US, Israel Suffer Mutual Distrust over Possible Attack on Iran

Statements by Israeli and American officials on Iran reflect mistrust between the administrations of both countries.  The recent visits of US Defense Secretary Panetta and presidential hopeful Mitt Romney demonstrate a crucial linkage between American internal politics (at election time) and options concerning Iran, Ofer Shelah writes.

al-monitor US President Obama signs the US-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act while (from left) Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Richard Stone, US Sen. Barbara Boxer and past AIPAC chairman Howard Friedman watch in the Oval Office of the White House, July 27, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Larry Downing.

Topics covered

sheldon adelson, presidential elections, panetta, obama, nuclear, netanyahu, iran, benjamin netanyahu, barak

Aug 8, 2012

The flood of leaks [among Israeli politicians and military chiefs] on the Iranian issue over recent weeks leads us to a gloomy conclusion: Jerusalem does not trust Washington and vice versa. Is the "immunity zone" Barak's bluff, and are we really close to a pre-emptive strike?

It is not always clear what instigates each new round of debate on a possible assault in Iran. Sometimes it seems to be connected to the technical timing option. The famous "window of opportunity" connected to operational calculations — the weather being the major player among those factors that we are allowed to discuss publicly — is opened and closed from time to time. Sometimes the trigger is a newspaper headline, or the statements of individuals who accuse the prime minister of emphasizing the Iranian issue for political reasons (the most recent of the accusers was [opposition leader] Shaul Mofaz). Sometimes, someone with less-than-pristine motives leaks something to the journalists, sending them in pursuit of the hunt. More than once there were whispers and hints of unusual, large-scale [military] activities on the ground, alluding to the possibility of a forthcoming decision.

And sometimes, such as now, other issues originating outside of Israel become linked to the Iranian challenge. Quite a few leaks arrived this week from American sources, or from Israelis who used American camouflage to conceal their involvement. A famous quote from Henry Kissinger  [when he was Secretary of State] argues that Israel has no foreign policy, only domestic policy. Over last week [of July 29] — and not only last week — the hottest subject in Israel's defense policy became tightly connected to domestic American politics.

Last week the American defense minister [Leon Panetta] visited Jerusalem, on the heels of the visit of a presidential candidate from the opposite side of the American political spectrum. The largest private supporter of that candidate, [Sheldon Adelson, the Jewish-American business magnate], is a man who spends dozens of millions of dollars a year to fund an Israeli newspaper [the right-wing free daily Israel Hayom] whose unconcealed goal is to change Israel's media agenda. One could not avoid the thought that Washington's declarations about tightening sanctions against Iran and authorizing additional funding for the Iron Dome [mobile air-defense] system [designed to intercept and destroy short term rockets] (actually, putting the final stamp of approval for funding that was already fixed) is connected to the neck-and-neck race between Obama and Romney — no less than to differences of opinion between [President] Peres and [Prime Minister] Bibi.

One of the favorite theories of the "attack now" school  of thought [pre-emptive attack] holds that the president of the United States will have no choice but to join an Israeli attack in Iran before the American elections — even if Obama will not be informed about it beforehand, and despite his express warnings not to strike. This is a bizarre theory: there is no doubt that if Israel will attack against the desires of the American government, Obama will view this as unwarranted interference in his election campaign. Beyond his personal anger, and since Iran will not retaliate with an attack that will threaten Israel's existence (for the simple reason that it lacks the power to do so), it is not clear why anyone would think that the president would want or feel obliged to embroil his country in a war [for Israel's sakes]. But as strange as it might seem, this theory has been bandied around several times in talks between very high-echelon officials in Israel. This is testimony to the extent to which strategic, political, operational and media-related considerations have become intermingled with the Iran issue.

Above all, we are talking about the issue of trust and distrust in more than one sphere. First of all, trust between Washington and Jerusalem; ostensibly, the words uttered in that sphere are clear as a bell. Obama has declared several times that the United States will not allow Iran to achieve a nuclear bomb, and Panetta explicitly reiterated this mantra [on Aug. 1] in Israel.

This unequivocal commitment of an American president on an issue that is vital not only for Israel but also for the United States, should have great effect on our decision-makers. The bottom line is that the debate raging among us takes place in a very narrow zone: even those who feel it would be incorrect to attack without coordinating with the Americans, does not think that Israel should learn to live with the Iranian bomb. On the other hand, those who are convinced that the time has come to attack, prefer to do the job with the Americans and not alone. Yet the problem that no one mentions publicly (though some sources are ready to admit to it in private talks) — is whether the current Israeli government trusts the current American government to carry out its promises.

A most important factor that is rarely talked about openly is the way that Israel — from its prime minister to many of its citizens — views Barack Obama and the way President Obama views the Israelis; in other words, the Washington-Jerusalem relationship of the last 3.5 years. Tensions between the United States and Israel are nothing new, certainly not to Benjamin Netanyahu who spent his first term of office vis-à-vis Bill Clinton. Clinton had shared a special relationship with Yitzhak Rabin, and an especially bad relationship with Netanyahu. But this time we are not talking about Clinton, who had enjoyed great popularity in Israel, but about Barack Hussein Obama: the first black president of the United States. Many Israelis view the president's basic opinions and outlooks with great suspicion, and tend to dwell on his middle name.

Some of the craziest theories regarding Obama's origin and intentions have been disseminated enthusiastically by web surfers with connections to Israel. On the one hand, we are not the Israel that existed at the end of the 1990s but a county on the defense, shrunk into itself, fearful and embittered over what it perceives as a worldwide campaign of delegitimization. On the other hand stands a United States that is entirely different [than the strong ally we are used to]: a world power mired in an economic crisis that is accompanied by painful questions of internal identity and international standing. Even in the United States, fears and differing opinions have transformed the current election campaign into a terrible clash of lower instincts than has ever been seen before, in which each side views the other in almost demonic terms.

All these currents are well personified by Sheldon Adelson. This man, whose assets have been estimated to reach almost $25 billion, was recently [July 30] viewed at Matt Romney's side -- at a lavish breakfast fund-raiser event held for the Republican candidate in Jerusalem, of all places. When an American journalist asked Adelson why he came to Israel, this close friend of the prime minister answered that he "came to Jerusalem to eat shawarma." Evidently this was quite a hefty shawarma portion, at least in terms of its cost: the bill waiting for Adelson is estimated at between $10 [million] to $37.5 million, depending on how you tally the total — and the cash register is still ringing.

Adelson contributed $10 million to the "Return Our Future" super PAC (yes, these kinds of organizations are not the sole prerogative of Israel) that supports Romney. Adelson had previously pumped money into the super PAC behind Newt Gingrich. After Gingrich's defeat, Adelson joined Romney's team — although he considers Romney to be too moderate, at least he's not Obama. In a rare interview, Adelson denounced the current president for his "socialist-style economy" and according to various sources, Adelson is prepared to spend as much as a $100 million to topple Obama. In any event, Adelson has invested more of his own money in US elections than anyone else. Next in line is conservative Harold Simmons, who has contributed less than half of Adelson.

Now let us look at the Iranian affair only from the following point of view: an American president is fighting for a second term of office and convinced that an Israeli assault [on Iran] before elections can cause a crisis that may cost him his re-election. Facing him is an Israeli prime minister who almost openly supports the rival American presidential candidate and, in [the former head of the Israeli Internal security agency] Yuval Diskin's oft-repeated mantra, approaches the entire [Iranian] threat from a "messianic" viewpoint. Between the two men is an enormous abyss of mistrust and disbelief: with the American administration not trusting the Israeli government's motives, and with Israeli officials not trusting Obama's administration to keep its word.

The second trust issue rose to the fore last week in the headlines with the leaks, supposedly from an American source (advice: next time someone hints to you the source of leaks, check whether your informant is trying to shield his real source), regarding the stance of the highest echelons of the Israeli defense apparatus headed by Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. This time the mistrust is within the Israeli establishment, and the defense minister is at the hub — not Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even Netanyahu's opponents agree that the prime minister is sincere when it comes to the Iranian threat.

Since Netanyahu himself admitted last week that he has not yet decided about attacking Iran, we can assume that the moment of truth for him and Ehud Barak has not yet arrived. It is one thing to project a position that the time has come to attack, and another to lead the way to a decision for immediate execution. The opinions of former high echelon members (Dagan, Diskin and Ashkenazi [former director of the Mossad, former head of the Shin Beth and former chief of staff]) are based on their past status and experience of about a year and a half ago; thus they too have not reached the final countdown stage. Evidently, the current talks and discussions involve keeping close track of intelligence information and of exchanging opinions, in which each of the participants tries to guess the true opinions of the others. But no one has yet been required to put his opinion on the table for a feasible operational decision.

These are exactly the situations in which it is very difficult to discern what Barak really thinks. The defense minister lectures about Iran to anyone willing to listen, and his statements and analyses lend themselves to the unequivocal, foregone conclusion that an attack is necessary. But if you listen carefully — and if you are acquainted with Barak's history — you easily discern possible escape hatches, safety nets that Barak has always prepared for himself throughout his career. Thus, while political rivals and [military] professionals hear ostensibly adamant statements, in fact they ask themselves what he really means. [The only thing that is clear is] the power and influence he has accumulated in the sphere which surrounds Netanyahu.

Barak began to talk about an upcoming "immunity zone" about a year ago, referring to a situation in which Iran's [nuclear] production capabilities will be protected from an Israel assault [in underground bunkers], when we will not be able to take action even if we want to. There was always something odd about this statement, as if the important thing is what we are capable of doing and not if it is the right or correct thing for us to do. The "immunity zone" question is even more dubious when we remember that according to the most optimistic forecasts, an Israeli strike will only turn back the Iranian nuclear program by two years at most.

Thus we must add that the "immunity zone" is a matter of definition. There are some in the Israeli system who believe that the Iranians have already reached that stage, though the Fordo plant near Qom can only hold a limited number of centrifuges even at full occupancy. In any scenario (except if a secret plant exists, which we could not attack anyway if we don't know about it), Iran's race for the bomb would need to begin with an act that would reveal the decision behind it: the expulsion of inspectors from the [uranium enrichment] facility at Natanz or the massive transfer of partially enriched material to Fordo. One way or another, the timetable presented by Barak is not synchronized with that of regional or American politics.

If we base ourselves on Netanyahu's utterances, we can assume that [chief of staff] Gantz (or Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, whose opinion is similar to that of his predecessor Dagan) have not reached the moment of truth when they will have to take a position either for or against an assault now, and then accept the decision of the political echelon. What Gantz and the rest of the professionals did was to display the broad range of implications [of such a strike] regarding: the global context; the Iranian response; and mainly the regional context—in light of the possibility that Israel may be forced to take future action in its northern front.

[At a closed cabinet meeting on Aug. 1], Netanyahu reminded that Menachem Begin ordered the bombing of the Iraqi reactor contrary to the opinions of his military top brass. That is true, but it must be remembered that the situation at the time was completely different: at the time there were differences of opinion among the top brass and not the kind of [anti-attack] consensus displayed by Dagan-Diskin-Ashkenazi and other professionals today. Also, the situation was different regarding the trust-levels of Israeli decision-makers in Washington, and the disregard of Israeli leadership of the military-executive level's recommendations.

The act that will prove they are racing toward the bomb: The sanctions are working — the value of the Iranian Rial [currency] has dived by 38% from the beginning of the year, and new steps were announced by Obama to block the loopholes exploited by Iran to trade in oil via foreign banks or outside the banking system. But so far, these methods have not yet brought the Ayatollahs to their knees.

In the middle of all this we find: an American president before elections; numerous high-echelon Israelis who disagree with [the government's] logic and suspect its motives; a prestigious Israeli president who adopts the American stance almost openly; and the [Israeli military high echelon] whose real opinions are occasionally leaked to us, showing that they disagree with the statements of the decision-makers. All of these look upon one another with great distrust.


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