Israel keeps the peace? That may seem jarring since when Israel gets in the news—as in the current operation against Hamas terror in Gaza—it’s usually in connection to violence.
But in reality, as a democratic, Western-aligned country and the Middle East’s preeminent military power, Israel has done much over the decades to keep the region from being worse than it is. Israel has used its might—sometimes openly, sometimes discreetly—not only to safeguard its own interests but also those of the West and the more moderate Arab states.
1. Preventing a nuclear Iraq.
When Iraq came to the verge of going nuclear, it was Israel that stopped it.
In the 1970s, France—heavily pro-Arab and dependent on Arab oil—started helping Iraq build the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad. By 1981, with Saddam Hussein in power, Israeli intelligence conveyed its grim findings to Jerusalem: Iraq, a sworn enemy of Israel, was aiming to build nuclear weapons at Osirak and was within a year of doing so.
Israel tried diplomacy with France and the U.S. With the former, it was no-go; Iraq was France’s main customer for weaponry, paying mainly in oil. As for the U.S., it agreed with Israel’s assessments but declined to act, possibly because Iraq was then fighting Iran.
So on June 7, 1981, under orders from Prime Minister Menachem Begin, the Israeli air force dispatched 14 F-15s and F-16s to Osirak. The planes flew low so that Iraq never detected them, and they reduced the reactor to ruins in a minute and 20 seconds.
The attack, of course, was universally condemned at the time. The U.S. suspended a shipment of planes to Israel. But in June 1991, visiting Israel after the Gulf War, then-Defense Secretary Richard Cheney gave General David Ivry, chief of the Israeli air force ten years earlier, his “thanks and appreciation for the outstanding job he did on the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981, which made our job much easier in Desert Storm.”
Desert Storm was a success, pushing Iraq out of Kuwait and maintaining relative order in the Middle East. Although further U.S. measures in Iraq are more debatable, at least they didn’t have to be carried out against a nuclear Iraq.
2. Preventing a nuclear Syria.
Syria is another Middle Eastern country you wouldn’t want to see with nuclear bombs. That, too, came close to happening and was prevented by Israel.
In late 2006 and early 2007, Israeli intelligence found out that North Korea was building a plutonium reactor for the Assad regime in northern Syria. The aim: to put together a nuclear bomb.
In April, Israel conveyed that finding to Washington. President Bush ordered an inquiry; U.S. intelligence said Israel was right.
The then Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, tried to convince the U.S. to attack, but Washington—already embroiled in Iraq—declined. Olmert told Bush that, in that case, Israel would do it. Olmert interpreted Bush’s reaction as a green light.
Shortly after midnight on September 6, 2007, Israeli planes dropped 17 tons of bombs on the reactor, putting an end to it. This time Israel kept mum, not officially acknowledging the operation (it hasn’t to this day), and criticism was more muted. Considering that, a few years later, the Assad regime showed itself quite capable of using chemical weapons against civilians, Israel again did the world a great favor.
3. Protecting Jordan.
Israel’s neighbor to the east, Jordan, has long been one of the Middle East’s moderate, pro-Western states. That is not to say Israel’s experience with Jordan has always been good, particularly not when it attacked Israel in June 1967 as part of the Six Day War. But the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1994, and Jordan’s security forces quietly cooperate with Israel in keeping the Israeli-Jordanian border quiet.
The relationship, though, goes beyond tacit cooperation; Israel has also been Jordan’s protector against threats from its north and east. It happened in 1970 during Black September, an all-out Jordanian attack on PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization) forces that had come to roost in Jordan and were threatening to take it over. When Syria sent in forces from the north to help out the PLO, the threat of an Israeli intervention played a key role in getting those forces to withdraw.
Back then it was Syria; now it’s ISIS, the ferocious terror group that has taken over parts of Iraq and makes no secret of its ambition to take over Jordan—and eventually Israel, too. King Abdullah of Jordan knows that Israel wouldn’t want an ISIS takeover of his country much more than he would, and that Israel’s might is there beside him. A Jordanian diplomatic source told Israel’s Ynet that “there is a very good cooperation between us regarding ISIS’ growing presence in Iraq and Syria.” A Senate staff member told the Daily Beast’s Eli Lake that if attacked by ISIS, Jordan “will ask Israel and the United States for as much help as they can get.”
No wonder Jordan wants Israel to keep its forces in the Jordan Valley.
4. Keeping the Sinai quiet.
The 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty—for which Israel paid a heavy price of totally withdrawing from the Sinai and razing its civilian settlements there—has been a stabilizing factor in the region. Egypt did not turn into a friendly country, and the peace has always been cold. But particularly since Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime was overthrown a year ago, Israeli-Egyptian tacit cooperation has kept the Sinai from turning into yet another global-jihad statelet.
For Israel, that has involved another sacrifice—bending the terms of the peace treaty, which made the Sinai a demilitarized zone, and allowing Egypt to send forces there to fight the jihad groups. In late May Al-Monitor reported on “Israel-Egypt anti-terrorism cooperation at [its] zenith.” With Al-Qaeda setting up camp in the Sinai and forging ties with Israel’s arch-foe Hamas in Gaza, Israel and the anti-Islamist al-Sisi regime in Cairo know they have a common enemy.
An ISIS-style jihadist takeover of the Sinai would be dangerous for Israel, existentially dangerous for Egypt, and pose extreme peril to world commerce by threatening the Suez Canal. You may not hear about it, but along with Egypt, its tacit strategic ally, Israel has been quietly at work making sure none of that happens.
5. Preventing a nuclear Iran—or trying to.
Even more dangerous than nuclear Iraq or nuclear Syria would be nuclear Iran, considering the global-hegemony ambitions of the mullahs in Tehran. Although we can’t know the whole story, Israel has done much over the years to hinder that development.
That has involved a long history of covert operations that reportedly have included sabotage, assassinations of nuclear scientists, and—in cooperation with the U.S.—the Stuxnet virus. But even more important, Israel—and particularly Benjamin Netanyahu—has played a key role in getting the U.S. and other Western governments to take the Iranian nuclear threat seriously and impose sanctions.
It’s now reported that—even with the partial sanctions relief Iran has enjoyed since starting nuclear talks with the West—Iran could be nearing an economic meltdown that would spell the end of the Islamic Republic. What could still rescue Iran is a hasty, unwise nuclear deal by the July 20 deadline that would enable it to recover.
Israel, even with the distractions in Gaza, is watching carefully and hoping that doesn’t happen. If it does, Israel—with its history of containing the region’s most severe threats—reserves other options.
Stopping two dangerous Middle Eastern countries—and hopefully a third, even more dangerous one—from going nuclear; protecting a moderate, pro-Western Middle Eastern country from predators; keeping Sinai from turning into a deadly jihad zone—those are some ways Israel keeps the Middle East from boiling over.
To those can be added, among other things, Israel’s assassinations of deadly terrorist leaders over the years; renowned intelligence capabilities that steadily transmit vital information to the U.S. and other Western governments; and extensive strategic alliance with the U.S. that endures despite the frictions with the Obama administration.
Not bad for a country that still has a pariah status in the region, exists on a tiny sliver of its territory, and, thanks to the mainstream media, has become linked in many people’s minds to strife with the Palestinians and not much else.