Several hours before US President Barack Obama delivered his Sept. 10 speech to the nation outlining the campaign against the Islamic State (IS), the chairman of Israel’s parliamentary opposition, Knesset member Isaac "Buji" Herzog, met with two top officials in the White House: Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Antony Blinken, the deputy to national security adviser Susan Rice. Herzog was granted prestigious quality time with those closest to the president, after a lengthy meeting the previous day with Bill and Hillary Clinton, who have a fairly good chance, at least for now, of returning to the White House in a little over two years.
Herzog got the impression that America was back. The senior American officials emphasized to him that it had never left. They laid out for him the extent of US activities around the world in general, and in the Middle East in particular. They told him about the successful targeted killing the previous week in Somalia, they stressed that the US commitment to maintaining the peace and security of its allies was as strong as ever.
Between the lines, one could sense that the Americans understood the depth of the crisis of confidence between the Obama administration and its various allies in the region. Herzog understood that the policy of “leading from behind” had exhausted itself. The United States was taking back the reins, no longer from the back, but from the forefront. He was also given a clear promise that the United States had no intention of relaxing its positions vis-a-vis Iran in the negotiations over its nuclear program, even if and when the Iranians joined efforts against IS. One had nothing to with the other, the president’s aides told him; we continue to be committed to stopping the Iranian nuclear project. The United States will not allow a nuclear-capable Iran, full stop.
The Americans want very much to cultivate an Israeli interlocutor. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is out of the question. He and Obama will no longer enjoy each other’s company. When they meet, both will get the same heartburn. After Obama’s remark several weeks ago on Aug. 8 that Netanyahu was more popular than he, there was no hope left for them. Operation Protective Edge, which damaged Netanyahu’s image, especially among his natural constituency, has started raising old-new hopes. Herzog was a very welcome guest in Washington this week.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, analysts and politicians were assessing Obama’s speech. It’s hard to say people were overwhelmed with admiration. The day after the speech, a senior diplomatic official in Jerusalem told me that the cliche, “If you want to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk,” was apt in this case as well. “So far, Obama’s presidency is one of speeches. On action, he’s weak. One day he’s admitting he has no strategy to combat the Islamic State, several days later he informs the whole world about his strategy for dealing with the Islamic State. And after that, they expect the whole world, in general, and the radical Islamists, in particular, to take it seriously. And anyway, what’s the point of revealing to the fighters of the Islamic State how exactly you plan to wipe them out? What good is that?”
Someone actually from the Israeli defense establishment was reminded of Operation Protective Edge. Obama, he told me, made the same mistake that Israel made several weeks ago in Gaza. When we announced that we were launching a ground operation to take out the tunnels, we were in fact telling Hamas that we had no intention of going deep into Gaza and dealing with them. They were given a life insurance policy, understood that they had nothing to fear and therefore kept thumbing their noses and firing missiles until the last minute. The same goes for Obama. He is already informing IS that there will not be any American boots on the ground. Why announce it? Airstrikes are something that terrorists have to know how to handle. Obama has actually given the IS people a sedative, the senior Israeli defense official said.
“Obama labeled the Islamic State a ‘cancer,’” said another Israeli military official, a specialist in counterterrorism, “and quite rightly. The problem is that cancer requires dramatic surgical intervention. Only a surgeon’s knife can, most times, try and contend with this disease. When Obama declares that there will not be an American ground offensive, he is actually announcing that he prefers dealing with the cancer through external radiation, without human contact. This greatly reduces the prospects of defeating the Islamic State,” said the source. “There’s no way these people will pack up and disappear as a result of aerial strikes, at such or a different level, just as Saddam Hussein would not have been defeated, escaped and captured without a presence on the ground.”
“The operation to destroy the Islamic State will be determined by what happens on the ground,” said the Israeli military source. “The Americans don’t want to do it, that’s clear. The question is what ground forces they are able to mobilize, build up and train so that those can do the dirty work with these Islamist savages, and whether it’s at all possible.”
In the meantime, there’s growing concern in Israel’s neighborhood about the immediate repercussions stemming from the success of IS. Jordan is the most worried and sensitive place of all. A state made up of a large majority of Palestinian refugees and a coalition of local tribes is especially vulnerable to an onslaught by fearless Islamists who ride pick-ups and don’t take prisoners. This is somewhat reminiscent of the Hun invasion of Europe or the barbarian invasion of the Roman Empire.
The Saudis are worried, too, not to mention the Turks, the Emirates and Egypt. For them (except for Turkey), Israel is considered a lifeline of the first order. Contacts with the various countries, which have been mentioned here in the past, have never, but never, been more intense. Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman is taking part in them as well, having developed very significant contacts for himself in the Arab world.
At the end of the day, of all these countries only Israel is truly experienced in fighting against aggressive, well-trained and well-armed terrorism. In recent years, Israel went through quite a few rounds of massive fighting against Hezbollah and Hamas. Until recently, all these countries under threat believed that only Israel could save them from the knives of IS executioners. Did Obama’s speech convince them that the “leader of the free world” is back, after an absence of five years, and is here to stay? We will find out in the coming months.