Israel is getting proficient at providing the split-screen moment.Last week, it was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Jerusalem District Court on one side of the television screen, while on the other side – at exactly the same time – the Likud recommended Netanyahu to President Reuven Rivlin as the candidate who should be tasked with forming a government. The contrast was glaring.And on Sunday, Israel also starred in another split-screen moment. On one side of the screen, an Iranian official spokesman announced that an electrical “accident” befell the country’s main uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, just hours after it boasted that it inaugurated new high-speed centrifuges there. Suspicion naturally was directed at Israel for a cyberattack.And on the other side of the screen, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin was reviewing a military honor guard at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, soon after landing in Israel for the first cabinet-level visit by a member of the new Biden administration. The timing of those events was interesting.Eleven years ago, when then-vice president Joe Biden made his first visit to Israel, it was accompanied by an Israeli announcement of new building plans for the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo. Though that was widely interpreted abroad as an Israeli attempt to embarrass Biden, the Prime Minister’s Office said at the time that it was simply unfortunate timing, with the plans coincidentally moving through the planning process as Biden was arriving.A mechanism was put into place to ensure such snafus did not occur again. Israel had no interest in embarrassing Biden, a friend in an Obama administration whose tone was already chilly. Likewise, the timing of the incident in Natanz should not be connected to the Austin visit, even though it came just days after the US and Iran began indirect negotiations to reenter the Iranian nuclear deal, and just four days after Netanyahu made clear that the deal would in no way obligate Israel.But just as Jerusalem had no interest in embarrassing or alienating Biden in 2010, it has no interest in making things difficult for Austin.Just as the Ramat Shlomo announcement 11 years ago was not about Biden, but rather Israel’s perception of its own interests, so, too, any action Israel takes against Iran’s nuclear program is not about the US, but rather about Israel’s perception of its own interests.But here is where things get tricky, because what are Israel’s interests, and who articulates them?Netanyahu, in a speech at Yad Vashem last Wednesday to mark the beginning of Holocaust Remembrance Day, made it clear what he thought about US efforts to renegotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.“To our best friends I say, an agreement with Iran which paves its way to nuclear weapons that threaten us with destruction, an agreement like this will not bind us,” he said.But Defense Minister Benny Gantz greeted Austin on Sunday with a different tune – that Israel would work together with the US to get a better agreement.“The Tehran of today poses a strategic threat to international security, to the entire Middle East and to the State of Israel, and we will work closely with our American allies to ensure that any new agreement with Iran will secure the vital interests of the world, of the US, prevent a dangerous arms race in our region and protect the State of Israel,” Gantz said. Had one not been aware of Israel’s fractured political landscape, and had one imagined that the country’s political leadership was reading from the same script, one could think this was a classic good-cop/bad-cop moment, with Netanyahu in the bad-cop role regarding the deal, and Gantz cast as the good cop for the high-level American guest.But a good-cop/bad-cop routine takes coordination, and considering the degree of enmity now between Netanyahu and Gantz, such coordination is out of that question. Rather than a coordinated policy, these dueling messages seem nothing more than an example of a dysfunctional government unable to speak in a unified voice.And unfortunately, it is on full display during the visit of a US secretary of defense, not something that happens every day.When it took Biden 29 full days from the time he was sworn into office on January 20 to call Netanyahu, many in Israel started to fret.This had to be a signal of displeasure, some opined. It was a sign that Washington was hitting a reset button with Jerusalem, others speculated.The premise was that time matters, and that there must be meaning in the time span between major events, such as that swearing in of the president and his first phone call to an Israeli prime minister.If that is the case, then the meaning should be read into the fact that Austin arrived in Israel on Sunday on only the 82nd day of Biden’s presidency.If Biden was sending a signal to Israel, the region and the world by waiting so long to call Netanyahu, then Washington was also sending a signal to Israel, the region and the world in dispatching Austin to Israel so quickly.In fact, Austin’s visit came earlier in a president’s term than any other secretary of defense.
Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, came to Israel on April 20, nine days later in the month than Austin, and Obama’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, came in July of Obama’s first year in office.
That those visits happened so early in their respective presidencies illustrates the increasing importance and significance of Israel in America’s overall security doctrine. Up until the Obama administration, it took years for presidents to send their defense secretaries to Israel.
George W. Bush did not dispatch Gates, who was also his defense secretary, until his seventh year in office. Bill Clinton did not send William Perry until his third year. George H.W. Bush’s defense secretary, Dick Cheney, did not visit Israel until Bush’s third year, and it took Ronald Reagan two years to send Casper Weinberger to Israel in 1982.
The first US defense secretary to ever visit was Harold Brown, who arrived in the third year of Jimmy Carter’s presidency in February 1979. That it took 31 years until the top US defense official visited the Jewish state says something about how unimportant Israel was as a defense component of US policy during that period.
Israel rolled out the red carpet for Austin on Sunday, as well it should have, because this was only the 24th visit of a secretary of defense in the country’s 73-year history. As such, one would have assumed that Israel’s political leaders would be coordinating their message.
But such coordination – as the mixed messages on a new Iran deal proved – is too much to ask at a time when Netanyahu and Gantz are nothing less than political enemies.But such coordination – as the mixed messages on a new Iran deal proved – is too much to ask at a time when Netanyahu and Gantz are nothing less than political enemies.