Israel: Box It and Tape The Lid Shut

President Obama is putting Israel in a box and trying to tape the lid shut.  The administration wants Jerusalem to trust Washington and not fret about its enemies like an atomic Iran which threatens its annihilation.   

Last week, Team Obama — some of the president’s top policy advisers — descended on Jerusalem to coax Israel, according to one official, to “lower its profile” and refrain from “ranting and raving” about Iran’s atomic weapons threat.  But the Israelis perceive the issue differently than Team Obama.   For them an atomic Iran is an existential threat that is on a short fuse.

Team Obama faces a trust deficit when trying to coax Israel.  Popular support among Israelis for the U.S. declined by 13 percent (from 76 to 63 percent) after Obama’s June 4th Cairo speech to the Muslim world, and confidence in Obama’s management of world affairs decreased by 11 percent (from 60 to 49 percent), according to a survey by the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project.  Obama’s speech called for a “new beginning” and pledged improvement in U.S.-Muslim relations.

“There is a general feeling that the Obama administration is setting its priorities — as far as Israel is concerned — and getting them wrong,” said Micha Pomerance, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  “It’s getting closer to the Arab and Muslim world at the cost of their relationship with Israel.”

Worse yet, only six percent of Israeli Jews consider the Obama administration’s views pro-Israel, according to a Jerusalem Post poll conducted in June 2009. 

The growing lack of trust for the U.S. and Obama in particular among Israelis is reflected in their foreign policies.  The U.S. and Israel may share common goals for the Mideast — peace, democracy, religious tolerance — but they don’t necessarily agree on how to reach those goals.  The contentious issue of Iran’s atomic program illustrates the divide.

Team Obama is pushing diplomacy and sanctions to discourage Tehran’s atomic program.  But there is a widespread sense in Israel that this approach is doomed to fail and will only drag on to Jerusalem’s detriment.  That explains the chilly reception Team Obama got in Jerusalem.

Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates came to Israel to dissuade that country from carrying out military strikes against Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.  Gates counseled “patience” for U.S. diplomacy to work but Israeli leaders repeated their skepticism that diplomacy alone could not work with the anti-Western theocracy in Iran.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned Secretary Gates about “… the seriousness to which Israel views Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the need to utilize all available means to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear-weapons capability.”  Netanyahu’s government believes Iran may be less than a year away from enriching enough uranium to build a nuclear weapon.

The prime minister expressed concern that the “Iranians would simply try to run out the clock” using diplomacy.  But he accepted that as long “as the process isn’t completely open-ended,” then “the Israelis are prepared to let it go forward.”  He didn’t announce a deadline, however.

The secretary acknowledged Israel’s concerns and promised the Obama administration’s attempt to engage Iran was “not an open-ended offer” and that the U.S. was aware the Iranians might try to “run out the clock.”  

Israel is watching the clock for two reasons.  It believes its military option to destroy Tehran’s nuclear program is evaporating because Iran’s atomic and ballistic missile laboratories and production facilities are working overtime.  Tehran is also ramping up its air defenses with Russian help anticipating a possible Israeli attack.

Israel refuses to rule out military action, however.  Defense Minister Ehud Barak told Gates “no option” is off the table.  “This is our position.  We mean it,” Barack said.

Israel has practiced strikes on mock Iranian atomic facilities in war games using its strategic systems: bombers, ballistic missiles and submarine launched cruise missiles.  The chance Israel can destroy Iran’s key atomic sites is considered good but it could be better if the U.S. provides intelligence and air defense codes, which would allow Israeli fighters to fly unhindered over U.S. controlled airspace such as in Iraq.

But the Obama administration likely won’t help Israel because it fears the regional consequences.  Mr. Gates and Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, have warned that an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would be “profoundly destabilizing” to the region, and Obama said the U.S. is “absolutely not” giving its approval or assistance for such an attack.  That explains the administration’s efforts to keep Israel in a box.

Secretary Gates told the Israelis he understands their concern about Tehran becoming an atomic power.  “We’re in full agreement [with Israel] on the negative consequences of Iran obtaining” an atomic weapon” which includes starting a regional atomic arms race.  He promised “We will deal with the situation at the appropriate time.” He didn’t define “appropriate time” but expressed his hope Tehran would respond to international demands for cooperation on its nuclear program by the United Nations General Assembly meeting this September.  

The U.S. will work with the international community, Gates promised, to launch tough sanctions against Iran should that regime fail to start cooperating by September.  Those sanctions might include banning insurance for trade deals with Tehran, banning Iranian ships from docking in Western ports and Iranian airplanes from landing at Western airports.  The most significant sanction could be cutting off Tehran’s ability to import refined petroleum products.  Iran has limited refining capacity.  

But Israel is understandably skeptical about more sanctions because they take time to work and can be blocked.   Russia and China, key Iranian allies, are unlikely to support tough sanctions.

Gates came to Jerusalem with security assurances to keep the Israelis in a box.  “We will continue to ensure that Israel has the most advanced weapons for its national defense,” the Secretary said.  The U.S. contributes financially ($3 billion annually) and technically to Israel’s defense.  Recently, the U.S. hosted anti-ballistic missile tests with Israel, installed a sophisticated missile tracking X-Band radar system, and promises to conduct anti-missile interoperability trials in Israel this fall.

Israelis are also deeply skeptical that Iran would suddenly bow to diplomacy and sanctions, especially after that country’s embarrassing election aftermath in June.  Now the Iranian hardliners are fighting among themselves and chances are the rogue regime will emerge from the domestic infighting more dangerous than before.

Given Israeli perception of a serious Iranian threat to its existence, their belief in a closing window of opportunity to remove the threat sooner rather than later and its lack of trust in American leadership and their Mideast policies, Israel is unlikely to allow Team Obama to keep it in a box much longer.  Expect Netanyahu to give Team Obama until October and then Israel will exit the box and take matters into its own hands.  Israel doesn’t have the luxury of depending on questionable diplomacy and sanctions when its very existence is threatened.