Scrolling through news, especially news posted in America, I could think that it's time for me to stock up on canned food and check that my family's Israeli government-issue gas masks are working. The news suggests that Israel's air force is sure to attack Iran's nuclear facilities this year, perhaps this spring, possibly sparking a rain of retaliatory missiles from Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Syria, despite or because of its current turmoil, might join in.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned earlier this month that Iran would soon reach an "immunity zone" in which its nuclear program would be impregnable—implying that Israel must strike first. The news site Ha'aretz's military commentator Amir Oren has bitterly expressed concern that the always-cocky ex-general Barak and his "assistant for prime ministerial affairs, Benjamin Netanyahu," might give the orders on their own, even though the law requires approval of the full cabinet to go to war.
The Washington Post's David Ignatius reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta thinks that Israel is likely to attack in April, May, or June. President Barack Obama, typecast as the last responsible adult in the room, has stated publicly that "I don’t think that Israel has made a decision," a comment that could arguably be read as, "We told Israel not to make a decision." But according to Newsweek, the head of Israel's Mossad espionage agency visited Washington to check whether this meant "uh, no, maybe" or "NO!" A New York Times Magazine article said, "A kind of panic has begun to overtake Israeli society," adding that "gas masks have been distributed to the population."
But the people around me in Israeli society don't seem to be panicking. Perhaps it's because no one I know has received official notice that it's time to get gas masks from the Home Front Command—in contrast to the nationwide distribution effort during the period of real tension before the 1991 Gulf War. In fact, the low level of public preparedness suggests two possible conclusions: Netanyahu, Barak, and other top officials could be confident, or terribly overconfident, that Iran and its allies will not retaliate in a serious way. Alternatively, the bellicose public comments and sundry leaks are designed for political purposes, foreign or domestic.
Netanyahu and Barak presumably know which of those alternatives is correct. Analysts, ex-diplomats, bloggers, and even the best-connected reporters have no idea. Lacking information about what's being discussed in closed meetings today, they continue to draw on historical examples as they argue about whether it's necessary or sensible for Israel—or the United States—to ready a military option. But history is a terribly enigmatic and sometimes deceptive teacher.
Among those who advocate Israeli military action, the obvious appeal to history is "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany." Those are Netanyahu's words from five years ago, but some Israeli moderates, critical of the prime minister on every other issue, agree with this view of Iran. Like Hitler, Iran's leaders prefer killing Jews to self-preservation, says this logic, so even Israel's presumed second-strike capability would not deter them from using a nuclear bomb against Israel.
But thinking in 1938 terms risks an even more hard-line implication: Any diplomatic engagement with Iran will lead to Chamberlain-style appeasement. So military action is not just the final option; it's the only option. Despite their emotional appeal, history's extreme examples can close off rather than aid analysis.
For those who argue against a quick decision to use the air force—America's or Israel's—the most important period in history is usually the run-up to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. A key lesson they take from that debacle is that even in a democracy, the government can use its monopoly on military intelligence to warp public debate. Providing the information or disinformation it chooses, it can exaggerate a threat and justify an irrationally chosen war.
That lesson, I'd agree, needs to be taken seriously—perhaps most of all by journalists. We should be wary of the romance of spooks and their scoops. Among the motives for leaking national-security information, truth is low on the list. That's also a reason to maintain some skepticism while reporting on leaked threats that Israel will launch airstrikes, especially when the leaks specify the timing. Netanyahu and Barak may believe that the best way to convince the world to keep escalating sanctions against Iran is to present a credible threat that Israel will go to war if sanctions fail. For Barak's domestic purposes, the Iranian threat and his supposed ability to deal with it is the last rationale of a failed centrist politician for staying in Netanyahu's right-wing cabinet.
Still, learning this historical lesson too rigidly risks underestimating Iran's motivation to gain atomic weapons. From inside Iran looking out, the country is ringed by enemies. Iran's key regional ally, the Assad regime in Syria, may be on the edge of collapse, increasing Tehran's isolation.
Iran's leaders also study history. From North Korea, they can learn that once you make it past international opposition and join the nuclear club, the world deals with you much more gingerly. As Meir Litvak, head of the Center for Iranian Studies at Tel Aviv University pointed out to me this week, Tehran has likely interpreted the Libyan revolution as a more frightening lesson: Dictator Moammar Gadhafi "gave up his nuclear option, believing Western promises, and look where he ended."
To the possible historical models for confronting Iran, the former commander of Israel's air force has added the Cuban missile crisis. As reported by military commentator Alex Fishman of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper (sloppy English version here) ex-General Eitan Ben-Eliahu compared today's economic sanctions to the American naval blockade of Cuba and increased American deployment in the Persian Gulf to the U.S. military alert of 1962. But back then, Ben-Eliahu reportedly said, there was also secret American-Soviet diplomacy that eventually convinced the Soviets to back down.
Ben-Eliahu is right about the need for diplomacy. As reported, though, his version of 1962 accepts the myth that the Soviets simply blinked first. By now, we have a better picture of what happened: Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev's agreement to remove Soviet missiles from Cuba was matched by President John F. Kennedy’s secretly agreeing to remove America's Jupiter missiles from Turkey. This was compromise without appeasement, and it prevented war.
If, indeed, Obama is dealing responsibly with the Iranian crisis, then he is seeking a better diplomatic channel, open or secret, to Tehran. He'll need to find a compromise that is safe for America and its allies but allows Iran to freeze its nuclear program without believing it has simply surrendered. To give diplomacy time to work, Netanyahu and Barak could plug the leaks threatening an Israeli attack. This is a usable lesson from history.