On September 11, 2001, after two terrorist attacks occurred on U.S. soil, Israeli political figures anticipated that the Americans would finally be able to empathize with Israel’s vulnerability to terror. In the hours immediately following the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Israeli leaders envisioned a massive U.S. retaliation in which Israel was uniquely equipped to be a partner, even a mentor, of the U.S. (1)
“The fight against terror is an international struggle of the free world against the forces of darkness who seek to destroy our liberty and our way of life,” then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared in a televised statement just after midnight on September 12. “I believe that together we can defeat these forces of evil.”
A spate of Israeli pronouncements proclaimed Israel’s own foreign policy priorities. They drew upon a decade of Israeli assertions of Iranian complicity in all things terrorist, and warnings of imminent Iranian nuclear weaponization. A war of civilizations had begun. 9/11 was just the first strike of Islamic fundamentalists. The next might be a nuclear attack by Iran.
The pronouncements constituted the opening salvo in a months-long back-and-forth about how the U.S. would frame its new “global war on terror.” Would the U.S. choose to court the cooperation of regimes in Muslim majority countries — even enlisting governments like Iran who might sympathize with the dangers of transnational terrorism — in preference to its steadfast strategic partner and loyal ally Israel?
Having just visited the U.S. on September 10, and stopping over in London on his way back to Israel, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that, while it was “probable,” he couldn’t say with certainty that the attacks were linked to Osama Bin Laden. He offered his expectation of a global response to September 11: “The very scale of these acts and the challenge they pose are such that they should evoke a worldwide fight against terrorism,” he declared, citing Europe’s effort against piracy. According to Le Monde, Barak [currently Israel’s Defense Minister], saw a “a new and clear demarcation line,” where the “fight” must go beyond Bin Laden and Palestinian resistance groups to include countries that support and harbor them, including “Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, to a certain degree North Korea and Libya, Sudan and a few other regimes that play a secondary role.” (2)
Benjamin Netanyahu, then between his stints as prime minister (he currently holds the office), warned that the attacks on New York and Washington could be a harbinger of the deaths of millions of people once Iran or Iraq acquired nuclear weapons. He emphasized that he personally had warned of such attacks soon after the World Trade Center bombing in 1993, and in his 1995 book Fighting Terrorism (reissued in 2001). The Jerusalem Post reported Netanyahu’s call for a coalition against “terrorist states like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and the Palestinian entity” that want to “devour the West.” (3)
Opinion pieces derided Russia and its export of “nuclear know-how and equipment to Iran.” (4) An Iran with a bomb, an editorial in the business daily Globes declared, meant that terror organizations could gain access to it. (5) Dan Meridor, an Israeli government minister without portfolio in charge of Israel’s secret services, dismissed the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and spoke to Globes instead about a wider war between the free world and countries that support terror that would span “from Ramallah to Gaza, through the Al-Biqa Valley in Lebanon, the mountains of Iran and Afghanistan, all the way to Manhattan.” (6) The war would come quickly: Yosef Lapid of the Shinui party declared in the Jerusalem Post, once Iran had a nuclear bomb in its possession “within three or, at most, five years.” (7)
Whereas George H. W. Bush had kept Israel on the sidelines during the fist Gulf War, an unnamed “Western diplomatic source” now told the Jerusalem Post that Israel would be a full partner in George W. Bush’s anti-terror coalition. Israel might now be allowed to even “participate in attacks against Iraq, as well as Iran and Afghanistan.” (8)
A few days later, however, Efraim Inbar, Director of Bar Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Institute of Strategic Studies (BESA), suggested in a radio interview that the inclusion of Muslim states in the U.S. “coalition against terrorism,” among them Iran, might require some “compromises” on the part of the U.S. (9) Subsequent reports in the Israeli media built on this apprehension that the participation of Muslim countries would not only restrict Israel’s membership in the anti-terrorist coalition, but might pressure the U.S. to demand Israeli concessions to the Palestinians. Alon Pinkas, the Israeli Consul in New York, informed the Foreign Ministry in a cable eight days after the attacks that a “paradigm shift” was taking place in American thinking that could raise questions about the U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and criticism of Sharon in major American newspapers might be early warning signs of an anti-Israel backlash.
Pinkas noted that the U.S. media was beginning to link Israeli policies and Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the September 11 attacks, and predicted that “this topic will gain currency on the U.S. agenda… and it becomes clear that Israeli and U.S. interests on the matter are not identical.” (10)
Foreign Ministry officials accused Pinkas of being an “alarmist.” But Israel did not appear on any of the televised maps of the “coalition against terror,” and none of the 27 terrorist-supporting organizations whose assets had been frozen by Bush were groups linked to terror against Israel.
Adding to growing concern in Israel was the news that then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair had phoned Bush to inform him of a “remarkable conversation” with Iranian President Mohamad Khatami, and that he was dispatching his foreign minister to Tehran for a three day trip in late September. The Bush administration, the Jerusalem Post worried on September 23, “has no formal links with Tehran but regards Iran as a critical element in legitimizing the coalition and cloaking it in Islamic credibility.” (11)
Israeli politician Efraim Sneh complained on Israeli radio that Iran “will buy itself legitimacy at very little expense.” After the campaign against Bin Laden was over, Sneh predicted gloomily, “[Iran] will continue its support for terrorism, but with a kosher certificate from the United States.” (12) Just before his arrival in Tehran, British Foreign Minister Jack Straw wrote in an Iranian paper that “events over the years in the Palestinian territories” were a root cause of terror. Sneh called the article “an obscenity,” and denounced the trip as a “stab in the back” of Israel. (13)
Israeli President Moshe Katsav refused to meet with Straw during his visit to Israel. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres canceled a dinner in Straw’s honor, but met with him briefly. During their meeting, Peres accused Iran of both funding and directing Hizbullah, publicly calling for the destruction of Israel and of developing nuclear weapons. In the hands of extremist ayatollahs, Peres said, these weapons are “a danger to the entire world.”
In late September, the Jerusalem Post offered the view of a senior IDF intelligence officer, speaking anonymously, that Iran “could have had a hand” in plotting the attacks on the U.S. “We don’t have any information to support the possibility that Iraq is part of the plot,” the officer said. “But we can’t say the same for the Iranians. They are very deeply involved in everything that carries the label of Islamic radical terrorism.” The anonymous officer declared that Osama bin Laden, Hizbullah and Hamas were all from the same school of thought, but Iran was unique as a nation state seeking weapons of mass destruction. (14)
Not surprisingly, 81 percent of nearly 13,000 respondents to a reader survey on the Jerusalem Post website said that they thought Iran was in some way involved in the attack on the World Trade Center. (15)
In Washington, when addressing Congress on September 20, Netanyahu lumped together Bin Laden, Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Palestinian groups as a terror “network.” The catalyst for the network, he said, lay in Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution: “This created a sovereign spiritual base for fomenting a strident Islamic militancy worldwide, a militancy that was often backed by terror.” (16)
Sharon’s domestic priorities — including containment of his right wing coalition partners who demanded he get tough on terrorists, expel Arafat and reject once and for all the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza — were on a collision course with growing U.S. concern about how Israeli actions might affect the dynamics of the U.S.’s new coalition. Foreign Minister Shimon Peres [now Israel’s president] proposed that Israel reaffirm its agreement with U.S. aims in the “war on terror.” Several cabinet ministers agreed that “the [Palestinian Authority] should be presented in the U.S. as ‘Israel’s Taliban,’ which gives aid and succor to terrorists.”
In subsequent weeks, a series of Israelis came to Washington for visits with Bush administration officials. In a single week in mid-October, over a dozen government officials, envoys and senior military officers visited Washington. The Director General of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission briefed the U.S. administration on Israel’s ent estimate of the progress being made in Iran’s nuclear research, and urged the administration to make Russian support of Iran a foreign policy priority.
During talks with Condoleezza Rice, Sneh complained to reporters that the U.S. seemed to be ignoring Iran’s terrorism record, and that Iran should be disqualified from any role in the U.S. alliance against terror. “Iran stands in first place as a sponsor of terrorism,” Sneh said. “If someone forgets that, we are willing to remind them.” Sneh expressed his certainty that Russia was damaging Israel’s security by supporting Iran’s nuclear weapons program. “We believe they cannot be considered as countries that fight terrorism,” he said.
The Israeli visitors were assured that the U.S. would win its war against terrorism and that Israel would benefit from the new international order that would follow. Iran and Syria would be watched carefully, and Hizbullah and other groups fighting Israel would be added to the list of terrorist organizations. However, senior U.S. officials expressed concern that Israel was trying to force the Palestinian Authority to collapse, a move the U.S. would not support because it would undermine regional stability and endanger American strategy by creating friction between the U.S. and moderate Arab states.
Iran was recognized among the “six-plus-two” states that met in New York on November 12, 2001, the day before the fall of Kabul, to decide Afghanistan’s future. Iran’s support of the Northern Alliance was credited with helping the U.S.-led forces seize large swaths of the country. But U.S. insistence that Afghan forces not enter Kabul aroused Iranian suspicions that the U.S. might attempt to install a puppet regime composed of Pashtun remnants of the Taliban hostile to Tehran.
In early December, Sharon met with Bush for a “working visit” that would discuss, according to the White House Press Secretary, “the international campaign against terrorism and the pursuit of peace in the Middle East” (17). Although analysts had expected little from the meeting, what emerged was Israel’s inclusion, at long last, in the frontline of the “war against terror,” and an unprecedented affirmation of Israel’s right to act both defensively and proactively against terrorism.
During the months following the events of September 11 and the proclamation of the “war on terror,” Israel played an active and discernible role in trying to prevent any possible warming of relations between the U.S. and Iran. The pinnacle of its success was Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address on January 29, which, in a passage authored by neoconservative David Frum, declared Iran (and Iraq) to be part of an “axis of evil” comprised of regimes that sought to acquire nuclear weapons so they could provide them to terrorists.
This branding not only pushed Iran further beyond the U.S. foreign policy pale, it also undermined the domestic political position of Iranian leaders who had advocated the possibility of rapprochement with the U.S. While the denunciation of Iran by Bush may have delighted the exponents of the “Iranian threat” in Israel and the U.S., it also blurred, in American eyes, the boundaries between Iranian hardliners and moderates, conservatives and reformists. The failure of the Iranian reformists to achieve and sustain any substantial economic or political gains between 1997-2005 led directly to the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the current hardliners’ hold on power.
(1) See, for example, Greer Faye Cashman, “Katsav Expresses Nation’s Sorrow.” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 12, 2001.
(2) Jean-Marie Colombani, Jean-Pierre Langellier and Georges Marion, “What Ehud Baraq Says About It,” interview. Le Monde, internet version, Sept. 13, 2001.
(3) Gil Hoffman, “Netanyahu: World Must Join to Crush Terror,” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 12, 2001.
(4) Shalom Rosenfeld, “Commentary: Historical Leader.” Maariv Hayom Supplement, Sept. 13, 2001.
(5) Editorial, “World Gets a Warning,” Globes, Sept. 13, 2001.
(6) Tzvi Lavi, interview with Dan Meridor, Sept. 12, 2001, “We Will Win in the End, And It’s A Pity That They Won’t Be There,” Globes, Sept. 13, 2001.
(7) Yosef Lapid, “The Warning,” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 14, 2001.
(8) Gil Hoffman, “Gulf War-Style Anti-Terror Coalition to Include Israel.” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 14, 2001.
(9) Jerusalem Post Radio, interviewer by Miriam Shaked, Sept. 17, 2001.
(10) Herb Keinon, “US May See Israel as Obstacle to Coalition,” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 21, 2001.
(11) Douglas Davis, “British FM to Iran for Historical Visit,” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 23, 2001.
(12) Greg Myre, “Israel: Anti-terror Coalition Should Target Iran, Syria.” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 25, 2001.
(13) Steve Weizman, AP, “Sneh Launches Blistering Attack on British FM,” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 24, 2001.
(14) Arieh O’Sullivan, “IDF: Iraq not involved in attacks; Iran maybe,” Jerusalem Post, Sept. 23, 2001.
(15) Online Jerusalem Post poll, Sept. 23, 2001.
(16) “We Are All Targets,” transcript of remarks to US House of Representatives’ Government Reform Committee, Jerusalem Post, Sept. 24, 2001.
(17) White House Press Briefing, Nov. 21, 2001.