Saturday, May 23, 2009

Yossi Melman / Obama quashed Israel military option against Iran

Yossi Melman, Haaretz Correspondent

Israel's military option against Iran has died. The death warrant was issued courtesy of the new U.S. administration led by Barack Obama. All the administration's senior officials, from the president to his vice president, Joe Biden, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others are sending strong, clear hints that Israel does not have permission to strike Iran. Yet, given their familiarity with the Israeli client, they have not made do with simple hints and intimations. Washington dispatched the new CIA director, Leon Panetta, to Israel. Panetta made clear to Netanyahu, in so many words, that an Israeli attack would create "big trouble."

Perhaps Israel at one point had just a small window of opportunity to exercise the military option, or, in other words, the possibility of attacking sites in Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. This is assuming, of course, that Israel indeed has the military capability for carrying out such a mission - an assumption that raises many questions. This is a mission that requires gathering pinpoint intelligence, to identify the precise targets without harming thousands of innocent civilians.

Simply put, one of the targets of such a strike is the uranium enrichment facility in Isfahan, which lies in the heart of a congested civilian population. A realistic military option is also contingent on fighter jets finding undetected routes, as well as carrying a sufficient payload of bombs and missiles to inflict heavy damage on the targets.

Let us assume that Israel does, indeed, have a reasonable military capability which would enable it to strike at the targets, inflict heavy damage and set Iran's nuclear program back a few years. The opportunity to realize this capability arguably presented itself to Israel a few years ago. Iran at the time was subject to an intense international offensive. Inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency repeatedly exposed its lies and levied sanctions against the Tehran regime.

Threats made by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to wipe Israel from the map and his insistence on denying the Holocaust aroused great sympathy for Israel. This sympathy was buttressed by the Olmert government's willingness to hold peace talks with Syria and seek an agreement with the Palestinians. Above all, this friendly international atmosphere was backed by an accommodating Republican administration and a president who was ready to support (or to turn a blind eye to) any Israeli operation. In addition, Iran's ability to respond to an attack with missiles was limited.

But all this is now in the past. The sanctions are stuck. Ahmadinejad has, for the time being, softened his bellicose rhetoric. The production of Iranian missiles has doubled.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is not ready to recognize the right of the Palestinians to a state of their own, nor does he have any intention of holding serious negotiations with Syria, regarding withdrawal from the Golan Heights. This position reduces international support for Israel. Yet, most importantly, there is a new president in Washington, one who has outlined a new policy vis-a-vis Iran. He has announced the start of negotiations with Iran, and even though he mentioned that the talks will have to be concluded by the end of this year, he did not set a clear deadline. All these factors, including the explicit statements made by administration officials, put Israel in its place.

The supreme tenet of Israeli defense policy states that Jerusalem must not launch any strategic initiative that stands in contradiction, or places in harm's way, the clear interests of the United States. This stance has underpinned every fateful decision taken by Israel relating to matters of war and peace. Israel embarked on the Six-Day War only after it was convinced that the U.S. would not oppose. In the hours leading up to the Yom Kippur War, Israel refrained from launching a preemptive strike for fear that Washington would blame it for starting the war. Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 only after Defense Minister Ariel Sharon came under the impression that the U.S. would view the move with understanding. During the first Gulf War in 1991, the U.S. did not permit Israel to respond to Iraqi scud missiles, and Israel obliged.

If this tenet remains the cornerstone of defense policy, then Israel once again will not act against the explicit wishes of the U.S. Thus, when Israeli leaders say that "all options are open," this is nothing but a dog's bark being louder than his bite. Or, if you will, a mouse that roars. If the U.S. does not alter its policy, then Israel no longer has the military option at its disposal - if it ever had such an option at all.

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