February 23, 2012
Divided by common foe, Israel and U.S. tangle over Iran
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One American Jewish leader who knows both leaders played down the prospects of any dramatic shift in U.S.-Israeli relations.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told Reuters that strong bipartisan understanding for what he called Israel’s “responsibility to its citizens” meant that “nothing” would happen to ties between the two countries.
Last May, Netanyahu received 29 standing ovations when he addressed a joint meeting of Congress at the invitation of its Republican leadership. In the run-up to the November U.S. election, a senior legislator of his Likud party has been active in cultivating relations with top Republicans.
Though U.S. officials have no reason to believe Israel is bluffing, some both inside and outside the administration suspect that Netanyahu is overstating the immediate danger of an Iranian nuclear “break-out.”
Netanyahu, they say, may be seeking to pressure the United States and its European partners to move further on new oil-related sanctions, put enough of a scare into China and Russia to get them to ease resistance to tighter enforcement and extract a firmer U.S. commitment to military action if Tehran takes concrete steps toward bomb-making.
But even if his top generals and intelligence chiefs advise that it is time to act, questions remain whether Netanyahu, who lacks the extensive military resume of most of his predecessors, will be ready to do so, especially if it means going it alone without the United States.
An Israeli security source said that unlike Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert, who conducted wars in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon and ordered the bombing of a suspected Syrian nuclear reactor during his 2006-2009 tenure, Israel’s current leader finds it hard to decide on risky operational matters.
For his part, Obama will be hesitant at this point to go further than his mantra that “all options are on the table” in dealing with Iran, and is likely to make clear to Netanyahu that without international legitimacy unilateral military action could backfire on Israel and lead to diplomatic isolation.
Moreover, the consensus in the U.S. defense community is that Israel, acting alone militarily, would only be able to slow Iran’s nuclear progress by months or possibly a couple of years.
That assessment is echoed by Israeli security officials, though they argue that their armed forces’ capabilities may have been underestimated - even by the friendly, informed Americans.
They note that Israel destroyed Iraq’s atomic reactor in 1981 knowing that this would only postpone Saddam Hussein’s quest for a bomb. Kept in the dark about the tactically audacious sortie, Washington responded angrily, at first. But it later thanked Israel for removing a potential Iraqi threat.
“The IDF (Israel Defense Forces) has been preparing its capabilities for years,” chief of staff Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz said, without elaborating, in February 18 comments to Israeli reporters, when asked about the prospects for an imminent war on Iran.
Israel lacks heavy long-range air force bombers, but its advanced F-15 and F-16 warplanes could hit sites in western Iran and further inland with air-to-air refueling and by using stealth technology to overfly hostile Arab nations.
It could also launch ballistic Jericho missiles with conventional warheads at Iran, according to a 2009 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Commandos might be deployed to spot targets and possibly launch covert attacks. Drones could assist in surveillance and possibly drop bombs of their own. Barak has said he believes the home front would suffer “maybe not even 500 dead” if Iran or its allies in Lebanon and Gaza retaliate with missile barrages.
Complicating matters is a basic lack of trust between the Obama administration and Netanyahu’s government, born in part out of the president’s earlier failed efforts to jumpstart Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking by pressuring Israel to freeze Jewish settlement expansion.