Tel Aviv — U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon was here this week to confer with Israel’s leaders, the latest in a series of high-level bilateral talks as anxiety builds over a possible Israeli preemptive strike against Iran’s presumed nuclear weapons program.
The U.S. is clearly concerned that Israel may be preparing a military strike against Iran, something the Obama administration believes is “premature.”
Jack Lew, the White House chief of staff, acknowledged to a group of 50 Jewish leaders in New York last Friday that there is disagreement between the U.S. and Israel “on the timetable relative to Iran,” according to Janice Shorenstein, a former president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, who chaired the meeting.
Donilon’s visit comes weeks after meetings here with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. Later this week, James Clapper, director of National Intelligence, is expected to arrive for still more talks.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, called such talks “unprecedented.”
“At all levels there’s an intense discussion focusing on Iran,” he told The Jewish Week. “When the Obama administration says there’s never been such close security cooperation, this is evidence of that.”
Steinberg asserted that reports of friction between the allies over Israeli plans to go it alone were merely “spin” by the same political activists who sought to blame Israel for the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003. He suggested that the close coordination between the U.S. and Israel is being used in the effort to deter Iran from building a nuclear weapon.
But the recent criticism of Israel by Obama administration officials, as well as recent leaks to the media about how Israel might carry out a military attack, are said to have rankled senior Israeli officials. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz said that both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak believe Dempsey’s Sunday television interview “served Iran’s interests.”
“I don’t think a wise thing at this moment is for Israel to launch a military attack on Iran,” Dempsey told CNN, adding that such a strike “would be destabilizing” and “not prudent.”
He added that the U.S. was still meeting with Israeli leaders because Israel thus far is not convinced that the U.S. assessment is correct. In addition, he said any Israeli military strike would not permanently destroy Iran’s nuclear program.
Dempsey’s comments came under attack Tuesday from the Wall Street Journal. In an editorial, the paper questioned whether the Obama administration is more concerned about Iran getting a nuclear bomb or that Israel may use military force to prevent that. Dempsey’s remarks, it said, suggested the latter.
“In a single sound bite, General Dempsey managed to tell the Iranians they can breathe easier because Israel’s main ally is opposed to an attack on Iran, such attack isn’t likely to work in any case, and the U.S. fears Iran’s retaliation,” the Journal wrote. “It’s as if General Dempsey wanted to ratify Iran’s rhetoric that the regime is a fearsome global military threat.”
Netanyahu is slated to meet with President Barack Obama in the White House March 5 to discuss the matter directly. Just one day earlier, Netanyahu is slated to address the annual gathering of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, where he could be expected to spell out his concerns about Iran.
Netanyahu recently said the sanctions imposed by the West on Iran’s central bank and oil exports are important but have thus far failed to deter Iran from moving ahead with its nuclear weapons program. He cited as proof the guided tour Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad conducted of centrifuges at a Tehran research reactor; Iran insists the nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes.
Despite Lew’s assertion to Jewish leaders last week that sanctions against Iran are working, the Guardian newspaper in England reported Monday that key members of the Pentagon and State Department “are increasingly convinced that sanctions will not deter Tehran from pursuing its nuclear program, and believe that the U.S. will be left with no option but to launch an attack on Iran or watch Israel do so.”
The sanctions, according to the paper, will principally be used to delay Israeli military action and to reassure Europe that all steps are being taken to avoid an attack.
Shmuel Rosner, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute, said that Israel has already scored tactical points by creating a credible threat of an attack. In Iran, that threat prompted a drill of anti-aircraft defenses, and in Europe, leaders are also calling on Israel to back down. The intensified speculation is also what is behind the flurry of consultations with the U.S.
“It’s like we need a preschool teacher to hold our hands at all times so we won’t jump into the busy road when no one is paying attention,” he said. “It’s like a young child: the hand is held to prevent us from doing something foolish.”
Rosner noted however, that it’s still unclear what signals the U.S. are giving Israel, such as how firm is the U.S. red light.
“We have a saying in Israel: ‘When you say no, what do you mean?’” he said. “Is it a, ‘No, not now,’ or a ‘No, never,’ or is it a ‘No, but we’ll understand.”
But meanwhile the Obama administration, by “publicly confronting Jerusalem” over its threatened military action, is taking the wrong approach, according to Larry Haas, a visiting senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute.
He said he believes that only by “making it clear to Tehran that there is no daylight between Washington and Jerusalem” in their “determination to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent Tehran from going nuclear” will Iran be stopped.
“Only if Iran thinks its regime will be threatened from a popular insurrection or military action from outside will it possibly be convinced to change course,” Haas told The Jewish.
He pointed out that a recently published report of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s (BPC) National Security Project recommended that Congress approve delivery of 200 GBU-31 bunker-buster bombs and three KC-135 aerial refueling tankers to Israel “to help bolster its capacity to strike Iran’s nuclear installations, if necessary, and help convince the Iranians that a diplomatic solution serves its best interests.”
“Our report does not advocate an Israeli military strike,” emphasized former Sen. Charles Robb, co-author of the report. “But we believe a more credible Israeli threat can only increase the pressure on Iran to agree to shut down its nuclear weapons program peacefully.”
Haas said it is clear that Israel wants to launch a military strike “before Iran has the combination of technology and the know-how” to build a nuclear bomb.
But Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it is “unrealistic” for the U.S. and Israel to see eye-to-eye on Iran because Israel believes that with its acquisition of a nuclear bomb Iran would become an existential threat; the U.S. disagrees.
In addition, he said the U.S. has not been happy with reports that Israel was behind a series of covert actions, including the assassination of at least four Iranian scientists who worked on the nuclear project.
“The U.S. approach to military action is the Powell Doctrine, which says force is to be used for definitive results,” Clawson told The Jewish Week. “The Israel Defense Forces say it is like mowing the grass — it is something that is not going away” and must be tended to.
“So the U.S. believes there is no point in bombing because it will only set it back and Israel disagrees. There is a different strategic culture.”
Asked if he believes whether the U.S. will come to Israel’s aid with aerial refueling tankers should Israel launch military action, Clawson replied: “No, I don’t think so. It will just say it was unfortunate Israel had to do this.”
But he did say the U.S. might quietly help Israel in any search-and- rescue missions should Israeli aircrafts be shot down.
“There might be a quiet agreement to let Israel use our air facilities if a pilot goes down or to help find the guy — quiet things like that,” Clawson said.
Eitan Ben Eliyahu, a former air force commander, said in an interview with Israel Radio that few expected Israel’s air force to deliver a knockout blow to Egypt’s air force in the Six-Day War in 1967. The wild card, he explained, was creativity in planning.
“Beyond the data that can be read in the newspapers and in the literature and in Wikipedia, there is a lot of sophistication and a lot of cunning in any military operation,” he explained. “A lot of imagination and a lot of things can be done to change some of the parameters and to turn things upside down.”
According to Haaretz, the U.S. is especially concerned that Defense Minister Ehud Barak is leading a “hawkish” line in favor of a strike. But despite his emphatic push for a strike, many question whether Barak’s chatter is mere bluff.
The defense minister was mocked on a recent edition of the satire show “Eretz Nehederet,” in which a skit portrayed two Iranian nuclear scientists chatting on a break at a reactor.
“The problem is we’ve got business with an irrational leader,” said one scientist holding up Barak’s picture while invoking a common Israeli description of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. “He’s capable of anything.”
Haaretz said the U.S. believes Netanyahu hasn’t yet made up his mind about a military strike. Indeed, many Israeli analysts doubt whether the Israeli prime minister, when faced with such a risky operation, will follow through with an attack.
“There are going to be repercussions all over the place and I don’t think [Netanyahu] is prepared for that,” said Mitchell Barak, a Jerusalem pollster and former Netanyahu staffer. “You have to have the relations with world leaders to pull this off. I think you have to be on good standing to pull this off, and I don’t think he is.”
Barak said, however, that talking about Iran gives the prime minister a boost.
“It’s a good electoral issue, and Israelis want to hear about it,” he said. “They like to hear about scientists blowing up.’’
Other Israeli analysts point out that Netanyahu has been careful to avoid violent conflict, save for a decision in 1996 to open a tourist tunnel in Old Jerusalem that sparked several days of Palestinian riots that left many dead.
Ofer Shelach, an Israeli political analyst, said Netanyahu takes a “religious,” approach to the Iran threat by comparing the regime in Tehran to the Nazis on the eve of World War II. Still, the Israeli prime minister will be very cautious before going out on a limb and ordering a preemptive strike, he said.
Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent; Stewart Ain is a staff writer.