Analysis: Who’s a better friend to Israel?

Jerusalem could obtain something tangible from US Secretary of Defense Panetta’s visit this week.

Hillary Clinton with Tom Donilon 390 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Hillary Clinton with Tom Donilon 390
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Like a kid at the circus, Israel just can’t get enough of the different acts.
First it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who came to Israel earlier this month and in some of the harshest rhetoric yet by a senior member of the Obama administration, declared that the US would use “all elements of American power” to stop Iran.
Next were Thomas Donilon and John Brennan – US President Barack Obama’s senior security and counter-terror advisers – who came to Israel to coordinate moves on Iran and Syria. Their visits were followed up with Obama’s signing into law the new United States-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act last Friday.
Then came Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney whose aides told reporters in Jerusalem on Sunday that as president, the former governor would support Israel’s decision to unilaterally attack Iran.
Wednesday will top off this round of “Who’s a better friend to Israel?” with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s visit, which will include a tour of an Iron Dome counter-rocket defense battery the US is helping to finance.
Israel understands that it is being used as something of a pawn in a larger chess match that really doesn’t have much to do with Israel.
But even if it is being used it doesn’t really mind since in the meantime it is enjoying the show and is also reaping some benefits.
While the round of visits are clearly connected to the US presidential elections, Panetta, Clinton and Donilon are also trying to get Israel to give the US and the international community more time to stop Iran with sanctions and diplomacy.
A new round of sanctions is expected to go into effect next week and the US hopes that it will contribute to Iran’s growing isolation.
But this does not mean that Israel isn’t looking to obtain something tangible from these visits. Last time Panetta visited Israel in October, he seemed to walk away with the impression that an Israeli strike against Iran would take place between April and June.
While that never happened, the publication of that prediction in The Washington Post helped create the panic Israel had been working to cultivate over the past couple of years, leading to the imposition of additional rounds of sanctions on the Iranian regime.
However, when he meets on Wednesday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Panetta will most likely walk away without the calming assurances he might otherwise have hoped for. Israel has an interest in remaining ambiguous about its intentions on Iran and if, when and how it will act.
In addition to discussions on regional issues, Israel is also likely to try and understand from Panetta the significance of the new bill Obama passed into law on Friday.
While some media have hyped up the bill’s inclusion for example, of the potential sale of refueling tankers, Israel is not looking to buy new tankers – especially old and used American ones it does not have experience using.
Instead, the Air Force prefers to wait for Boeing to complete development of the US Air Force’s future tanker and then buy some of those once they hit the market.
The bill also calls for increased support of the development of missile defense systems.
That has been going on for decades and according to some estimates, the US has poured over a billion dollars into systems like the Arrow, David’s Sling and Iron Dome over the years.
In other words, the bill basically mentions everything that the Obama administration has been doing for Israel and vows to keep at it. One official from a US-based Jewish group nevertheless stressed that while the bill is an affirmation of what Congress would support, it will ultimately be up to the president to choose to do something.
For that reason, when hailing the bill on Friday, Barak specially mentioned the $70m. the US recently pledged for the Iron Dome, but nothing else. That is because there is nothing yet tangible to speak of.
Panetta’s trip might change that.