How Israel sees the NIE report.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Dec. 11 2007 3:56 PM

Anxious Nations Don't Compromise

What the Israeli reaction to the NIE report means for the peace process.

Ehud Olmert. Click image to expand.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert

On Nov. 12, 1963, future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin—then deputy chief of staff—landed in Washington for talks with Phillips Talbot of the State Department, Robert Komer of the National Security Council, and other officials. Israel was worried about Egypt's arms-race gains, while the Americans felt they were overstating their case. As far as Washington was concerned, the Egyptian threat was not as severe as the Israelis claimed.

Later in the week, Rabin met one-on-one with Komer. He opened up a map and showed Komer how Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser might attack the Jewish state. Komer didn't understand Rabin's position. America has supported you so many times over the years, he said, don't we deserve some credit for that? Why don't you trust us?

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A memo drafted by Komer, dated Nov. 18, reveals Rabin's response: because of the war of 1948—when Israel was established, attacked by its neighbors, and when the United States cut off arms shipments. Komer was astonished. That was a long time ago, a lot had happened since. "I have a long memory," replied Rabin. He had fought in 1948 and still carried the scars of battle.

More than 40 years have passed since this meeting—years of unequivocal U.S. support for Israel. But last week—when the National Intelligence Estimate report on Iran stated that Iran is no longer developing nuclear weapons—this long memory came back into play. Israel, again, felt the chilling threat of possible abandonment by its closest ally. So much so that an Israeli Cabinet member compared the reactions to the NIE report to those detailing the "transports to Auschwitz." A long memory indeed.

"With today's NIE, we see the entire U.S. intelligence community not only, in effect, coming down on the side of the doves but concluding that the threat animating the hawks doesn't even exist," wrote Fred Kaplan in Slate. The next day, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that his working assumption would not change. As far as Jerusalem is concerned, Iran still has an active nuclear program.

The NIE was a wake-up call for all Israelis who believed that America and Israel saw the Iranian threat through the same lens. How easy it was to forget that the "strategic threat" perceived by Washington is not the same as the "existential threat" Israel's policy-makers see in Iran. According to the report, by 2009 an Iranian nuclear device is a "very unlikely possibility." But how unlikely? For an American calculating the level of risk and the consequent need for action, some risk might be acceptable. The calculation is different for Israelis. The smaller the country, the smaller the margin of error it can afford. The "unlikely" scenario that calms the American feels like an unacceptable risk to an Israeli.

For Kaplan and most other observers, Israelis included, the NIE put to rest all the talk of a military strike against Iran. Without this threat of force, Israelis and some American officials believe, the probability of meaningful sanctions is severely reduced. This is liable to push Israel, which will feel isolated, to consider making "difficult decisions" in the (now even more likely) case that diplomatic efforts to rein in Iran fail.