Israel earned its role as an American client with a series of daring military victories won by a tiny embattled country with a shoestring budget and its back against the sea: the capture of the Suez Canal from Nasser in 1956, the audacious victory in 1967, and the development of a nuclear bomb. Yet the terms of the bargain that Israel struck would necessarily relegate such accomplishments to the history books. Israel traded its freedom to engage in high-risk, high-payoff exploits like the Suez Canal adventure or the Six Day War for the comfort of a military and diplomatic guarantee from the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. As a regional American client, Israel would draw on the military and diplomatic power of its distant patron in exchange for allowing America to use its control over Israel as leverage with neighboring Arab states.
With each American-brokered peace move—from Camp David to the Madrid Conference to Oslo and Annapolis—the United States has been able to hold up its leverage over Israel as both a carrot and a stick to the Arab world. Do what we want, and we will force the Israelis to behave. The client-patron relationship between the United States and Israel that allows Washington to control the politics of the Middle East is founded on two pillars: America's ability to deliver concrete accomplishments, like the return of the Sinai to Egypt and the pledge to create a Palestinian state, along with the suggestion that Washington is manfully restraining wilder, more aggressive Israeli ambitions.
The success of the American-Israeli alliance demands that both parties be active partners in a complex dance that involves a lot of play-acting—America pretends to rebuke Israel, just as Israel pretends to be restrained by American intervention from bombing Damascus or seizing the banks of the Euphrates. The instability of the U.S.-Israel relationship is therefore inherent in the terms of a patron-client relationship that requires managing a careful balance of Israeli strength and Israeli weakness. An Israel that runs roughshod over its neighbors is a liability to the United States—just as an Israel that lost the capacity to project destabilizing power throughout the region would quickly become worthless as a client.
A corollary of this basic point is that the weaker and more dependent Israel becomes, the more Israeli interests and American interests are likely to diverge. Stripped of its ability to take independent military action, Israel's value to the United States can be seen to reside in its ability to give the Golan Heights back to Syria and to carve out a Palestinian state from the remaining territories it captured in 1967—after which it would be left with only the territories of the pre-1967 state to barter for a declining store of U.S. military credits, which Washington might prefer to spend on wooing Iran.
The untenable nature of this strategic calculus gives a cold-eyed academic analyst all the explanation she needs to explain Israel's recent wars against Hezbollah and Hamas, its assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists and engineers, and its 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear reactor. Israel's attempts to restore its perceived capacity for game-changing independent military action are directed as much to its American patron as to its neighbors. Israel's current strategic posture was established by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who alternated strong, unpredictable military actions like Operation Defensive Shield and the final isolation of Yasser Arafat with invocations of the importance of peace and surprising concessions, such as the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in 2005. Sharon also took care to balance his close relationship with President Bush with a program of diplomatic outreach to second-tier powers like Russia and India.
An attack on Iran might be risky in dozens of ways, but it would certainly do wonders for restoring Israel's capacity for game-changing military action. The idea that Iran can meaningfully retaliate against Israel through conventional means is more myth than fact. Even without using nuclear weapons, Israel has the capacity to flatten the Iranian economy by bombing a few strategic oil refineries, making a meaningful Iranian counterstroke much less likely than it first appears.
If the 2006 Lebanon war showed the holes in Israel's ability to fight a conventional ground war, it also showed the ability of the Israeli air force to destroy long-range missiles on the ground. Israel's response to fresh barrages of missiles from Hezbollah and Hamas while engaged in a shooting war with Iran would presumably be even less restrained than it has been in the past.
Short of an Iranian-hostage-rescue-mission-type debacle in which a small Israeli tactical force crashes in the Iranian desert, or a presidential order from Obama to shoot down Israeli planes on their way to Natanz, any Israeli air raid on Iran is likely to succeed in destroying masses of delicate equipment that the Iranians have spent a decade building at enormous cost in time and treasure. It is hard to believe that Iran could quickly or easily replace what it lost. Whether it resulted in delaying Iran's march toward a nuclear bomb by two years, five years, or somewhere in between, the most important result of an Israeli bombing raid would be to puncture the myth of inevitability that has come to surround the Iranian nuclear project and that has fueled Iran's rise as a regional hegemon.
The idea of a mass public outcry against Israel in the Muslim world is probably also a fiction—given the public backing of the Gulf states and Egypt for Israel's wars against Hezbollah and Hamas. As the only army in the region able to take on Iran and its clients, Israel has effectively become the hired army of the Sunni Arab states tasked by Washington with the job of protecting America's favorite Middle Eastern tipple—oil.
The parallels between Israel's rise to superpower client status after 1967 and Iran's recent rise offer another strong reason for Israel to act—and act fast. The current bidding for Iran's favor is alarming to Israel not only because of the unfriendly proclamations of Iranian leaders but because of what an American rapprochement with Iran signals for the future of Israel's status as an American client. While America would probably benefit by playing Israel and Iran against each other for a while to extract the maximum benefit from both relationships, it is hard to see how America would manage to please both clients simultaneously and quite easy to imagine a world in which Iran—with its influence in Afghanistan and Iraq, its control over Hezbollah and Hamas, and easy access to leading members of al-Qaida—would be the partner worth pleasing.