Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent three days in Israel this week – an unusually long foreign trip for the top US soldier – to check out Washington’s suspicions that Israel was in the thick of preparations for its long-delayed unilateral preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
He came armed with a counter-proposal. Rather than operating solo, he argued that Israel would be better served by cooperating militarily with plans drawn up by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in conjunction with the United States.
In addition to formal meetings with Israeli leaders, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that the US general quietly canvassed the views for and against Israeli military action current among Israel’s top generals within the IDF hierarchy and among still influential retirees.
So Gen. Dempsey first paid calls on leading policy-makers Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz and Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. But Monday, March 31, he also took aside certain former generals at a hotel near the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. His most important conversation was with the heads of the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), led by Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli Military Intelligence (AMAN).
Israeli generals shift ground on Iran
It so happens that Dempsey and Yadlin are old acquaintances since the days in 2011-2012 when the former AMAN chief acted as Netanyahu's unofficial spokesman on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Washington knows that until recently, Yadlin was convinced that Iran possessed all the ingredients for assembling a nuclear arsenal – weapons-grade enriched uranium, components and technology – and was held back by nothing more than an order from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
In the past, Yadlin was all in favor of the US and Israel jointly attacking the Iranian nuclear program, but if the Obama administration was unwilling, the Israeli Defense Forces should go for it alone.
But Yadlin has since shifted ground. He has kept his change of heart from the Israeli public, but not from his official US acquaintances in Washington. When he talks to them, he also levels about his political ambitions, which are to win the leadership of Israel’s opposition Labor party and use it as stepping-tone to the prime minister's office.
Dempsey’s heart-to-heart with Yadlin and team arose from his mistrust of the words he heard from Israel’s political and military officials. He determined to dig further to discover unspoken motivations and hidden information they were keeping close to their chests.
Israel is not satisfied by the diplomacy-first thesis
Yadlin is not the only former general to shift ground of late.
The defense minister has moved in the opposite direction: once opposed to a military strike on Iran, he is now perceived in Washington to have moved around to a new sense of urgency regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities and goals.
In contrast to the discreet Yadlin, he makes no secret of his belief that President Barack Obama will never exercise America’s military option against a nuclear Iran. He concludes that Israel can’t afford to wait for an unknowable figure to move into the White house in 2017 and restart the whole wearisome round of debates on the right approach. Israeli security – and its very existence – is contingent on early military action to curb Iran’s nuclear capacity, Ya’alon says.
The administration was rattled enough to send the top US general over to Israel when Ya’alon avoided apologizing for a widely-reported comment he made last month criticizing the US as “weak on Ukraine and Iran” and stressing that Israel must depend on its own devices for dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat.
At the end of his visit Wednesday, April 2, Gen. Dempsey declared that the spat between the two governments was over. He issued this statement: “I think they are satisfied that we have the capability to use a military option if the Iranians choose to stray off the diplomatic path,” he said. “They are satisfied we have the capability. I think they believe we will use it.”
Dempsey’s alternative plan for broad US-Israel-Gulf cooperation
That statement was entirely one-sided. No Israeli official has confirmed it. In fact, the crux of the spat continues to be the Obama administration’s over-reliance on “the diplomatic path,” which Israel is convinced Iran has consistently exploited to quietly continue its advance towards its nuclear goals undisturbed.
Dempsey also presented Israel’s leaders with an alternative plan. US military sources familiar with the conversations that took place disclose that the plan hinged on broad military cooperation among the US, the Israel Defense Forces and the armies of certain Gulf countries for action in a wide area between Syria and the Gulf.
The IDF and Gulf military forces would undertake the training of Syrian rebel groups fighting the Assad regime and Al Qaeda. They would also conduct joint military exercises as a warning and deterrent to Tehran of the consequences in store for persisting in building nuclear weapons.
This is what Dempsey meant, when he spoke on March 31 in Tel Aviv about the IDF, with the aid of the US, gaining "an outreach to other partners who may not have been willing to be partners in the past."
Dempsey elaborated on this, saying: "What I mean is the Gulf States in particular, who heretofore may not have been as open-minded to the potential for cooperation with Israel in any way."
Dempsey did not specify which states, or how he would procure the consent of the Gulf countries to the presence of Israeli military forces on their soil for joint exercises.
US plan offered no effective means of preempting a nuclear Iran
Our military sources point out that while Israeli officials appreciated Dempsey's public remarks as an improvement on the Obama administration's former stance, they shrugged off his plan for military cooperation with Gulf nations because of two major omissions: First it contained nothing new, and second, it offered no effective measure for preempting Iran’s nuclear threat to Israel or the Gulf countries.
They point out, as DEBKA Weekly has revealed more than once, that Israel and Saudi Arabia have been engaged for nearly two years in coordinating their policies on certain aspects, though not all, of the Syrian anti-Assad rebellion – with mixed reactions from Washington.
In the past and the present, they have also discussed joint Israeli-Saudi-UAE military action against Iran, calling forth a much cooler reaction from Washington. The plan Dempsey presented in Israel added little to that partnership, but most of all, it offered no effective option to the military one.
Tuesday, Dempsey’s last day in Israel, the grand peace push sponsored by US Secretary of State John Kerry plunged into its deepest crisis since he launched it a year ago. (See a separate article on this.)
DEBKA Weekly's sources note that a profitable linkage between the Iran issue and Israel-Palestinian negotiations, once contemplated by Washington, is gone for good. Middle East negotiations may still limp along for a while, cajoled by Kerry, but Gen. Dempsey’s visit left Israel’s active military option against Iran squarely on the table.