In May 1967, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol dispatched his foreign minister, Abba Eban, to Washington. Egyptian and Syrian troops were pressing on Israel’s borders; Egypt had imposed a naval blockade on the Straits of Tiran, Israel’s shipping route to the east. Eban’s request of President Lyndon Johnson was that America honor its commitment to back military action if Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran. That commitment had been made by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in 1957, to secure Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai desert following the 1956 Suez War.
Only a declaration by Johnson that he intended to immediately open the straits to Israeli shipping even at the risk of war could stop a unilateral Israeli strike. Though Johnson was viscerally pro-Israel, he proved unable or unwilling to honor Dulles’ commitment. Preoccupied with Vietnam, Johnson wasn’t ready to support another war, let alone initiate one. Even if Barack Obama is truly pro-Israel, the Johnson precedent tells us that it may not matter.
Israeli leaders believe that their window of opportunity in launching a preemptive strike will be closing in the coming months. An Israeli decision not to strike this year will mean that it effectively ceded its self-defense – against a potentially existential threat – to America. When Obama tells Israel to give sanctions time, what he is really saying is: Trust me to stop Iran militarily when you no longer can.
Israel has a moral responsibility not to surprise its closest friend with an initiative that could drastically affect American well-being. And the U.S. has a moral responsibility not to pressure its closest Middle East ally into forfeiting its right to self-defense against a potentially genocidal enemy.
(Yossi Klein Halevi – New Republic)