Israel Has a Playbook for Dealing With North Korea
Israel and North Korea are on opposite sides of the Asian landmass, separated by 5,000 miles as the ICBM flies. But Israelis feels close to the nuclear standoff between Washington and Pyongyang. They have faced this sort of crisis before, and may again.
Some history: In the mid-1970s, it became clear to Israel that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was working on acquiring nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. Saddam had already demonstrated an uninhibited brutality in dealing with his internal enemies and his neighbors. He aspired to be the leader of the Arab world. Defeating Israel was at the top of his to-do list.
After coming to office in 1977, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin tried to convince the U.S. and Europe that Saddam was a clear and present danger to the Jewish state, and that action had to be taken. Begin was not taken seriously.
But Begin was serious, and in 1981 he decided that Israel would have to stop the Iraqi dictator all by itself. His political opponents, led by the estimable Shimon Peres, considered this to be dangerous folly. Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan, the legendary former military chief of staff, voted against unilateral action on the grounds that it would hurt Israel’s international standing. Defense Minister Ezer Weizmann, the former head of the air force (and Dayan’s brother-in-law) was also against a military option. He thought the mission would be unacceptably risky.
Begin had no military expertise. But his family had been wiped out in the Holocaust. He looked at Saddam, who was openly threating Israel, and saw Hitler. To Begin, sitting around hoping for the best was not a strategy; it was an invitation to aggression. If there was going to be a cost -- political, diplomatic, military -- better to pay before, not after, the Iraqis had the bomb.
In the summer of 1981, Begin gave the order. The Israeli air force destroyed the Osirak reactor. The United Nations Security Council condemned the attack. The Europeans went bonkers. The New York Times called it “inexcusable.” But the Israeli prime minister wasn’t looking to be excused by the Times or the Europeans or even the usually friendly Ronald Reagan administration. He enunciated a simple rationale that would come to be known as the Begin Doctrine: Israel will not allow its avowed enemies to obtain the means of its destruction.
The wisdom of this doctrine became clear a decade later, during the Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein made good on his threat to fire Russian-made SCUD missiles at Israeli cities. The SCUDs landed, and caused some damage and a fair amount of panic, but they were not armed with unconventional warheads. Israel had taken that option off the table.
Similarly, in 2007, Israel confirmed what it had suspected for five years: Syria, with North Korean help, was trying to build a nuclear reactor. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a Begin disciple, sent Mossad chief Meir Dagan to Washington, to ask for American intervention. The CIA chief, Michael Hayden, agreed with Israel’s contention that Damascus (with Iranian financing) was constructing the reactor. But Hayden convinced President George W. Bush that bombing the site would result in all-out war, and who wants that?
Acting on its own, Israel destroyed the Syrian site (reportedly killing a group of North Korean experts in the process). Hayden was wrong about how Syria would react, as he later admitted. If Israel had been reasonable and listened to the CIA, Bashar al-Assad would have nuclear weapons right now.
A few years later, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak spent billions of dollars preparing and training to take out the Iranian nuclear program. Barak, not a member of Netanyahu's right-wing Likud Party, explained: “There are instances where it appears it is not necessary to attack now, but you know that you won’t be able to attack later.” In such cases, he said, the “consequences of inaction are grave, and you have to act.”
Israel was prevented from kinetic action by the Barack Obama administration, which along with five other powers cut a deal with Iran in 2015 -- over Israel’s vociferous objections. Netanyahu warned that the deal was full of loopholes; it would allow Iran to hide its nuclear program and continue building new means of delivery. This was confirmed in 2016 when Iran tested a new missile. “The reason we designed our missiles with a range of 2000 kilometers,” said Iranian Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, “is to be able to hit our enemy the Zionist regime from a safe distance.”
Since then, Iran has stepped up its aggressive enmity toward the Zionist Entity. It has not only continued its nuclear cooperation with North Korea, it has also copied Pyongyang’s tactic of creating a huge artillery threat against civilian populations (through its proxy force Hezbollah in Lebanon and now Syria). This conventional threat to Seoul is what has convinced a great many American commentators that any attack on North Korea would lead to an “unthinkable” number of casualties.
Ruling out harsh thoughts is a luxury Israel doesn’t have. It has installed an efficient missile defense system (something not beyond the means of the South Koreans and the U.S.). It is also training to neutralize the threat of a bombardment. The IDF is currently conducting its biggest military exercise in 19 years. The announced goal is to prepare for war with Hezbollah. Israel does not intend to allow itself to be held hostage by an Iranian threat to its civilian population, or to have its hands tied by the theory of unthinkability.
This week, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem published a condemnation of North Korea: “Only a determined international response will prevent other states from behaving in the same way." Clearly, “other states” was a reference to Iran. It was also a message to the U.S.
Israel, by long experience, knows there is no such thing as an “international” community when it comes to security. What is happening now in East Asia is an American production. The Donald Trump administration has been very clear, not to say belligerent, in demanding that North Korea forgo its nuclear weapons and ambitions.
This was also the policy of previous American administrations -- but Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama didn’t really mean it. They let things slide, drew imaginary lines, held talks that went no place and hoped for the best.
The best didn’t happen. It almost never does. North Korea is now truly dangerous -- unlike Iraq and Syria, it already has nuclear weapons -- and it won’t get less so as time goes on. Trump has said this in no uncertain terms. But so far it is just words. The president may mean it. He also may not. Perhaps he will come to regret tangling with Kim. Maybe he will see it as a beginner’s mistake. He may be tempted to reverse course and try to save face with make-believe sanctions, empty United Nations resolutions or fruitless negotiations. I’m not judging him. I haven’t been in his shoes, and I wouldn’t want to be.
But if the American president does back down, if Kim Jong Un stays in power, keeps his nuclear warheads and ballistic weapons, and gets away with threatening the U.S. and its allies with nuclear destruction, every friend and foe of Washington will be revisiting its strategic playbook. For Israel, so far away from Korea yet so close to Iranian aggression, that book begins with the Begin Doctrine.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org