By YAAKOV KATZ
The Juniper Cobra missile defense exercise between Israel and the US came to an end this week, culminating in the mostly ceremonial firing of several Patriot missiles into the Mediterranean.
By Thursday most of the 1,400 American troops that arrived a month ago had left, the Aegis missile ships had lifted their anchors from Haifa Port and the various US-made missile defense systems - THAAD and PAC3 - were loaded onto Galaxy transport aircraft.
By most standards, the exercise was a success. The teams worked well with one another and developed a good rapport, even playing a basketball game against one another which, of course, the IAF team lost.
Officials said that a new level of interoperability was created between Israeli systems - Arrow and Patriot - and the American ones. In the event of a future conflict, Israel would be able to receive the systems, plug them in and declare them operational almost immediately.
The exercise had three main components - "Field Training," which focused on improving cooperation between Israeli and US forces; "Computer Simulation," which examined the interoperability between Israeli and US systems; and the live fire exercise which tested Israel and US radars, and the Patriot defense.
At the same time that Israeli and American military commanders were praising one another for the completion of a successful three-week exercise, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu appeared to be getting the cold shoulder from the White House, which confirmed his meeting with President Barack Obama at the last minute, after he landed in Washington on Monday.
Media reports later speculated that during their meeting, Obama lambasted Netanyahu for leaking details from previous meetings, as well as for his alleged private criticism of the administration. The Prime Minister's Office naturally rejected the reports, but a strange sense was created that Israeli-US relations were currently running on two seemingly contradictory tracks, one with strengthening military ties, the other with deteriorating diplomatic ties.
THE TWO tracks though may not be as contradictory as they seem. The Juniper Cobra exercise - the largest missile defense exercise in Israeli history - could be viewed on several different levels. Some media reports speculated that it was preparation for an IDF strike against Iran and the likely fallout.
Paul Craig Roberts, an assistant secretary of the US Treasury in the Reagan administration and a harsh and vocal critic of Israel, said in an article that if the "US were opposed to an Israeli attack on Iran, the US would not provide Israel with protection against retaliation, and would not engage in war games with Israel to test the system." Roberts' theory has no real basis, and the contrary is more likely - that the US is engaging in missile defense exercises with Israel to try and increase Israeli self-confidence that it can survive the Iranian threat since it will have the necessary defensive systems it requires for protection.
The same happened in the twilight of the Bush administration, when the US gave Israel the X-band radar, one of the most advanced systems in the world. This was done not to improve Israeli offensive measures but to bolster its defenses and provide it with a feeling of greater security.
The purpose behind the increased emphasis on missile defense, one official explained this week, was also to send a message to Iran that it would not be worth its while to even attempt to launch a missile toward Israel, since it would likely be intercepted.
In addition, Obama makes no secret of his desire to reach an understanding and eventually sign a deal with the Iranians on their nuclear program.
As a result, and so as not to be seen undermining American diplomatic efforts, Israel's hands are effectively tied for the foreseeable future unless there is a breakdown in the talks and the Iranians leave the table.
Setting aside the occasional outlandish remark by an Israeli politician - like Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon's comment last week that the threat of an attack is not a bluff - Israel is officially quiet when it comes to Iran. Mainly, it does not want to be perceived as interfering with American diplomatic efforts, but also because its policy is that Iran is a global threat that should be dealt with by the world.
In statements made public during his four-day visit to the US this week, Defense Minister Ehud Barak did not even mention Iran but spoke more about diplomacy and the Palestinians before and after his meetings with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and National Security Adviser James Jones.
Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi has also toned down the rhetoric on Iran. While recognizing that as the commander of the military he is obligated to prepare a variety of options, he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee this week that the Iranian regime was rational and international pressure could have the desired effect.
Israel had also hoped to get more out of the seizure of the Iranian arms ship last week that was carrying more than 300 tons of weaponry from Iran to Hizbullah in Lebanon. The hope was that the Francop's capture would be like the seizure of the Karine A in 2002, which paved the way for Operation Defensive Shield later that year, and which legitimized claims that Yasser Arafat was dealing in terror.
But as the last week has shown, the world is not that interested in the Francop.
While the US accused Iran of violating a UN-imposed arms embargo by secretly sending weapons, Britain took a softer line at the Security Council, expressing "very serious concern," but ultimately saying it was waiting for more information about the ship's origin, destination, cargo and seizure.
Israel tried to provide this information on Wednesday when it released photographs and documents which it claimed proved that Iran was behind the smuggled arms. One example were the words, "Ministry of Sepah," which were written on boxes filled with Kalashnikov bullets, and which Israel explained reffered to the Iranian armed forces.
But for the most part, the evidence fell on deaf ears.
Perhaps Israel was responsible for the public relations failure; after all, it took the Foreign Ministry over a week to issue a press release explaining the origin of the weaponry, when many papers - including the Jerusalem Post - had arrived at the same conclusion on the day the boat was seized. Or maybe the delay was a subtle way for Israel to once again demonstrate to the world that it was not solely responsible to counter the Iranian threat. And maybe the international response was a subtle way of saying to Israel, "Relax. We're on your side."
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