Yitzhak Shamir was arguably the most determined and stubborn Israeli prime minister since David Ben-Gurion. In the winter of 1991, during the first Gulf War, Shamir was faced with an existential dilemma that is very reminiscent of the current quandary that we face. True, Saddam Hussein did not have nuclear weapons because Menachem Begin bombed his reactor despite Shimon Peres’s objections. But the Scud missiles that Saddam fired at greater Tel Aviv could certainly have carried a chemical payload that would have caused mass casualties.
Today, Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad threatens Israel and simultaneously awakens the ire of the Western nations, just as Saddam did 20 years ago. When Saddam captured Kuwait, the first President Bush put together an international coalition and attacked him.
What was the consideration that motivated the “intransigent” Shamir to stay out of the fighting? We can safely assume that Israel preferred to let others do its dirty work. If the entire world was fighting Iraq for its own reasons, what reason could there have been to give Saddam the “proof” that this was a Zionist war, allowing him to destabilize the already shaky coalition?
For his part, Saddam made no attempt to fight back. All that interested him was to present himself as a warrior against Israel by focusing his resources on firing Scud missiles at Tel Aviv. For the first time since Israel’s War of Independence, the nation’s civilian population found itself under direct attack. Israel’s citizens became addicted to their sealed rooms, plastic sheets covering their windows, gas masks, and the voice of the IDF spokesman and his “secret weapon” to treat trauma – a glass of water.
Twenty years later, we can say that Shamir made a strategically deplorable decision, with repercussions more severe than the damage done by the Yom Kippur War. The coalition forces did not prevent any Scud missiles from being fired at Israel. In other words, nobody did the dirty work for us. What happened was that Israel’s enemies were no longer afraid to attack its civilian population. Israel’s deterrence factor took a severe blow.
Whoever expected some sort of benefit in exchange for our self-restraint instead got the opposite. Israel did not understand that when a country deposits is existential battles in the hands of others its existence becomes something for which it must pay. In no time, Shamir found himself under heavy U.S. pressure. He was dragged to Madrid, forced to indirectly recognize the PLO, and made to plant the seeds that eventually sprouted into the Oslo Accords. This has led to the thousands of soldiers and citizens who have paid with their lives for those accords.
Shamir also paid a personal price for his mistake. The U.S. interfered with the elections in Israel and delayed loan guarantees that Shamir had requested to help absorb the masses of Soviet Jews immigrating to Israel. Yitzhak Rabin won the premiership. Immediately after his victory, the U.S. went forward with the loan guarantees.
And now to our current situation: Ahmadinejad, like Saddam, is preparing to destroy Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu, like Shamir, is hoping that the world will, for its own reasons, do the dirty work for us and fight our existential war.
The economic and political sanctions against Iran have not worked, and it looks like we are nearing the moment of truth. Here’s the question: is it better if Israel attacks Iran, or if the West does so? From Shamir’s mistake we can conclude that greater Tel Aviv will be on the receiving end of the entire payload that Iran can muster. The second lesson we learn from Shamir is that the Western coalition will not be overly concerned with the threat hanging over Israel’s head. As we all remember, not one Scud missile was destroyed before it was launched.
If Israel does not attack Iran and leaves the work for others, our position will be further weakened. First, because a passive Israel will have no power of deterrence against Iran; second, because it is technically more difficult to defend oneself from a passive stance.
The most serious lesson that we must learn from Shamir, however, is that the question mark hovering today over Israel’s right to exist will turn into a large exclamation point. The West will extort Israel to pay dearly for an attack that it could have carried out more effectively by itself.
The last option, also highly possible, is that nobody will attack – neither Israel nor the West. This is actually the worst scenario of all, because a gun that appears in the first act will always shoot by the third act. Nuclear weapons in the hands of the ayatollahs will be activated in the second act, and it doesn’t look like plastic sheets and water will help this time.