What’s brewing between the US and Israel?

When Israel has to make its decision on Iran, it will likely be best to refrain from asking for permission.

By
March 5, 2010 21:55
Defense Minister Ehud Barak and US Defense Secreta

barak gates 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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A policeman stationed at Ben-Gurion Airport’s passport control lately could be forgiven for thinking that Israel has become  exactly what many have joked it is over the years: the 51st US state.

In the past two months alone, CIA Director Leon Panetta, National Security Adviser Jim Jones, NSC strategist Dennis Ross, Deputy Secretaries of State Jim Steinberg and Jack Lew, Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen have all passed through Ben-Gurion. Topping them all off is the expected visit next week to Jerusalem of Vice President Joe Biden, the highest-ranking US official to visit since Barack Obama was sworn in as president 14 months ago.

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Trips have also been made in the opposite direction.

Last week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak was in Washington for talks with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Biden. Next week, Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi will be there for another round of talks with Mullen, just three weeks after the two last met. At the end of the month, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will travel to the US for meetings with the administration and top legislators on Capital Hill and to attend AIPAC’s annual policy conference.

The increased dialogue leaves no doubt that something is brewing between Israel and the US. The talks have two focuses – an attempt to restart peace negotiations with the Palestinians and to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue.

While it might not be saying it, Israel is disappointed with the progress of the international community’s attempts to impose a new round of sanctions on Iran. On Monday, Clinton – in direct contradiction to earlier statements by the administration that the sanctions would be passed by the end of March at the latest – said it could take several more months before sanctions are imposed.

While the time frame is something Israel can likely live with – on the condition that Iran does not decide to go for the breakout stage and begin enriching uranium to military-grade levels – it still maintains a substantial disagreement with the Obama administration regarding the type of sanctions that need to be imposed.

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On Monday, for example, Netanyahu repeated his long-standing call for sanctions on the Iranian energy sector and specifically on its oil exports. Israel is also in favor of clamping sanctions on the import of refined fuel to Iran. Clinton and Gates have argued against such sanctions, which they say will hurt ordinary Iranian citizens.

Despite these differences, Israel is likely to give the Americans more time.

JERUSALEM’S STRATEGY is quite simple, and dates back to the beginning of Obama’s term when he decided to engage Iran diplomatically. Israel told Obama at the time that while it did not believe the engagement would work, it was willing to let him try. Once the engagement failed and Obama decided to ratchet up to sanctions, Israel expressed support, but once again warned that like the engagement, the sanctions also needed to be capped with a time limit.

This is all being done with the awareness that the likelihood of Obama attacking Iran should the sanctions fail is slim. But, by playing ball with the international efforts and not working to undermine them, Israel is increasing the support it will have if all else fails and it decides to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. This way it will be able to say to the world: “We let you try everything and now we don’t have a choice.”

Looking at the two precedents – Israel’s alleged bombing of the Syrian reactor in September 2007 and the bombing of the Osirak reactor in Iraq 26 years earlier – Israel will be best not asking Washington for permission to strike Iran. In 1981, it came under criticism which later turned into praise. And in 2007, many within the US administration believed that Bush would not approve a strike on Syria – or Iran for that matter – should Israel ask for a green light.

A senior member of Bush’s administration recalled recently that in 2006, the president began considering possible military action against Sudan to stop the genocide in Darfur. In the end though, close advisers told Bush that he could not possibly attack a third Islamic country after he was already waging war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The same logic applied to the chances for a US strike on Iran or Syria.

As a result, when Israel has to make its decision on Iran, it will likely be best off copying the two previous models and refraining from asking for permission.

While far more difficult, an operation against Iran is believed to be possible even if Israel does not receive a green light from the US to fly over Iraq. Embarking on such a mission entails a great deal of risks – will the IAF’s planes reach their targets, will jets be shot down, will the bombs penetrate the fortified underground nuclear facilities and more. Flying over Iraq without US permission would add one more danger to the list.

Meanwhile, the other side is not sitting by idly waiting for Israel to make its move, but rather is actively preparing for an attack. This was evident by last week’s meeting in Damascus between Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, as well as by the summit in Teheran between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal and Islamic Jihad chief Ramdam Salah.

While each official made his usual declarations – Ahmadinejad said “a Middle East without Zionism is a divine promise” – it is highly probable that the talks also focused on practical matters of creating a radical bloc to retaliate against any Israeli or US act of aggression against Iran. There are also concerns that Iran will activate Hizbullah as a means of diverting Israel’s attention away from its nuclear progress, and as an attempt to ward off additional sanctions.

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