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May 23, 2024

Israel and America Are Having a Disagreement. That’s OK.

The Jewish state has repeatedly earned US respect by not being a pushover.

The White House has been demanding that Israel not launch a full-scale assault on the Hamas stronghold in Rafah, a message President Biden underscored this month by halting a shipment of bombs that would likely be used in such an attack. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, maintains that invading Rafah is crucial to rescuing its hostages and crushing Hamas. If necessary, he has said, Israelis will “fight with our fingernails” in order to prevail.

With the war’s outcome in the balance and the two governments at odds, this is a good moment to reflect that American opposition to Israeli military action is hardly a new development.

In 1991, following the swift US victory over Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney sent a memento to David Ivry, the Israeli ambassador in Washington. It was an aerial photograph of the destroyed Iraqi Osirak nuclear reactor, which Israel had bombed 10 years earlier, when Ivry was commander of the Israeli air force. On it, Cheney wrote: “For Gen. David Ivry, with thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981 — which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”

Unmentioned in Cheney’s note, but well-known, was that the United States had not welcomed Israel’s attack when it happened. On the contrary, Washington had been infuriated. To destroy Osirak, Israel had deployed 14 US-built F-16 fighter aircraft, which cut through Jordanian and Saudi airspace before dropping a dozen 2,000-pound American bombs on the nuclear site. In response, the Reagan administration suspended delivery of additional planes to Israel and condemned the raid at the UN Security Council, where US Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick labeled Israel’s attack “shocking” and likened it to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The press was unsparing too: A New York Times editorial slammed Israel for its “act of inexcusable and short-sighted aggression.”

But Washington eventually acknowledged that Israel had been right. Cheney’s 1991 praise was later echoed by Bill Clinton, who said Osirak’s destruction “in retrospect was a really good thing. You know, it kept Saddam [Hussein] from developing nuclear power.”

Again and again, Israel has had to confront its enemies in the face of opposition from the United States, its most vital ally.

In the spring of 1967, for example, Israel was repeatedly warned by President Lyndon Johnson against taking preemptive action against the Arab armies massing for war on its borders.

“I must emphasize the necessity for Israel not to make itself responsible for the initiation of hostilities,” LBJ told the Israeli prime minister. “Israel will not be alone unless it decides to go alone.” But Israel, believing it faced total obliteration if it delayed, did go it alone — with triumphant results.

“Virtually without exception, the United States has always opposed Israel’s decision to go to war,” historian Michael Oren, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington during the Obama administration, wrote earlier this year. When Israel has launched an attack despite resistance from Washington, it “has earned not America’s resentment but rather its respect.”

By contrast, when Israel has deferred to US demands to hold its fire, it has invariably regretted doing so.

In 1973, Prime Minister Golda Meir reluctantly bowed to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s demand that Israel not launch the first strike against the Egyptian and Syrian forces planning to attack. The result was the shattering debacle of the Yom Kippur War.

In 1991, when Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Tel Aviv during the Gulf War, Israeli leaders knew that deterrence required them to respond. But under pressure from President George H. W. Bush, the government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir agreed to stand down. That was taken by Washington as a display not of loyalty but of weakness. “Israel received not a word of gratitude,” Oren wrote, “but rather only pressure for territorial concessions.”

One way or another, Israel must enter Rafah if it is to have any hope of liberating Gaza from its fanatical Islamist dictators. To allow any of Hamas’s battalions to remain intact is to virtually ensure that the terrorist group will, as pledged, repeat the horror of Oct. 7 “time and again” until it achieves the “annihilation” of Israel.

The current dispute between Washington and Jerusalem dominates short-term headlines but it is in America’s long-term interest that its closest Mideast ally be strong, self-sufficient, and worthy of respect. Israel is an invaluable strategic partner with a deep reservoir of support among the US public, and it brings assets to the relationship — from military R&D to world-class intelligence to shared democratic values — that few countries can match. Whatever happens in Rafah, that won’t change.

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