The possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program fell back on the White House table with a heavy thud this week when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu dodged around an early election in September by the stunning device of attaching the leading opposition party, Kadima to his government coalition.
Israelis woke up early Tuesday morning, May 8 to discover a smiling Netanyahu and Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz sitting pretty athwart a jumbo majority of 94 out of 120 MKs.
But it soon dawned on Washington and Brussels that the Israeli prime minister had also unlocked the wheel clamps constraining him from military action, which would have been the effect of a hotly-contested election campaign combined with a vocal opposition urging him to leave the job to America.
Instead, he had acquired a new partner for a preemptive attack simply by showing Mofaz, a former defense minister and chief of staff, updated intelligence on Iran’s nuclear progress and the scale of the threat to Israel and the Middle East. As newest member of the diplomatic-security cabinet, the forum which decides on key matters of war and peace, he could be counted on to vote for a decision to go to war on Iran.
By Wednesday, officials in Washington, Brussels and Jerusalem, were coming out of their daze over the rapid reversal of their plans and mulling new stratagems for holding Israel in check, a difficulty complicated by the fact that, in contrast to the prime minister, Barak Obama still had a reelection campaign to win.
Restarting US moves for holding Israel in check
Israel’s political turnabout was bad news for Obama in another sense too. If he returns to the White House in November, he will find Binyamin Netanyahu solidly entrenched in the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem for many a month to come.
In the meantime, the US president must brace himself for a nasty surprise or two – either from his Republican rival Mitt Romney, or Jerusalem or Tehran, during the crucial weeks of September or October 2012 leading up to voting day on Nov. 4.
From his point of view, all the efforts his administration invested in holding Israel back from military action against Iran had gone for naught and would have to be restarted.
One stratagem had been for top American military and other officials to interact non-stop with Israel’s top intelligence and military officers and officials and so keep a constant finger on the Israeli pulse in order to be forewarned of an approaching attack on Iran. The frequent visits back and forth had become the butt of jokes.
After six months during which US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak were meeting every two or three weeks, Barak proposed to Panetta: “I’ll tell you everything you want to know. “Why should Martin (US Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey) have to keep on coming and dining at the same Tel Aviv restaurants? He deserves more variety.”
Another deterrent tactic used extensively by the Obama administration was a media blitz in the US and Europe based on contentions that Israel’s defense forces, IDF, lacked the weaponry and capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities – or even throw it off-balance for long enough to make it worthwhile. At best, said the editorials and the pundits, Iran would be delayed in its progress by no more than a year or less at the price of a regional disaster.
In early April, Obama’s advisers reported they had put dampers on plans which Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had brought close to realization in March. The US president ordered the media campaign cooled at that point.
Ashton tests the ground (for Obama) on an Israeli Iran attack
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence and Washington sources expect it to be renewed in one form another quite soon.
The first harbinger of the pressure to come was an unscheduled visitor to Jerusalem Wednesday, May 9.
Catherine Ashton, the European Market’s foreign policy executive and coordinator of the P5 + 1 nuclear talks had come for a look at Netanyahu’s day-old unity government and, at the behest of the White House, a testing of the ground on which the new government stood on Iran.
Just a week earlier, the prime minister had sent his security adviser Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror on a tour of key European capitals and Moscow) to test the ground of the world powers on behalf of Israel.
When he asked what proposals would be put on the table at the Six-Power talks with Iran in Baghdad on May 23 and whether Israel’s positions would be taken into account, he was informed everywhere that it all depended on the secret dialogue afoot between Washington and Tehran. He was also told that this dialogue was progressing at a spanking pace and had reached accord on some of the fundamental issues.
In London, Amidror was even warned, “Obama may still stun Israel with an Iranian May surprise.”
No Israeli compromise on Iranian enrichment
Ashton’s visit gave the Israeli prime minister his chance to elucidate Israel’s position for the ear of the US president as head of a new formidable lineup.
He could have left her in the hands of her opposite Israeli number, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Instead, Netanyahu not only received her himself, but made sure he was flanked by Lieberman, Defense Minister Barak, and his new acquisition, ex-opposition leader turned Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz.
The quartet informed the EU executive that Israel’s position on the Iranian nuclear issue was firmer than ever before. The world powers must confront Tehran with three requirements:
1. An immediate halt to uranium enrichment at all levels;
2. The shipment of all enriched uranium outside the country.
3. The immediate cessation of work at, and dismantling of, the Fordo underground nuclear facility.
To dispel any doubts about Israel’s resolve, Netanyahu broke with custom and instructed his spokespersons to issue a public statement on this position.
His message to Ashton and through her to Obama was crystal clear: If Iran can’t be pulled off its nuclear aspirations by diplomacy then Israel still held to its military option.