It is hard to seize the initiative. The consequences of acting are frightening. It is always better to let others go first. But sometimes that is impossible. Today it is becoming clear that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has no choice but to lead.
The stakes have never been higher. Every day we are beset by an avalanche of evidence that Iran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear armed state. From the secret uranium enrichment facility in Qom, to Iran's solid fuel missile test this week to the disclosure that Iran is developing a trigger device to detonate nuclear bombs, it is clear that Teheran is building a nuclear arsenal and that - at a minimum - it is determined to use it to force the nations of the Middle East to bend to its fanatical will.
Until now, as Israel faced this growing threat, it has tried to avoid leading by seeking to convince the US to act against Iran. Since US President Barack Obama took office 11 months ago, Israel's desire to convince the US to act against Iran has driven Netanyahu to take drastic steps to appease the White House.
Netanyahu has bowed to American pressure and announced his support for the establishment of a Palestinian state in Israel's heartland, even as the Palestinians themselves made clear that they reject Israel's right to exist.
He bowed to US pressure and is implementing a draconian freeze on all Jewish building in Judea and Samaria, despite the fact that the Palestinians refuse to even discuss peace with Israel.
Netanyahu has allowed Defense Minister Ehud Barak to unravel national unity still further by picking fights with yeshiva heads who oppose the wholly theoretical possibility that IDF soldiers will be ordered to expel Jews from their homes in Judea and Samaria in the framework of a peace treaty with the Palestinians.
As for Iran itself, the government and the IDF are loudly expressing Israel's support for US-backed sanctions, despite their sure knowledge that those proposed measures will have no significant impact on Teheran's will or capacity to build nuclear bombs.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu's appeasement efforts have not brought a US payoff. The Obama administration continues to downplay the urgency of the Iranian nuclear threat and its calls for sanctions are half-hearted and will not prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Moreover, the Obama administration remains stridently opposed to using military force to destroy Iran's nuclear installations. This was made clear during a high-level war game at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government earlier this month. At Harvard, former US undersecretary of state Nicholas Burns played Obama and former UN ambassador Dore Gold played Netanyahu. At the end of the game, the US had disavowed its strategic alliance with Israel because Jerusalem refused to give Washington veto power over its right to attack Iran's nuclear installations. On the other hand, America had failed to get Russia and China to support sanctions and Iran was three months away from the bomb.
The Harvard game came just a few months after the real-world CIA Director Leon Panetta made what was supposed to be a secret visit to Israel and demanded that Israel not attack Iran without US permission.
All of this makes clear that Israel cannot depend on the US to defend it from Iran. Indeed, it makes clear that a breach of relations with the US is unavoidable.
IN LIGHT of this harsh reality, the time has come for Netanyahu to take the lead. While frightening, there may be a silver lining in this cloud.
If Israel moves boldly, others may support it. This was the message of an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday authored by Olivier Debouzy, a former French diplomat specializing in intelligence and nuclear military affairs, titled, "How to Stop Iran."
In 2007, President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Debouzy to France's Defense and National Security White Paper Commission. A private attorney, Debouzy is well connected to Sarkozy and his national security team.
Debouzy opened with a recap of what is already known. Iran "is not serious about negotiating in good faith," and in all likelihood, it has, "for more than a decade now, concealed a significant part of what appears to be a major nuclear military effort."
He then explained what is at stake for the West. Western failure to stop Iran will convince the Persian Gulf states that they cannot trust Western security guarantees and are best served by developing their own nuclear arsenals. All semblance of a nuclear nonproliferation regime will be cast to the seven winds.
Given the stakes, Debouzy concludes that it is time for the US, France, Britain and Israel to "try to reach an agreement on how to terminate the Iranian nuclear program militarily." He suggests first taking an example from the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and imposing a quarantine on Iranian shipping in the Persian Gulf while compelling Iran's neighbors to desist from all trade and financial transactions with it.
If this doesn't work, Debouzy acknowledges, "It might be necessary to go beyond that and actually resort to force to prevent the Iranians from achieving nuclear military capabilities." To this end, he proposes planning "for a massive air and missile attack on Iran's nuclear facilities."
While Debouzy invoked the Cuban Missile Crisis, given the Obama administration's position on Iran, a more apt analogy is the 1956 Suez Crisis. Whereas in 1962 the US acted alone against the threatened Soviet deployment of nuclear missiles in Cuba, in 1956, France, Israel and Britain acted against Egypt without US permission to limit the harm that then-Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser could cause to their separate strategic interests.
Today, the Obama administration's treatment of US allies and enemies alike bears far more resemblance to the Eisenhower administration's policies than to those of the Kennedy administration. And in turn, the administration's behavior presents allied governments with options reminiscent to those they faced in 1956.
To the extent that Debouzy's article represents a significant thought stream in France and perhaps in Britain, it tells us three important things. First, it tells us that a significant constituency in Europe believes the time has come to act militarily against Iran's nuclear installations. Second it tells us that influential voices in France have lost patience with Obama. Sarkozy himself all but accused Obama of living in Fantasy Land at the UN Security Council meeting four months ago, in light of Obama's support for global nuclear disarmament and his cavalier attitude towards Iran's nuclear program.
Finally, by including Israel in a theoretical military alliance against Iran, Debouzy's article suggests that in spite of its anti-Israel positions on issues related to the Palestinians, France may be willing to assist Israel if Netanyahu decides to attack Iran's nuclear installations. That is, his article lends the impression that if Israel is willing to act boldly, it may not have to act alone.
THE LAST time that Israel acted militarily with others without US support was during the Suez Crisis. Debouzy's suggestion of French support for an Israeli strike against Iran should provoke our leaders to reconsider the lessons of that campaign.
At the time, Britain and France joined forces with Israel because their national interests were harmed by Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal. Nasser's move imperiled the British-allied Hashemite regimes in Iraq and Jordan. It opened the door for Soviet influence in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. And it endangered the flow of oil to Europe through the Suez Canal.
Nasser's move harmed Israel by threatening to permanently close the Suez Canal to Israeli shipping. Israel also stood to benefit from a joint attack against Egypt because it afforded Israel the opportunity to severely weaken Nasser's regular forces in the Sinai and his fedayeen terror cells in Gaza.
Despite Nasser's escalating ties with the Soviet Union, the Eisenhower administration opposed ejecting him from the Suez Canal for a host of reasons. The US wished to please its Saudi ally which, like Egypt, sought to weaken the British-allied Hashemite regimes in Iraq and Jordan. The US wished to quash Britain and France's residual post-war capacities to act without US support as Washington solidified its position as the unquestioned leader of the Western alliance against the Soviet Union. Washington was politically inconvenienced by the need to support the British-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt as it condemned the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Finally, the Eisenhower administration opposed a strong Israel.
Although all three countries achieved their military goals, the US's decision to side with Egypt against them caused them all tremendous political damage. Washington forced Israel to withdraw from Sinai and it threatened Britain with economic devastation until then-prime minister Anthony Eden agreed to remove British forces from the area. France was similarly humiliated into withdrawing.
America's brutal reaction caused many Israeli analysts to conclude that Israel must never again go to war without US permission. And from David Ben-Gurion on, all Israeli leaders have given the US a de facto veto over nearly all of Israel's military moves.
While Israel's fear of angering America is understandable, it is far from clear that its interests were ever served by this policy. The fact is, while Israel was forced to withdraw from Sinai, the benefit it gained from the Suez Campaign still far outweighed the cost. Through the war, Israel secured its maritime rights in the Suez Canal and weakened significantly Egypt's regular and irregular forces in Sinai and Gaza.
What is clear is that 53 years ago it made no sense to get into an open conflict with Dwight Eisenhower. As the former Allied commander in Europe, Eisenhower's strategic credentials were unassailable both at home and abroad. Then, too, in 1956 the US was enjoying unprecedented economic growth and prosperity. Politically - at home and abroad - Eisenhower was immune to criticism.
Obama is no Eisenhower. The US is suffering its worst economic decline since the Great Depression. After just 11 months in office, Obama's approval ratings have sunk to 50 percent. His lack of credibility in foreign affairs came though clearly this month when a mere 26% of Americans said they believe he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.
At the same time, Israel has never faced a threat as grave as that of a nuclear-armed Iran. There can be little doubt that if Ben-Gurion and Eisenhower were in charge today, Ben-Gurion wouldn't hesitate to again defy Eisenhower and attack Iran - with or without France and Britain. Certainly, Netanyahu cannot justify placing Israel's fate in Obama's hands.
Fortunately, as Netanyahu's moment of decision rapidly approaches, we see that if he seizes the reins, he is likely to be surprised to find many other leaders offering him a helping hand.
Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.