The head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff caused a mini-row in Israel by remarks about Israel''s capacity to deal with Iran''s nuclear program. According to one view on a prominent Israeli web site.
"Once every few years Israel needs a slap in the face to remember where it stands in the world. On Tuesday it was US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey who assumed the role of the responsible adult and slapped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak . . . Israel can "delay but not destroy Iran''s nuclear capabilities," . . . .Dempsey''s comments should be taken seriously, as should the stern message conveyed by Panetta, the White House and the American security establishment: If we can''t reason with you, the Israelis, we will have to get tough."
I see Demsey candidly expressing the difference between American and Israeli perceptions and interests. His comments about delay but not destroy resemble what Israelis with military experience are saying. He has also said that American and Israeli professionals interpret the same intelligence about Iranian activities differently, that the Iranian threat to Israel is to its very existence while that is not the case with respect to the Iranian threat to the United States, and that he is not sure about Israel''s intentions and capacities. He admits that Israel and the United States share a great deal of information, but not everything.
Israel is dependent on the United States, but not totally. The United States also is dependent on Israel, although the balance of dependence is by no mean symmetrical. On several occasions Israeli officials have tempered their actions with respect to one troublesome neighbor or another, in response to American demands. Who is dependent on who? The actions of each country in the Middle East depend to some extent on the other.
There is no precise metric to measure "dependence" in a global, interdependent world. Israel has demonstrated a significant level of independent action on several occasions.
All should understand that Israelis view Iran''s nuclear program, along with its president''s obsession with Israel, as a threat of Holocaust proportions, and remember the tepid response of the United States and other powerful countries to the Holocaust while in progress. Ending that threat, at least temporarily, will be worth the consequences of Iranian, Hizbollah, and Hamas retaliations that will kills hundreds or thousands of Israelis. Iranians, Lebanese, and Gazans should recognize, however, that Israel''s subsequent retaliations are likely to surpass anything they have felt in previous encounters.
Involved in Israelis'' recognition of their capacity to only delay Iran''s nuclear program is the realization that "delay" can be a serious setback, and lead Iranians to realize the costs of their aspirations. True, some Iranians may be spurred to greater efforts by an Israeli attack, but other things can intervene and contribute to their continued frustrations. Observers said that Israel only delayed the Iraqi nuclear program in 1981.
Why doesn''t Israel accept the American assurance that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, and go about other business without an obsession with Iran?
There is a problem of trust. One can admire Barack Obama on other issues, yet not rely on his statements about Iran''s nuclear program. His strong and repeated statements about negotiating with Iran have impressed Israelis as more of his naivete with respect to the Middle East. Most impressive, in a negative sense, was his demand that Israel cease construction in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem acquired after 1967. His approval rating among Israelis dipped to 6 percent by some reckoning, and 4 percent by others. It has improved since then, but he still has a problem with Israelis and with members of the Israeli government.
No surprise that perceptions correspond with politics. While Shimon Peres urges Israel to rely on the United States, Israel Hayom--the paper financed by Sheldon Adelson and closely identified with Prime Minister Netanyahu--quotes a former aide of Dick Cheney, "The American cavalry will not come to your aid . . . Don''t count on an American attack on Iran . . . The United States will act only if something injures it." On the same page, the newspaper quotes the French paper l''Express on Obama, "He wanted to change the world, and disappointed . . . He did not live up to expectations."
The cartoon in Wednesday''s Israel Hayom shows Barack Obama with paint and brush, saying "This is my red line. Don''t dare to pass it." Part of the line in front of Bashar al-Assad carrying a chemical weapon is solid, but the line in front of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad carrying a nuclear weapon is a series of dashes, with space between them.
A set of recent Pew Research Center polls that covered several countries, but not Israel, found a general decline in overseas opinions about the president''s record in foreign policy.
What happens will happen. My guess is that it is more likely to come from Israel than from the United States, with American officials and citizens responding as they will. If it comes before the election, and my fingers are still working, I am likely to comment.