Of all the arguments against an Israeli attack on Iran, the most inane has to be the “legitimacy argument.” This argument, beloved of leftists like Haaretz columnists Sefi Rachlevsky and Ari Shavit, holds that Israel lacks either domestic or international legitimacy to attack Iran because it hasn’t done everything possible to show itself a peace-seeker. Without such legitimacy, they argue, an attack can’t succeed. Therefore, Israel must launch a far-reaching diplomatic initiative on the Palestinian front, and at the very least postpone any strike until spring, to satisfy U.S. demands for more time to try nonmilitary means of stopping Iran’s nuclear program.
This theory is so patently historically false that it’s hard to believe anyone could seriously propound it – which is precisely why most proponents eschew any attempt to provide evidence. Just consider the “proof” offered by those who do make the attempt, like Shavit: Israel, he claims, won in 1948 and 1967 because both the world and Israelis themselves “recognized the legitimacy” of its actions, but failed in 1973 because its “inflexible” policies undermined its domestic and international legitimacy.
In reality, Israel certainly didn’t enjoy international “legitimacy” in 1948, despite the recent destruction of European Jewry in the Holocaust and its adoption of the UN Partition Plan (which the Arabs rejected): Its declaration of independence had so little international support that the entire world, including the U.S., slapped an arms embargo on it, even as Britain was pouring arms into the five Arab armies attacking it. Israel won a decisive victory not because of international “legitimacy,” but thanks to a global arms smuggling network run by pre-state leaders and Jewish supporters worldwide, bolstered by Czechoslovakia’s courageous decision to sell it planes despite the embargo.
Nor did Israel benefit from global “legitimacy” in 1967, despite having as yet “occupied” no territory: UN peacekeepers in Sinai tamely packed their bags and left at Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s request; the U.S. reneged on its 1956 pledge (given in return for Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai after that year’s war) to ensure that Egypt didn’t close the Straits of Tiran to Israel; France, Israel’s main arms supplier, halted all arms sales the moment the war began, refusing even to deliver planes and boats that Israel had already paid for; and most of the Communist bloc severed diplomatic relations with it. Instead, its stunning victory stemmed from a superbly executed battle plan built around a preemptive strike. And that victory over two Soviet-supplied armies (Egypt and Syria) at the height of the Cold War, rather than any global “legitimacy,” is what led to the ensuing American-Israel alliance.
In contrast, Israel actually went to extraordinary lengths to secure international legitimacy in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, to the point of refusing to launch a preemptive strike or even mobilize its reserves, lest it be accused of warmongering. That quest for international approval cost it dearly: Though it ultimately won a smashing victory, it came within a hairsbreadth of losing the war and suffered higher casualties than in any other war since 1948. And it got nothing in exchange: Every country in Europe still sought to block America’s emergency arms airlift, refusing to let the planes refuel on their soil or even overfly their territory (Portugal ultimately backed down and offered the Azores Islands after President Richard Nixon said that if necessary, he’d use midair refuelers instead). And due to the ensuing Arab oil embargo, Israel still lost diplomatic relations with most of the Third World.
Moreover, by the left’s standards, the 2008 Gaza war should have enjoyed unparalleled international legitimacy: It was launched in response to three years of nonstop rocket fire from territory that Israel had evacuated to the last inch, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was then conducting far-reaching peace negotiations with both the Palestinians and Syria. Instead, it produced unprecedented condemnation, culminating in the infamous Goldstone Report and its allegations of war crimes, which even some of Israel’s self-proclaimed best friends refused to oppose at the UN (though its author has since recanted it). And so on and so forth.
As for domestic legitimacy, the Israeli public has consistently judged military actions by one, and only one, criterion: whether they achieved their goals at a reasonable price. Hence Israelis deemed the Second Lebanon War of 2006 a resounding failure despite its unquestioned “legitimacy” by the leftist yardstick: Israel was responding to a cross-border attack launched after it withdrew from every inch of Lebanon, while Olmert, having just been elected on a platform of sweeping territorial withdrawal from the West Bank, was lauded as a peace-maker both overseas and by Israel’s left. The war did enjoy enormous public support initially. But the incompetent way it was waged soon turned Israelis against it.
Nor did Israelis turn on the government after the Yom Kippur War because they deemed the war in any way “illegitimate.” On the contrary, most Israelis could imagine nothing more legitimate than repelling an invasion by two Arab armies on the holiest day of the Jewish year. What outraged them, again, was solely the incompetent way it was waged.
The bottom line is that most Israelis couldn’t care less about the left’s “legitimacy” criteria; indeed, most support the government’s policy on the Palestinian issue, viewing the Palestinians as utterly uninterested in peace. Rather, they’ll back an attack on Iran if it proves successful at a reasonable cost and oppose it if it doesn’t.
As for the “international community,” it is guaranteed to condemn the attack regardless of any efforts Israel makes to appease it, just as it has every other military action Israel has ever taken. But the alliances that matter, like the American one, will survive, just as they survived spats over previous Israeli operations. Nor will a strike affect international efforts to prevent Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program (as I explain here).
Thus if waiting until spring would significantly impair Israel’s ability to launch an effective strike, the costs of doing so far outweigh the benefits. Because the one thing that is certain is that only a successful strike will have any “legitimacy” at all.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.