Washington underwent changes of face towards Israel this week with dizzying speed.
In an interview with Bloomberg columnist Jeffrey Goldberg on Feb. 27 US President Barack Obama harshly criticized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He warned that time is running out for Israel and Netanyahu to move forward in negotiations with the Palestinians.
But when Netanyahu arrived at the White House on Monday March 3 – just four days later – he met a different president, who openly praised his leadership.
The prime minister reciprocated by heaping compliments on the president, when he addressed the annual AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) policy conference in Washington the next day. He made a point of lauding Obama for his peace efforts and contribution to Israel’s security.
The audience of the pro-Israeli lobby, which a few days earlier had been directed to redouble its campaign against the administration’s détente with Iran, rose to its feet and gave Netanyahu a rousing ovation – although many people were puzzled by the abrupt change of face exhibited by both leaders.
Except for a few White House aides, no one knew that Obama had taken the advice of his Israeli visitor to give the green light through Netanyahu for an Israeli naval commando operation to seize a Panama-registered ship carrying dozens of Syrian-made 302mm rockets from Iran to the Gaza Strip via Sudan.
Suddenly Obama and Netanyahu were good friends, after a long period in which they agreed on almost nothing and made no bones about their mutual aversion.
Obama and Kerry at loggerheads
DEBKA Weekly's sources in Washington and Jerusalem disclose how it happened that the Israeli raid on an Iranian missile ship came to intrude on the White House-Kremlin contest over Ukraine at its peak. Certain events – some of them unseen at the time – led up to it.
1. Netanyahu, who has good contacts in the US Congress, was aware that Obama and US intelligence were in bad odor over their foreign policy fiascoes – from the handling of Libya to the Syria war and Lebanon. Their soft policies were blamed for the Ukraine crisis getting out of hand and for Vladimir Putin venturing to send Russian troops to invade Crimea. The critics maintained that a firm American posture backed by military muscle would have deterred Putin from this course.
US intelligence agencies were accused of failing to foresee or even detect Russian preparations for special forces to land on Ukrainian territory.
2. Netanyahu was also in on the divergences between the president and Secretary of State John Kerry. Obama saw Ukraine as a European issue and wanted to leave it to the Europeans to handle it, with the United States “leading from behind” on the Libyan model.
Kerry argued for the opposite tack. On Wednesday March 6, he was seen here, there and everywhere at all the diplomatic venues dealing with Ukraine. He seemed to trust in the partnership he had established with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in past crises for blazing a path out of the new one.
But Lavrov wasn’t playing, and the crisis continued to roll into a straight fight between Obama and Putin.
Netanyahu advised a brief revisit of Cold War practices to deter Putin
3. Netanyahu put this proposition before Obama: Approve the Israeli raid on the Iranian missile ship and announce that the US military and intelligence were a party to it. This will pull the rug from under the feet of those who accuse the president being soft and shy of resorting to military action even in dire circumstances.
Furthermore, said the prime minister, an Israeli strike on an Iranian target fully coordinated with America would pull the Russian leader up in his tracks before he moves any more troops into Ukraine. He will then think twice before gambling away the military and diplomatic gains he accrued in the Arab world and Middle East as a result of Washington turning a blind eye to Russia’s entry into the void left by the Obama administration.
What Netanyahu was advising was a brief revisit to the practices of the Cold War years, when the Middle East was the main arena for the two superpowers to fight it out through proxies. Putin would be taken by surprise and so give Obama the edge.
4. Cutting US intelligence into the Israel operation for tracking the Iranian missile ship might deflect some of the aspersions on US clandestine agencies’ handling of the Ukraine episode.
5. US partnership in the raid on an Iranian target might also restore some belief – especially among US Jews and Israelis – that Obama had not given up on ever authorizing a military operation against a nuclear Iran. It would help Netanyahu to sell to the Israeli public the concessions he is preparing to offer the Palestinians for a peace accord, by offering evidence that Israel is assured of White House backing both political and military.
Were Obama and Netanyahu having a brief fling or in earnest?
A decision having been reached Monday, Israeli naval commandos stopped the Iranian cargo vessel KLOS C on the Red Sea two days later, apprehending it on Wednesday March 6, as the ship was preparing to sail into Port Sudan.
Had that moment been missed, the Israeli air force would most probably have bombed the ship. This would have required a follow-up go-ahead from Obama. As it was, the Israel commando team had no difficulty in apprehending the vessel, examining the cargo, and forcing it to head for Eilat.
That same night, White House spokesman Jay Carney revealed that US intelligence services and military had worked with Israel to track the Iranian KLOS C and decided to give the IDF the lead role in its interception.
“Even as we continue our efforts to resolve our concerns over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy, we will continue to stand up to Iran’s support for destabilizing activities in the region, in coordination with our partners and allies,” said the State Department.
Accusations of state-sponsored terrorism were bandied off the record among other US officials.
It was the first time in four years that the US and Israel had collaborated in a military operation against Iran – ever since the Stuxnet virus attacked Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010.
But was this just a short fling in the volatile Obama-Netanyahu relationship, or long term? Both this week took a plunge which could bring challenging fallout down on their heads from Vadimir Putin, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Bashar Assad.