During his five-day visit to Washington this week, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made several powerful speeches peppered with aphorisms: The “nuclear duck” image was the funniest: “Time is growing short,” the most serious; and “Israel must be the master of its fate,” so that it can make its own decisions about attacking Iran, was puzzling.
After all, in today’s global world, the interdependence of nations in varying degrees is a commonplace, together with the knock-on effect of any one nation’s actions on others. So why did Netanyahu choose to air this slogan in the United States, with whom Israel has very special relations of mutual friendship?
This time, it was not just a public relations stunt, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources report. It was prompted by a piece of intelligence reaching Jerusalem in the latter part of January.
Israel’s government and military leaders were dismayed to hear, mainly from Saudi and Qatari sources as well as Moscow, that President Barack Obama, or one of his senior aides, had given Tehran through backdoor channels a guarantee to restrain Israel from attacking its nuclear facilities this year, provided it met certain conditions: For starters, Iran must join the six powers for nuclear talks to be held in Istanbul next month and, ahead of the talks, open up its military nuclear plants to their first genuine inspection by IAEA monitors.
Suspicion breeds a slogan – and a unilateral policy
Netanyahu’s first response was to send Tamir Pardo, director of the Mossad external intelligence agency, to Washington to ask one question: Did the US president or a member of his administration convey this guarantee to Tehran without the Israeli prime minister’s consent or knowledge? Pardo was instructed to get a feel for the way the winds were blowing in the US capital.
His opposite numbers in US intelligence shrugged and denied knowledge of any such commitment. They confessed themselves surprised by the information.
But other American officials and some senators admitted to the Mossad chief that they had picked up word of a White House understanding with the Iranians on those lines but assumed Israel had signed off on it.
So Pardo returned home without a clear answer for the prime minister.
From that moment on, senior Washington and Jerusalem sources told DEBKA-Net-Weekly, all Israeli government actions in relation to Iran were governed by profound concern that the Obama administration had indeed granted Tehran this guarantee unbeknownst to Jerusalem.
With gritted teeth, Jerusalem found confirmation for this suspicion when on February 14 the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln crossed the Strait of Hormuz on its way to the Gulf of Oman without incident as though by prearrangement – albeit shadowed by Iranian submarines, explosives-packed speedboats, drones and attack helicopters.
Donilon’s mission was to allay Netanyahu’s suspicions
That day too, a former top adviser to President Obama on Iran, the knowledgeable Dennis Ross, ran an op-ed in the New York Times titled “Iran is Ready to Talk.”
Israeli officials were by then convinced about a secret Washington-Tehran deal behind their back.
Two days went by and on Feb. 16, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Senate he did not think Israel had reached a decision on attacking Iran.
This was seen as more evidence of a clandestine US-Iranian scheme and so angered the Netanyahu government that President Obama decided on the unusual step of sending his National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to Jerusalem. He arrived by special plane on Feb. 18 for an attempt to stanch the rising flames of distrust bedeviling relations between the two governments.
The Iranians were meanwhile fully briefed on US-Israeli friction by Russian intelligence and did their best to fuel it further.
As Donillon landed in Israel, two Iranian warships went sailing through the Suez Canal heading north for the Syrian Mediterranean port of Tartus. Their purpose was to deepen Israeli suspicions that America was engaged in underhand military transactions with Iran and suggest that more unpleasant surprises were on the way.
The Israeli Prime Minister is unmoved
Three days after the warships crossed Suez, on Feb. 21, Iran’s General Staff Operations Branch Chief Gen. Mohammad Hejazi warned that Iran would not wait to be attacked but would strike its enemies first.
This statement was intended as fuel for the rising US-Israeli animosity after Security Adviser Donilon had failed to reassure Netanyahu there was no skullduggery between Washington and Tehran.
At that point, the Israeli prime minister told him the cause of the falling-out was no longer relevant. He had decided finally to reserve the right to strike Iran without prior notice to Washington.
On February 24, it was the turn of James Clapper, the Director of US National Intelligence, to try his hand at placating Israel with an assurance that the Obama administration had never promised Iran to restrain Israel, nor gone behind Netanyahu’s back.
He did a little better than Donilon, our sources report, but Netanyahu was still not entirely convinced of the non-existence of a deal with Tehran.
With this suspicion in mind, the Israeli Prime Minister used the platforms provided him during his Washington visit to labor his leitmotif, “Israel is master of its fate,” thereby underscoring his message that Israel stands by the right to make its own decisions about attacking Iran.