Officials in Washington send mixed signals on Israel’s policies regarding Iranian nuclear development and West Bank settlements
By MOSHE GIT
A popular Israeli song questions a woman about what she means when she says “No!” to a man: Does she actually mean “perhaps”? Or “not right now”? Recently, President Barack Obama issued a stern “no” to Israel twice — on the issue of Israel’s rumored plan to militarily obliterate Iran’s nuclear facilities and on any further construction in West Bank settlements.
However, soon after Obama uttered those unequivocal “nos,” there were numerous press reports about equivocation by administration officials.
For example, Vice President Joe Biden said, with regard to the Iranian nuclear threat, that Israel is sovereign to act in defense of her vital security interests, and various reports alluded to reassurances by high level U.S. officials, such as by U.S. special envoy to the Middle East, George Mitchell, that the “no” on the settlements isn’t absolute. These assuagements, or rumors thereof, survived even the further reiteration by the administration of the original “nos.” Can we take at face value pronouncements of our top-level government officials?
A number of decades ago, I was shocked when reading some lines in Selwyn Lloyd’s memoirs regarding the Suez War of 1956.
To remind readers, Selwyn Lloyd was the British foreign minister in the government of Anthony Eden. Egypt’s president, Gamal Abdul Nasser, had just decided, unilaterally, to wrest control of the Suez Canal from the British and French by nationalizing it. Britain and France, wanting to regain the canal, clandestinely conspired with Israel to launch a surprise attack on Egypt.
Israel managed to conquer the Sinai Peninsula. The British and the French then landed near the canal, using the prearranged ruse that they arrived to separate the Israelis from the Egyptians. They didn’t fare as well. They managed to land troops near the canal, but got bogged down in field fighting.
U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower became enraged, condemned the attack, and demanded, through his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, that the British and French immediately cease fighting and withdraw their beachheads from Egypt. The British and the French had to withdraw from Egypt with their tails between their legs. But for U.S.’s “no,” (there was a “no” to Israel too: Israel had to surrender the entire Sinai and the Gaza Strip back to Egypt), the history of the Middle East would have been radically different.
After the war Dulles became ill, and was visited in the hospital by his British colleague Selwyn Lloyd. What follows is Lloyd’s account of his interchange with Dulles: “Dulles said at once with a kind of twinkle in his eye, ‘Selwyn, why did you stop? Why didn’t you go through with it and get Nasser down?’ I was flabbergasted. After all, this was the same Secretary of State who had, seemingly, done everything he could to head off Anglo-French action, and whose government had effectively terminated action once it began. ‘Well, Foster,’ I replied, ‘If you had so much as winked at us, we might have gone on.’ ‘We couldn’t have done that,’ Dulles replied.”
President Ronald Reagan sharply reprimanded Israel after the Jewish state’s 1981 air raid that destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor under construction at Osirak. Later, everybody in the U.S. thanked Israel for doing that. If Israel abides by Obama’s “nos,” will its leaders be asked, in the next year or two, “Why didn’t you go through with the attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and with the construction in the settlements?”
Perhaps President Obama may not be able to wink at Israeli leaders at the moment; maybe Biden’s statements and Mitchell’s hints are the administration’s wink. The question remains: When Obama says “no” to Israel, what does he mean?
Moshe Git lives in Minnetonka, Minn.
(American Jewish World, 7.24.09)