It is symbolic that the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff chose Valentine’s Day to come here to talk about the meaning of the color red. It is a passionate color that can lead to violence and warfare, or it can signal a love that transcends time, a true bond. It is the banner that leads the troops to war; and a warning of danger up ahead. Red is the color of blood, courage and sacrifice, love, life and death.

The thinking within the Israeli military community is that when the chips are down, at the precise moment when Israel believes it has no choice but to attack Iran and no better operational window within which to do it, the US cannot stand in Israel’s way, cannot give Jerusalem a red light.

As so many observers of Israeli drivers’ traffic habits can attest to, a red light does not always mean you can’t drive through it. There are terrible risks involved, there may be collisions, pileups and casualties, but if you need to get to the other side, then nobody is going to stop you. In some parts of the world, you can even turn at red lights if there is no oncoming traffic.

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There are some lines allies don’t cross with each other, and there are others that simply need to be crossed, with all the genuine sadness and acceptance of consequences that comes with crossing them. America won’t want Israel to fly through its red light all the way to Natanz, Isfahan and other such sites, placing its troops in the region in danger of Iranian retaliation, and scuttling President Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world.

Some say that even if America gave Israel an explicit red light against attacking Iran, and Israel drove through it, nobody would believe that the US hadn’t given Jerusalem a green light, or even a yellow light.

Russia won’t want Israel to fly through its red light to Bushehr, which it is currently building at an enormous profit. Israel won’t want Russia to cross a red light and deliver the fearsome S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to the Iranians. But if the Russians feel that they simply must cross that red light (the Iranians have already paid for the system, at enormous profit to Moscow) then they’ll cross it, and Israel will have to find a way around the S-300, which will be, at the end of the day, just another technical puzzle to solve, like so many others.

But what would happen to US-Israel ties if Israel  flew through a US red light to attack Iran’s
nuclear facilities? Not much, according to one school of thought. While officials in the US administration would cry foul and may even impose some penalties, some experts argue that popular American opinion would be understanding of Israel, even sympathetic.

Even were US forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf to bear the brunt of an Iranian retaliation over an Israeli attack, most Americans, so the thinking goes, wouldn’t turn that into a major issue. Most Americans are even now oblivious to the fact that 15,000 of their soldiers have launched a massive offensive against the Taliban.

However, many experts believe that Israel will not drive through an explicit American red light. That would simply be too great a risk. If, hypothetically, it did, the consequences would be strategically catastrophic for Israel.

What would happen if Israel violated an American red light may hinge on the results of an attack on Iran. If the attack resembles the 2007 bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor, which was destroyed, eliciting no Syrian response, the strategic alliance between Jerusalem and Washington may hold firm at some levels, and even recover over time.

However, if the mission is not a clear-cut success, if Iran’s nuclear march is not halted or significantly set back, if the Iranian people unite behind their increasingly illegitimate regime, if Iran strikes out and severely harms American troops in the region, if America’s Gulf allies are overrun and if world oil prices shoot up and stay up, then there is a strong possibility Washington could decide Israel is a country that is not entitled to American support.

Israel could lose its best friend in the world. America could withdraw its support for Israel in the Security Council, where Israel will face severe diplomatic fallout, and even sanctions. America could halt military assistance to Israel. Then we would truly be all alone in the world.

How would Obama react? He has been seeking broad consensus for sanctions against the Revolutionary Guards, which controls Iran’s nuclear weapons program and much of the country’s economy. He wants more time for these sanctions to work. He has just appointed an envoy to the Muslim world to be emissary to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. He has launched an offensive in Afghanistan, is getting increasingly embroiled in Pakistan, and has promised to withdraw American troops from Iraq. He has a lot to lose in an Israeli strike on Iran.

At the end of the day, it may all come down to how clear and explicit the American red light to Israel is. If President Obama looks Prime Minister Netanyahu in the eyes and says, “Absolutely not,” then it will be extremely unlikely Israel will attack Iran. But in politics and diplomacy, there are many different ways of saying no, many different ways of interpreting a “no,” many different shades of red. Sometimes things are not so cut-and-dry, red is not always black and white.

But the parade of US officials here will be reminding their Israeli counterparts that red is a primary color, not made up of some green, some yellow and some white. It is not magenta, it is not crimson. If the Americans give Israel a firm red, in the clearest possible terms, and they really mean it, then there is no room for constructive ambiguity, and those in the driver’s seat of Israel’s car will have to approach the oncoming fateful intersection with extreme caution.

To read more of Amir's articles and posts, visit his personal blog at www.forecasthighs.com.

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