August 15, 2012 | Quote
The Middle East on Tenterhooks; Obama on the Sidelines
The US would not necessarily join in were Israel to launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program, an unnamed source in the Obama Administration told Israel’s Channel 2 News on Monday.
The US feels a profound commitment to the defense of Israel, and so could be relied upon to protect Israel defensively from the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran, the TV channel quoted the source as saying. But the thrust of the US source’s message to Israel, the TV report said, was “don’t rely on us to finish the job.”
Israeli media has been full of reports in recent days, based on leaks and off-the-record briefings by senior figures, suggesting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are close to deciding on an Israeli attack to thwart Iran — despite opposition from the US, and from current and former domestic security chiefs
Spokesmen for both the National Security Council and the State Department replied promptly to Right Turn’s inquiry with “No comment.” Whatever ambiguity this and other blind-sourced reports create, the U.S. administration is in no rush to clarify.
Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies tells me, “The message out of Washington is very consistent. The Obama Administration does not wish to be dragged into a conflict with Iran. The message continues to be: ‘We’ll tell you, Israelis, when diplomacy has run its course. We’ll tell you when it’s ok to publicly discuss intervention.’ ” He adds, “Of course, we know that US officials are in regular contact with Israelis on this sensitive issue. And we also know much of this reticence is determined by the American political timeline. It’s not in Obama’s interest to get dragged into a war in the Middle East on the eve of what promises to be a hard-fought election.”
What we do know is that the diplomatic track is the ultimate bridge to nowhere. Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser, writes:
The talks between EU and Iranian deputy negotiators on July 24 achieved so little that no date has been set for another effort — at the deputy level, higher, or even for lower “technical level” talks. The U.N. General Assembly meets on September 13, so one can predict some sort of P5+1 meeting there; the six governments will presumably refuse to announce that talks are over lest they seem to justify an Israeli strike. All the publicly available evidence (including leaks) suggests that Iran is accelerating its nuclear work, and the spinning centrifuges produce more enriched uranium every day. Despite the Obama administration’s refusal to admit that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, an amazing parade of American officials made their way there this summer: Burns, Panetta, Brennan, Clinton, Donilon, and (rumor has it) others on unannounced visits. All presumably carried the same message: Don’t do it! (Or at least: Don’t do it before the election!)
Whether Israel’s window for hitting the Iranian nuclear targets is really closing now or can safely be held open into next year is widely debated, especially by people who don’t have the facts. But they can be forgiven, for this is less a factual question than a judgment call. Where Iran’s program stands and how fast it can move forward, what Israel can expect to destroy and whether it can expect to destroy less 3 or 6 or 12 months from now, whether Israel’s missile defenses are improving faster than Iran’s missiles, and whether a President Romney or a reelected President Obama might actually destroy Iran’s nuclear sites in 2013 or 2014 — these are not mathematical calculations. Add to these some local color in the Israeli debate: questions like “Do you trust Bibi or [defense minister Ehud] Barak?” or “What does General Gantz [the IDF chief of staff] really think?”
Indeed, the string of inconclusive P5+1 meetings are increasingly seen in foreign policies circles as a stalling technique to get President Obama beyond the election without taking action. It seems unfathomable that Obama would act militarily before the election, so attention shifts to Netanyahu.
Understandably, the atmosphere is increasingly nervous in Israel, as Ruthie Blum of Israel Hayom reports: “When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Sunday that, although much improvement had been made in the preparedness of the homefront, the far greater and more immediate concern to all of us was the Iranian nuclear threat, the public started becoming nervous. In the last two days alone, there has been a sharp increase in the number of people approaching the designated stations to pick up their gas mask kits. And talk of locating or cleaning out bomb shelters — as well as loading up on canned goods and other supplies — is in the air.”
This is a tentative dance. Obama wants to do nothing but doesn’t want Israel to act. Monday, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted there was still “time and space” for diplomacy. Israel could not have been reassured by the same mousy language that has been uttered so many times before. (“We regret that Iran has not yet made a strategic decision to address the international community’s serious concerns regarding its nuclear program and the ongoing P5-plus-1 talks.”)
Israel would prefer that the United States act but is wary that Obama in a second term would be even less reliable than in his first. How long can Israel wait? Are we yet at the edge of (or even beyond) the “zone of immunity” where Israel’s military can effectively remove the existential threat to the Jewish state? You understand why the Israeli public is jittery. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has done a poor job of making the Iranian mullahs nervous about their continued survival. So it is Jerusalem (excuse me, “the Israeli capital that shall not be named”) that is on tenterhooks, not Tehran.
What we don’t know greatly outweighs what we do know. There are a handful of people who know the particulars of Israeli and U.S. intelligence and the capabilities of the Israeli military. Unfortunately, Americans, Israelis and Iranians all know that the American president is paralyzed by political considerations. Never has the United States been so passive when the stakes have been so high in the Middle East.