There is doubt in some quarters that Israel's Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would time an attack on Iran in the weeks before a U.S. election with the goal of dooming the incumbent Democratic president, Barack Obama, or forcing his hand to commit American military might in support of Israel.
But there was a precedent 32 years ago when another Likud government had grown alienated from the Democratic president and found itself in a position where it could help drive him from office by covertly assisting his Republican rivals in another crisis involving Iran.
In that case -- known as the "October Surprise" mystery -- President Jimmy Carter was trying to gain the release of 52 Americans then held hostage in Iran. Carter also was pushing the Likud government of Prime Minister Menachem Begin to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians that would allow them to establish their own state on the West Bank.
Begin, however, was determined to implement a Likud strategy "to change the facts on the ground" by moving Jewish settlers into the Occupied Territories, what Likud called Judea and Samaria, part of historical Israel given to the Jewish people by God. That set up a clash with Carter who was determined to achieve a comprehensive Middle East peace that would establish a Palestinian state on the West Bank.
As Begin maneuvered to block such an arrangement, Carter grew frustrated and then infuriated. In his White House Diary, Carter described how heated the confrontation became after Begin insisted on deferring any agreement pending a Knesset debate.
"I couldn't believe it," Carter wrote...
"We spent about forty-five minutes on our feet in his study. I asked him if he actually wanted a peace treaty, because my impression was that he did with apparent relish everything he could do to obstruct it. He came right up and looked in my eyes about a foot away and said that he wanted peace as much as anything else in the world. It was almost midnight when I left. We had an extremely unsatisfactory meeting ...
"I have rarely been so disgusted in all my life. I was convinced he would do everything possible to stop a treaty, rather than face the full autonomy he had promised in the West Bank."- Advertisement -
The disdain was mutual. Begin was furious over what he regarded as Carter's high-handed actions at Camp David in 1978, forcing Israel to trade the occupied Sinai to Egypt for a peace deal. Begin feared that Carter would use his second term to bully Israel into accepting a Palestinian state on West Bank lands.
Former Mossad and Foreign Ministry official David Kimche described Begin's attitude in his 1991 book, The Last Option, saying that Israeli officials had gotten wind of "collusion" between Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat "to force Israel to abandon her refusal to withdraw from territories occupied in 1967, including Jerusalem, and to agree to the establishment of a Palestinian state."
Kimche continued, "This plan -- prepared behind Israel's back and without her knowledge -- must rank as a unique attempt in United States's diplomatic history of short-changing a friend and ally by deceit and manipulation."
However, Begin recognized that the scheme required Carter winning a second term in 1980 when, Kimche wrote, "he would be free to compel Israel to accept a settlement of the Palestinian problem on his and Egyptian terms, without having to fear the backlash of the American Jewish lobby."
In a 1992 memoir, Profits of War, Ari Ben-Menashe, an Israeli military intelligence officer who worked with Likud, agreed that Begin and other Likud leaders held Carter in contempt.
"Begin loathed Carter for the peace agreement forced upon him at Camp David," Ben-Menashe wrote. "As Begin saw it, the agreement took away Sinai from Israel, did not create a comprehensive peace, and left the Palestinian issue hanging on Israel's back."
So, to buy time for Israel to build up its West Bank settlements and thus make a Palestinian state impossible, Begin felt Carter's reelection had to be prevented.
The most inviting way was to cooperate with Republicans both in undermining Carter at home and possibly using Israel's continuing clandestine influence inside Iran to obstruct Carter's desperate efforts to win freedom for 52 U.S. hostages held by Islamist radicals there.