- The Washington Times - Monday, February 13, 2006

JERUSALEM. — President Bush’s public pledge last week to protect Israel militarily from Iran and Israel’s grateful acceptance of the offer constitute a far-reaching change in the strategic posture of Israel, which in the past insisted it could defend itself without outside military assistance against any foreseeable combination of enemies.

The looming prospect of a nuclear Iran has given Israel cause to welcome an American umbrella even though it has until now preferred being seen, and seeing itself, as a nation that can fight its own battles.

“Israel’s our ally” said Mr. Bush in an interview last week. “We’re committed to the safety of Israel, and it’s a commitment we will keep.” Asked whether that meant the U.S. would defend Israel militarily, he said, “You bet.”

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert opened his Cabinet meeting this Sunday by referring to the president’s remarks and thanking him. According to Israeli officials, the president’s statement and Mr. Olmert’s response were coordinated beforehand. This exchange of statements is far from a formal defense pact, which would have to be negotiated and approved by the Senate, but it nevertheless constitutes a commitment Washington would not lightly forego.

Mr. Bush had first voiced his commitment to Israel two weeks ago in a talk with students in Kansas when he expressed concern about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad’s call for Israel’s destruction and his attempt to dismiss the Holocaust as myth. Then too Mr. Bush said “Israel’s our ally.” His “you bet” reply to the question about military assistance made that statement sound even more substantive.

In the past, when the subject of a military pact with Washington came up, Israeli leaders generally declared they did not want any American soldier shedding blood on Israel’s behalf. It was a position that made Israel more attractive in the White House and in the halls of Congress where Israel devoted itself to lobbying for what it really needed — political and economic support and an assured weapons supply. Jerusalem feared a formal defense pact with Washington would sharply limit its freedom of action against the Arabs and open it to political pressures it would find hard to resist. Israel also preferred to envision its relationship with Washington as that of an ally, rather than a satellite, for its own self-image as a nation capable of coping with whatever faces it.

Israel has indeed managed to fight its often gruelling wars without outside military help. Its first three wars against Arab states — in 1948, 1956 and 1967 — were fought with European, not American, arms. Israel’s greatest testing came in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. It fought not only Egypt and Syria but also much of the rest of the Arab world, including major armored contingents from Iraq and Jordan as well as ground and air units from a half-dozen other countries.

Although staggered by the surprise attack that opened the war, Israel managed to turn the battle around and ended it in two weeks with its tanks on the roads to Cairo and Damascus.

However, the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran in the hands of religious fanatics puts the Middle East in a new perspective, one in which Israel is happy to have a superpower at its shoulder. Although the Israeli air force could reach Iran, it is questionable if it could deliver an effective attack against nuclear facilities deeply buried and widely scattered. In placing itself under Washington’s wing vis-a-vis Tehran, Israel has apparently abandoned the option of undertaking an attack on its own against Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Israel’s military leaders had been threatening to do just that recent weeks.

Even American Vice President Richard Cheney suggested a few months ago that Israel might strike Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own. However, in a major speech two weeks ago at an academic conference on regional strategy, Mr. Olmert cut out at the last minute references to the Iranian nuclear effort, reportedly because Mr. Bush’s decision to stand by Israel militarily obliged and enabled Israel to step back from the edge.

Abraham Rabinovich is a former reporter for the Jerusalem Post and a regular contributor to The Washington Times. His recent book is, “The Yom Kippur War: The Epic Encounter that Transformed the Middle East.”


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