Is Israel Angling for a Commitment from Obama on Iran?

Israeli media reports suggest the country is using renewed threats of action against Iran to limit Obama's room to maneuver.

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US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (C) and Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a press conference by an Iron Dome rocket battery in Ashkelon, southern Israel, August 1, 2012

Is Israel really about to bomb Iran? That depends who you ask. Analysts in the U.S. and in Israel offer sharply conflicting views on how seriously to take the latest round of Israeli saber-rattling. But some new reports in Israel suggest that the answer to whether or not Israel’s leaders will carry out their threat of unilateral military action may depend on what new steps the Obama Administration is willing to offer Israel as an incentive for restraint.

Israel’s media has seen a frenzy of speculation  that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are about to order the bombing of Iranian nuclear facilities, notwithstanding objections by the Obama Administration and  much of Israel’s security establishment. Some Israeli pundits insist the fateful moment in which Israel risks igniting a regional war in order to stop Iran’s nuclear work is at hand; others dismiss the bellicose chatter as simply more posturing designed to influence American behavior (in keeping with the long-established pattern of threatening military action in order to press Western powers to raise their pressure on Iran).

(MORE: New Sanctions, Old Postures as U.S.-Israel-Iran Stalemate Drags On)

The divide among Israeli pundits over Netanyahu and Barak’s intentions is echoed among analysts in the U.S. Former Obama Administration defense official Colin Kahl, for example, warns that Israel’s threats should be taken very seriously, seeing them as a campaign to prepare the Israeli public for war. Kahl believes the purpose is unlikely to be another round of theatrics designed to scare the U.S. into adopting tougher measures on Iran — largely because, he says, with sanctions nearly “maxed out” and diplomacy stalled, “what additional benefit does the saber-rattling produce here?”

But former National Security Council Iran specialist and Columbia University professor Gary Sick takes a different view, seeing the latest wave as a continuation of a decade-old pattern of Israel threatening military action against Iran in order to shape the international community’s handling of the nuclear standoff. Sick argues that the basic strategic and tactical calculus that has prevented Israel acting on any of its previous threats remains unchanged, although he does allow for the possibility that Israel’s leaders paint themselves into a political corner in which they’re forced to act.

Still, U.S. officials worked hard this week to tamp down the war fever. After Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon demanded last weekend that the U.S. declare diplomacy with Iran a failure, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney reportedly said aboard Air Force One, “We continue to believe there is time and space for diplomacy, the opportunity remains for Iran to take advantage of this process.” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told a Pentagon briefing on Tuesday that the U.S. believes Israel has not made a decision to strike Iran. Seated alongside Panetta, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey pointedly cast doubt over Israel’s ability to stop Iran’s nuclear program through military action: “I may not know about all of their capabilities but I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities,” Dempsey said. That prompted Israeli headlines complaining that U.S. officials were trying to influence Israeli public opinion against a strike.  Yedioth Ahronot columnist Attila Somfalvi  called Dempsey’s remark a “punch in the face” for Netanyahu.

(MORE: Long-Term Uncertainty Remains in Nuclear Talks with Iran)

Washington’s stance clearly remains a critical factor. Opinion polls routinely find a majority of Israelis opposed to Israel starting a war with Iran without U.S. involvement. And Israel acknowledges that its capability to inflict serious damage on Iran’s nuclear program is far less than that of the U.S. — the Israelis have been clear, all along, that they’d prefer Washington to use its more formidable military resources to stop Iran, and threaten to go it alone only if they believe the U.S. won’t do so.

New reports in the Israeli media, however, suggest that the frenzied chatter may indeed be designed to press President Obama into new commitments on Iran. Maariv reported in Hebrew on Tuesday that the Israeli leadership has signaled Washington that if Obama is willing, by late September, to make a public commitment to attack Iran should other means fail to prevent it from acquiring a nuclear weapon, “the President may prevent an Israeli attack before the U.S. elections.” The New York Times on Thursday quoted Netanyahu confidante Uzi Dayan to the effect that the Prime Minister and his Defense Minister could be deterred from attacking Iran by stronger U.S. commitments. “Mr. Dayan’s assessment seems to buttress the theory that the collective saber-rattling is part of a campaign to pressure the Obama administration and the international community, rather than an indication of the imminence of an Israeli strike,” the Times suggested.

Yedioth Ahronoth columnist Ron Ben-Yishai, in a piece that appeared Wednesday, quoted an unnamed “senior Israeli official”  as indicating that Israel would rule out a unilateral attack should the U.S. prove willing to toughen its stance on Iran. “The problem is that the Iranians are not identifying determination on the American side,” he quotes the official as saying. “The Iranian regime is certain that in any case 2012 will pass peacefully,” Ben-Yishai continued. “They assume the U.S. will not attack for fear of soaring oil prices and because of the presidential elections. They do not believe we will attack without a green light from Washington. Therefore, it is in the Americans’ interest to convince the Iranians that the U.S. may attack, not to convince us not to attack.”

(MORE: For Israel, the Problem with Iran Diplomacy Is the Prospect of Nuclear Compromise)

The logic of what follows is a little confusing: Israel will restrain itself if Obama commits publicly to take military action to stop Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon — just as he did last year at AIPAC. Ben-Yishai’s source acknowledges that Obama made such a commitment, but wants to hear it again because, he says, Iran hasn’t heeded the message. The unnamed Israeli official adds a laundry list of additional, if somewhat improbable, demands: The U.S. should call off the current nuclear talks with Iran, deploy further military assets in the Gulf, and escalate sanctions to the point of a “boycott” of countries that continue to do business with Iran, such as China, India and Turkey. He also indicated that the Israelis want to see stories leaked to American media about U.S. war plans for Iran, in the hope that this will spook Tehran. “The senior Israeli official estimated that should Washington accept the main demands,” wrote Ben-Yishai, “Israel would reconsider its unilateral measures and coordinate them with the U.S.”

Former Likud Minister Danny Naveh sounded a similar message in  Maariv on Sunday, writing that the “absolute minimum that is required” to stop a unilateral Israeli strike is either for “Washington to sign a defense treaty with a commitment for an attack plan in Iran, including a clear timetable,” or to provide Israeli with the weapons necessary to destroy Iranian facilities when those are placed beyond the reach of Israel’s current capabilities. Israel’s Channel 10 TV news even reported, Tuesday night (according to the Times of Israel) that plans are underway for a Netanyahu-Obama meeting in September, at which the U.S. President would assure the Israeli PM that “the U.S. will use force to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons drive by next June at the latest if the Islamic Republic has not halted its program by then”.

The confusion, of course, is that President Obama last year publicly vowed to take military action to prevent Iran “acquiring a nuclear weapon” — a red line different from the Israelis’ insistence that Iran must be denied the capability to build a nuclear weapon. Iran already has such technical capability and is steadily expanding it, according to the U.S. estimate, but has not moved to begin the process of building a nuclear weapon, or taken a decision to do so. The U.S. estimate is that it would take Iran some two years to build a bomb were it to initiate the process now.

And despite claims  in Israeli media that the U.S. has reached dramatic new intelligence conclusions, there’s reason to believe that the overall strategic assessment of Iran’s nuclear program remains broadly the same — Iran has already achieved the technological ability to build nuclear weapons should it break out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and its inspection regime. Currently, that would take it about two years, but the time frame will shorten as Iran expands its capabilities. But it has not taken a decision to “break out” and weaponize nuclear material — which is why the Administration insists that there is still time for sanctions and other pressures to change the calculations of Iran’s leaders. Still, if the Israeli leadership has, as some feared, painted itself into a corner, then Obama reiterating his vow and taking other related steps might give them a way to climb down from doing something their own generals are warning against.

There’s been no signal from the White House giving credence to any of these Israeli reports, of course. But the Israelis seem to be hoping that the threat of military action will produce responses from Washington that will harden the U.S. stance.  Although negotiations with Iran are effectively stalled and the pain being inflicted on Iranian society by sanctions is showing no signs, as yet, of prompting Tehran to capitulate, the Obama Administration may have been hoping to find better conditions to resolve the nuclear standoff once the pressures of its reelection campaign have passed.  The signals emerging in the Israeli media suggest that Israel is hoping its renewed threats of action will limit Obama’s room for maneuver on the Iran issue next year, and lock in a commitment from him to pursue their preferred solution.

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