Is Israel backing down from Iran threats?

Explicit moves by United States President Barack Obama make it clear that there will be no accommodation of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ostensible threats of unilateral war against Iran. The steps even may be enough to force Netanyahu to step back from his long campaign of belligerence towards Tehran.

Netanyahu had hoped that the Obama administration could be put under enough domestic political pressure during the election campaign to shift his policy on Iran to the much more confrontational stance that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have been demanding.

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey warns against attacking Iran.

But that political pressure has not materialized, and Obama has gone further than ever before in warning Netanyahu not to expect US backing in any war with Iran. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey told reporters in Britain last Thursday that an Israeli strike would be ineffective, and then said, "I don’t want to be complicit if they [the Israelis] choose to do it."

It was the first time that a senior US official had made such an explicit statement indicating the administration’s unwillingness to be a party to a war provoked by a unilateral Israeli attack.

Dempsey had conveyed such a warning during meetings with Israeli leaders last January, as IPS (Inter Press Service) reported February 1, but a series of moves by the administration over the next several months, including the adoption of Israeli demands during two rounds of negotiations with Iran on the nuclear issue in May and June, appeared to represent a retreat from that private warning.

Dempsey’s warning was followed by an as-yet unconfirmed report by Time magazine that the Pentagon has decided to sharply cut back on its participation in the largest-ever joint-military exercise with Israel designed to test the two countries’ missile-defense systems in late October.

Originally scheduled for last spring, the exercise was delayed in January following an earlier round of Israeli saber-rattling and the apparent Israeli assassination of an Iranian scientist, which had further increased tensions between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.

Former Israeli national security adviser Giora Eiland suggested in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday that the Dempsey statement had changed the political and policy calculus in Jerusalem. "Israeli leaders cannot do anything in the face of a very explicit ’no’ from the US President," Eiland said. So they are exploring what space is left to operate."

Eiland explained that Netanyahu had maintained that the US "might not like [an Israeli attack] but they will accept it the day after. However, such a public, bold statement meant the situation had to be reassessed."

The Netanyahu campaign to leverage a shift in US policy toward confrontation appeared to climax during the first two weeks of August amid a torrent of stories in Israeli press suggesting that Netanyahu and Barak were getting closer to a decision on war.

An unnamed senior official - almost certainly Barak - indicated in an interview that the Israeli leader would reconsider the unilateral military option if Obama were to adopt the Israeli red line - in effect an ultimatum to Iran to end all enrichment or face war.

As Eiland suggests, however, Netanyahu may no longer be in a position to make such a demand when he meets Obama later this month. Not only has Obama drawn a clear line against unilateral Israeli action, but the Republican Party and Mitt Romney have failed to signal that Obama’s rejection of Netanyahu’s belligerence on Iran will be a central campaign issue.

President Barack Obama speaking with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jan. 12 to clarify US position on Iran.
(Official White House photo by Pete Souza)

Although the party platform said the threshold for military action should be Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons "capability" rather than the construction of an actual weapon, Republican nominee Governor Mitt Romney did not embrace the threat to go to war unless Iran agrees to shut down its nuclear program, as Netanyahu would have hoped.

That omission appeared to reflect the growing influence in his campaign of the "realist" faction of the Republican Party which opposed the radical post-9/11 trajectory of George W Bush’s first presidential term in office and re-asserted itself in the second term.

The party’s marquee speaker on foreign policy was not a neo-conservative but former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, whom the neo-conservatives viewed with disdain, not least because of her effort to begin diplomatic engagement with Iran.

Rice mentioned Iran only in connection with its crackdown against dissidents during her prime-time speech.

Until recently, prominent neo-conservatives, such as Dan Senor, Elliott Abrams, and Eric Edelman, as well as aggressive pro-Israel nationalists such as former UN Ambassador John Bolton, had seemed dominant among Romney’s foreign-policy advisers. The fact that the billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a strong supporter of Netanyahu and the Israeli far right, has pledged up to 100 million dollars to support the Republican campaign, seemed to assure them of the upper hand on Israel and Iran.

But neo-conservatives may have lost influence to the realists as a result of Romney’s ill-fated trip in July to Britain, Israel and Poland - all neo-conservative favorites - as well as recent polling showing ever-growing war-weariness, if not isolationism, among both Republicans and the all-important independents in the electorate.

On the convention’s eve, Lee Smith, a neo-conservative scribe based at the Standard, published an article in Tablet Magazine entitled "Why Romney Won’t Strike Iran".

Ex-CIA chief Michael Hayden:"Only the U.S." can strike Iran nuclear sites effectively.

One of Romney’s senior advisers, former CIA chief Gen. Michael Hayden, even partially echoed Dempsey, telling the Israeli newspaper Haaretz Thursday that an Israeli raid against Iran’s nuclear facilities would likely be counter-productive.

Both Hayden’s and Dempsey’s remarks about the futility or counter-productivity of an Israeli attack on Iran echoed those of a broad range of Israel’s national-security elite, including President Shimon Peres and the former chiefs of Israel’s intelligence agencies and armed forces, who, provoked by Netanyahu’s and Barak’s war talk, have come out more strongly than ever against the idea.

In addition to publicly casting doubt on whether an attack would be effective, many of the national-security critics have warned that a unilateral strike could seriously damage relations with the US

That argument, which resonates strongly in Israeli politics, was given much greater after Dempsey’s remarks last week.

Further eroding Israeli tolerance of Netanyahu’s talk of war was a blog post on the Atlantic Magazine’s website by Jeffrey Goldberg, an influential advocate of Israeli interests who has helped propagate the notion that Israel would indeed act unilaterally in the past. As the Netanyahu campaign reached its climax last month, Goldberg offered "7 Reasons Why Israel Should Not Attack Iran’s Nuclear facilities".

Goldberg worried that an Israeli "strike could be a disaster for the US-Israel relationship," especially if Iran retaliated against US targets. "Americans are tired of the Middle East, and I’m not sure how they would feel if they believed that Israeli action brought harm to Americans," he wrote.

The growing mood of impatience in Israel with Netanyahu and Barak’s constant beating of war drums on Iran was expressed by columnist Ben Caspit of Maariv, a center-right newspaper. "When one looks around," he wrote, "the impression received is that it isn’t only in Israel that they aren’t being taken seriously any longer, but the world refuses to get worked up over them either."

Source: Inter-Press Service; Asia Times on Line