Has a Playbook for Dealing with North Korea
By Zev Chafets
September 7, 2017
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
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
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.