National Security & Defense

Israeli Preemptive Action, Western Reaction

Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty)
Will Israel do the unthinkable to stop the unimaginable?

The Obama administration seems peeved that almost everyone in Israel, left and right, has no use for the present Iranian–American deal to thwart Iran’s efforts to get the bomb.

Indeed, at times John Kerry has hinted darkly that Israel’s opposition to the pact might incur American wrath should the deal be tabled — even though Kerry knows that the polls show a clear majority of Americans being against the proposed agreement while remaining quite supportive of the Jewish state. President Obama, from time to time, suggests that his agreement is being sabotaged by nefarious lobbying groups, big-time check writers, and neoconservative supporters of the Iraq war — all shorthand, apparently, for pushy Jewish groups.

Obama and his negotiators seem surprised that Israelis take quite seriously Iranian leaders’ taunts over the past 35 years that they would like to liquidate the Jewish state and everyone in it. The Israelis, for some reason, remember that well before Hitler came to power, he had bragged about the idea of killing Jews en masse in his sloppily composed autobiographical Mein Kampf. Few in Germany or abroad had taken the raving young Hitler too seriously. Even in the late 1930s, when German Jews were being rounded up and haphazardly killed on German streets by state-sanctioned thugs, most observers considered such activities merely periodic excesses or outbursts from non-governmental Black- and Brownshirts.

The Obama administration, with vast oceans between Tehran and the United States, tsk-tsks over Iranian threats as revolutionary hyperbole served up for domestic consumption. The Israelis, with less than a thousand miles between themselves and Tehran, do not — and cannot. Given the 20th century’s history, Israel has good reason not to trust either the United States or Europe to ensure the security of the Jewish state. Israel has learned from the despicable anti-Semitism now prevalent at the U.N. and from the increasing thuggery directed at Jews in Europe that the world at large would shed crocodile tears over the passing of Israel on the day of its destruction, but, the next day, sigh and get right back to business in a “that was then, this is now” style.

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In 1981 the Israelis took out the Iraqi nuclear reactor — sold to Saddam Hussein by France. They were ritually blasted as state terrorists and worse by major U.S. newspapers and at the United Nations — though not by Khomeini’s Iran, which earlier had failed in a preemptive bombing strike to do much damage to the Osirak reactor. Today, in retrospect, most nations are privately glad that the Israelis removed the reactor from a country that had hundreds of years’ worth of natural-gas and oil supplies and no need for nuclear power — and that is now under assault from ISIS.

In 2007, when the Israelis preempted once more, and destroyed the al-Kibar nuclear facility that was under construction in Syria, the world, after initial silence, again in Pavlovian fashion became outraged at such preemptive bombing. The global chorus claimed that there was no intelligence confirming that the North Koreans had helped to launch a Syrian uranium-enrichment plant.

Yet eight years later, most observers abroad once again privately shrug that Bashar Assad most certainly had hired the Koreans to build a nuclear processing plant — and are quietly satisfied that the Israelis took care of it. Note that the al-Kibar site lies in territory now controlled by ISIS. One can imagine a variety of terrifying contemporary scenarios had the Israelis not preempted. Most of those who condemned Israel’s attack would now be worrying about an ISIS improvised explosive device, packed with dirty uranium, that might go off in a major Western city.

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In all these cases, the Israelis assumed that Western intelligence about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East was unreliable. They took for granted that Westerners automatically would blame Israelis for any preemptive attack against an Islamic nuclear site. And they likewise concluded that, privately and belatedly, Westerners would eventually be happy that the Israelis had belled the would-be nuclear cat.

But in a larger sense, the Israelis also recall the sad story of the West and the Holocaust less than 75 years ago — a horror central to the birthing of a “never again” Jewish state. By 1943, the outlines of the Nazis’ Final Solution were well known in both Washington and London; Jews were already being gassed at German death camps in Poland in an effort to kill every Jew from the Atlantic Ocean to the Volga River.

It was a matter of record that the major Western democracies — America, Britain, and prewar France — had refused sanctuary to millions of Jewish refugees.

It was also a matter of record that the major Western democracies — America, Britain, and prewar France — had refused sanctuary to millions of Jewish refugees who had been stripped of their property by the Third Reich and told to leave Germany and its occupied territories. In some notorious cases, shiploads of Jews were turned away after docking in Western ports and were sent back to Nazi-occupied Europe, where the passengers were disembarked and soon afterward gassed. Moreover, Israelis understand that Hitler’s Final Solution would have been far more difficult to implement without the active participation of sympathetic anti-Semites in occupied European nations, who volunteered to round up their own Jews and send them on German trains eastward to the death camps.

In the case of the United States, anti-Semitic or indifferent officials high up in the State Department and elsewhere within the Roosevelt administration went out of their way to hide data about the plight of Jewish refugees, and circumvented protocol in order to refuse entry into the United States to the vast majority of Jews fleeing the Holocaust. The British were nearly as exclusionary, and also did their best to stop Jewish refugees from fleeing to Palestine to escape the death camps.

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As it happens, Fascist and Nazi-allied Japan was sometimes more sympathetic to Jews desperate to leave Europe than were the Allies. Indeed, Hitler and his Nazi top echelon constantly bragged about the fact that neither the Allied powers nor occupied European nations wanted to take Jews off Berlin’s hands — proof, in Nazi eyes, of a supportive wink-and-nod attitude to the Holocaust. Each time the Allies published a threat to the Nazi leadership that there would be an accounting and war-crime trials after the war, Hitler, Goebbels, and Himmler remembered that none of these outraged governments wanted to accept Jews themselves, and thus they must secretly still have remained indifferent to their fate. Thus the threats rang hollow to the Nazis, and the crematoria burned on.

By mid-1943 at the latest, American authorities had comprehensive knowledge — from firsthand reports by camp escapees, from photo reconnaissance, and from brave Germans who passed on detailed inside information through the neutral Swiss — of the vast scope of the Holocaust. They were constantly beseeched by international Jewish advocates to at least bomb the crematoria and gas chambers at Auschwitz, which were within range of the Allies’ four-engine heavy bombers. Indeed, an Allied bombing mission would on occasion hit one of the key German factories that surrounded Auschwitz itself — to the delight of the doomed inmates of the death camps.

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Given that eventually over 10,000 Jews per day were being gassed and cremated at Auschwitz, almost every Jewish leader advocated bombing the camps to destroy the rail links, the intricate camp machinery, and the SS guards so essential to the perpetration of the Holocaust. Again, such pleas were met with both indifference and lies, once more offered up by heralded American statesmen like U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Breckinridge Long and well-connected consigliere and future “wise man” John McCloy of the War Department. The latter falsely argued at times that the camps were not really in reach of Allied bombers, or that the numbers of Jews being slaughtered were exaggerated, or that the diversion of even one or two missions from the strategic bombing of Germany would hamper the entire Allied war effort.

#related#After the war, with rising Cold War tensions and a need to ensure that the West German public remained firmly in the new NATO alliance, many Nazi war criminals either were let out of prison early, had their sentences commuted, or were never charged at all. For all the Western empathy about the horrific Final Solution, Jews remembered (1) that it would once have been possible to save many fleeing Jews, if only the democracies had just allowed in political refugees; (2) that many of the death camps could have been leveled by Allied bombers in their last year or two of full-bore operation, saving perhaps 2 to 3 million of the doomed; and (3) that the political expediency of the postwar Western alliance had trumped bringing Nazi war criminals to a full accounting for their horrendous acts.

The Israelis have taken to heart lots of lessons over the last 70 years. They have concluded that often the world quietly wants Israel to deal with existential threats emanating from the Middle East while loudly damning it when it does. They have learned from the experience of the Holocaust that, for good or evil, Jews are on their own and can never again trust in the world’s professed humanity to prevent another Holocaust. And they are convinced that they can also never again err on the side of the probability that national leaders, with deadly weapons in their grasp, do not really mean all the unhinged things they shout and scream about killing Jews.

Given all that, we should conclude that any deal that leads, now or in the near future, to an Iranian bomb is unacceptable to Israel — a nation that will likely soon have no choice but to consider the unthinkable in order to prevent the unimaginable.

Victor Davis Hanson — Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author of The Second World Wars: How the First Global Conflict Was Fought and Won. © 2018 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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