defeat for Netanyahu and Barak when the state budget comes to a vote in December, the prime minister and the defense minister will move up Knesset elections and once more seek confidence in their leadership, utilizing the ongoing emergency and the lack of worthy opponents. The ruse might even succeed; after all, voters let Golda and Dayan remain at their posts at the end of the Yom Kippur War, until public foment broke Golda.
This is the last chance - for Obama and the Israelis - to say their piece beforehand, instead of regretting their silence afterward.
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