Analysis: Not a question of attacking, but of timing

US Sec. of Defense Panetta’s visit to Israel was aimed at achieving one goal – getting Israel to trust the United States.

Leon Panetta and Binyamin Netanyahu 390 (photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
Leon Panetta and Binyamin Netanyahu 390
(photo credit: Moshe Milner / GPO)
Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s visit to Israel on Wednesday was aimed at achieving one goal – getting Israel to trust the United States.
The visit was a lot about visuals. On Tuesday night, the Defense Ministry sent out pictures from Panetta’s intimate one-on-one dinner with Ehud Barak. On Wednesday, he was filmed next to an Iron Dome counter-rocket defense system and later receiving a plaque from Barak and Israel Air Force commander Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel.
This is the same Eshel who would oversee an Israeli strike against Iran, which Panetta came to Israel to stop, or at the very least delay.
The purpose of the pictures was to get the message across to Israel that the US has its back and, as Panetta himself declared on Wednesday, “Iran will never have nuclear weapons.”
Barak and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu used their meetings with Panetta to get across a different message – yes, the sanctions have hurt Iran’s economy, but they are not affecting the nuclear program and no, Israel will not forfeit its operational freedom and destiny into the hands of others, even good friends.
Netanyahu already made the latter point in the round of interviews he gave Israeli TV stations on Tuesday night, when he also declared that it is the political echelon that will ultimately decide on military action, and the military brass will simply be required to follow orders.
Netanyahu though wasn’t speaking to the defense chiefs – who were reported earlier that day to be opposed to a strike – but was rather making the point for American ears which should not be confused regarding Israel’s determination to stop Iran.
Even the opposition of the head of the Mossad and the IDF chief of staff, Netanyahu wanted Washington to know, will not stop the government from doing what it feels is right.
The debate that is raging within the government and the defense establishment is not about the value of an attack, since no one really wants Iran to be allowed to go nuclear. The question, however, is about the timing of such an attack and whether it needs to happen over the summer, before the US elections, or if it can wait until afterward, maybe as far away as next spring.
At the heart of this question are two additional questions – first, whether Israel can afford to wait that long and second, if Israel can really rely on the US to use military force one day if and when everything else has clearly failed.
Panetta and all of the other American officials who have crossed through the gates of Ben-Gurion Airport over the past month have been stressing to their Israeli counterparts both that Israel can afford to wait and that ultimately, the US will not allow Iran to go nuclear.
The officials who believe Israel should wait are concerned that an attack now – while possibly justified – would be done prematurely from a legitimacy point of view.
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The world has come together in an amazing coalition with sanctions and diplomatic isolation, these officials argue.
Attacking now, before the process has been exhausted, would make Israel appear as if it is undermining the rest of the world’s efforts.
The counter argument is that if Israel waits too long, its military option may no longer be viable. In addition, these officials argue, if Israel waits, who can guarantee that Iran won’t use the time gained to build a bomb without the world knowing about it?