Iran and keeping military edge top Barak’s US agenda

Washington visit comes as US considers further missile defense funding for Israel.

f-35 fighter jet (photo credit: Associated Press)
f-35 fighter jet
(photo credit: Associated Press)
WASHINGTON – Defense Minister Ehud Barak returned to Washington Monday to consult with the Obama administration on Iran, push forward on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and coordinate details of military acquisitions.
Barak arrived in Washington just a month after his last visit. Since then, the US has signed tough new Iran sanctions into law and indicated plans to further arm nearby Arab countries.
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The trip also comes on the heels of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s visit to the US capital at the beginning of the month, which focused mostly on the peace process.
Barak, like other Israeli officials, has long called for tougher Iran sanctions, but he has repeatedly warned that they must be assessed in a set timeline, and is now questioning their ability to be effective in halting Iran’s nuclear program.
“I don’t see it working as of now,” he told The Washington Post in an interview soon before his departure. He said the current sanctions reflected a “price” for having a wide coalition of countries signing onto them and that they were insufficient, despite the US unilateral move to bolster international sanctions.
“It has to be practically everything [to work], and we’re not there yet and probably we cannot be there,” he said. “Probably at a certain point we should realize that sanctions cannot work.”
He also said Israel wanted to make sure that any weapons and technology provided to Arab states, particularly in the Gulf, didn’t undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge.
“We understand the American need, under the strategy of the administration, to kind of strengthen the moderate Arab countries facing the same threat from hegemonic Iran,” he told The Washington Post. “But, at the same time, we have a tradition of understanding with following administrations to keep Israel’s superiority in weapons systems and munitions.”
He signaled that Israel was unlikely to oppose the moves, so long as the qualitative military edge was maintained.
One aspect of doing so could be Israel’s purchase of the advanced Joint Strike Fighter plane. Barak said that should Israel go ahead with a deal, it would be looking to buy “probably several dozens,” though a final decision, to be made in a “relatively short time,” would be dependent on price, schedules and modifications Israel wants.
“We need, of course, to be able to participate in production of some parts in our industry as well as making sure that we can continue keeping our real edge, which stems out from Israeli electronics and from our weapons’ systems to find the balance,” he said in the interview.
In addition to discussing these details with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones and possibly Vice President Joe Biden on his trip, Barak began by meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday.
The two didn’t take questions from the press, but Clinton said ahead of their meeting that they had “a lot to talk about.” Barak is also expected to meet with top members of Congress.
His visit to Capitol Hill comes as the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee considers further missile defense funding for Israel.
“All indications are that money is going to be more than ever,” said a congressional aide close to the appropriations process, referring to 2011 funding for the Arrow III, David’s Sling and other joint US-Israel missile defense spending.
But Barak’s visit also has a political component, according to Middle East expert David Makovsky, co-author of Myths, Illusions and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East.
“He probably wants a read on the Obama-Netanyahu meeting because his Labor Party is threatening to bolt the coalition in September if there’s no progress on the peace process,” he said.
Should the Obama administration succeed in pushing the Israelis and Palestinians from their current proxy talks to face-to-face negotiations, that would seem to satisfy the Labor demand for progress and give Barak more stability in his role.
“It’s one thing to get a read on Netanyahu. It’s another to get a reading of Obama [and] where his team stands on upgrading the talks to direct negotiations,” Makovsky noted.
Later in the week, Barak heads to New York City, where he will meet with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to consult on the world body’s actions concerning the Goldstone Report and the recent Gaza flotilla incident.