On Sept. 4, 2003, three Israeli air force F-15s flew low over the gates of the former death camp at Auschwitz. On the ground — on the train tracks, in fact, leading to the gas chambers — a delegation of Israeli military officers stood at attention.
They listened as the lead pilot, then-Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel, broadcast a statement from his cockpit: "We pilots of the air force, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims and shoulder their silent cries, salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its nation, Israel."
Officers who attended the ceremony told me they dreamed, at that moment, of somehow devising a way to send those planes back in time, to bomb the tracks on which they stood while the cattle cars were still rolling.
The Israeli air force, of course, had permission from the Polish authorities to fly this extraordinary mission. But what wasn't known at the time was that the Poles and the Israelis disagreed about the flight path. The Poles wanted the Israelis to stay high in the air, above the clouds. Eshel, however, disobeyed the Polish directive, and flew low, so the Israelis on the ground could see him. In a story that has since become famous among Israeli air force officers, Eshel told his fellow pilots, "We had to listen to the Poles for 800 years. Today we don't have to listen anymore."
A photograph of the Auschwitz flyover hangs today in offices across the Israeli defense establishment. In the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, the photos I saw were signed by Gen. Eliezer Shkedi, who was the air force commander at the time. The inscription on these photos read, "To remember. To never forget. To rely on no one but ourselves."
This past weekend, Eshel was appointed commander of the Israeli air force. It will fall to him to plan and execute the attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, should Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu order him to do so. Senior U.S. officials think that Netanyahu is preparing to launch such an attack in the coming months.
Netanyahu has never kept hidden his feelings about Iran. This is what he told me three years ago: "You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying."
Iran represents the definitive, post-Nazi Jewish nightmare: a regime that openly argues for the destruction of Israel and is seeking nuclear weapons. Zionism — actual Zionism, not the malicious fever-dream version of Zionism advanced by the clerics in Tehran — demanded that the world grant national equality to the Jewish people. It also made a demand of Jews themselves: Count on no one, because no one will come to your aid in your most dire moment. Over Auschwitz, Eshel took symbolic revenge on the Poles who humiliated the Jews in the centuries leading up to the Holocaust. His then-commander saw in Auschwitz perfect proof that the Zionist emphasis on self-reliance was correct.
Yet Israel hasn't attacked Iran. Why? American officials think the only reason is the active discouragement of the Obama administration. The message from Barack Obama to Netanyahu is clear: We've got this. We won't let Iran go nuclear, so please don't do anything yourselves. And if you attack, you may wind up hurting us.
No Israeli prime minister has faced quite so difficult a dilemma as the one Netanyahu faces now. To his east, Iran, an anti-Semitic regime that seeks nuclear weapons and calls for Israel's elimination. To his west, the United States, a country that is Israel's prime benefactor in a hostile world. Netanyahu understands that a nuclear Iran could mean permanent insecurity for his people, and eventual war. But he understands, too, that his small nation would be adrift and friendless if it alienated the United States.
The self-reliant Zionist in him believes that it is his duty, and his duty alone, to prevent a second Holocaust. But the realist in him knows exactly where the F-15s that flew over Auschwitz were made.
Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for the Atlantic, is a Bloomberg View columnist.
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