On the way to his first visits to Israel and Egypt as US Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta warned Israel of increasing isolation in the Middle East and said "Israeli leaders must restart negotiations with the Palestinians and work to restore relations with Egypt and Turkey." While Israel is still the most powerful state in the region, Panetta said, “Is it enough to maintain a military edge if you’re isolating yourself in the diplomatic arena? Before meeting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and military and intelligence chiefs in Tel Aviv, the Defense Secretary said:
“It’s pretty clear that at this dramatic time in the Middle East, when there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated. And that’s what’s happening."
The Secretary of Defense did not question US commitment to Israel's security, reflecting President Barack Obama's fundamental policy, but his words indicated that the administration would not be able to coordinate its positions with the Netanyahu government for much longer on Egypt, the Palestinians and Turks with the result that Israel would be "increasingly isolated."
But there was another subtext.
“Real security can only be achieved by both a strong diplomatic effort as well as a strong effort to project your military strength,” said Panetta. When the United States invests so substantially in maintaining Israel's military edge over the Arab nations and Iran, why does Israel not use that advantage as leverage to improve its diplomatic performance, he seemed to be saying.
Exaggerated military restraint
debkafile's analysts comment: The new position Washington appears to be taking reflects a measure of hypocrisy dating back to a former US administration: In 2007, the Bush White House adopted the National Intelligence Estimate which stated that Iran's nuclear program had halted weapons development and on that false premise held Israel back from a military strike against the Islamic Republic at an early stage of its nuclear development .
By faulting Israel at this late stage for not using its military strength for political gains, is the Obama administration showing impatience with the Netanyahu government for its exaggerated military restraint? In almost three years in power, Netanyahu, Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have managed to avoid a single military campaign for diplomatic ends – an almost unique demonstration of passivity in the annals of Israeli governments.
Are the Americans now saying this was a mistake?
Panetta seems to be saying that by not applying Israel's military prowess in the dramatically changing times in the Middle East Israeli leaders failed as statesmen.
debkafile's military sources find three fallacies in the new American position articulated by Leon Panetta:
1. The Netanyahu government took no part in arousing, causing or taking sides in the ongoing Arab uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen.
According to the latest military and intelligence evaluations in Washington, eleven months of tumult have not produced the results the US hoped for. The United States – and not just Israel – appears to be increasingly isolated in the Middle East with the resulting curtailment of its leeway for determining events.
2. The Obama administration and Panetta's predecessor Robert Gates not only objected strongly to Israel taking military action to preempt Iran's nuclear program or even its spreading influence across the Middle East up to Israel's very borders and the arming of its surrogates.
Instead, President Obama repeatedly persuaded Israel to wait patiently for the US and international community to bestir themselves and impose sanctions certain to bring about the Iranian economy to collapse and starve its nuclear program of resources. This was a bad miscalculation because in the event those sanctions failed and the Iranian economy, along with its nuclear weapons program, is thriving.
But meanwhile Washington held Israel firmly back from "projecting its military strength."
3. Like most of the West, Israel praised the "Arab Spring" which claimed to be dedicated to bringing democracy to the Arab world. Israel – even more than the US – should have known better.
By tacitly approving Hosni Mubarak's overthrow as Egyptian president, the Netanyahu government erred badly. It is more than likely that by taking a stand against the revolt, like Saudi Arabia, Israel would have won more respect from the Egyptian military led by Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi who took his place, in consideration of its military strength.
But Israel could on no account afford to sit on its military hands when Sinai veered out of Egyptian control and the pipeline carrying natural gas to Israel was sabotaged six times by terrorists.
This passivity allowed the strategic Sinai peninsula to become the hub of Islamist terrorists dedicated to fighting Israel and be used as the highway for Libyan arms, including anti-air missiles, to be smuggled into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and other unruly Middle East destinations.
US talks with Muslim Brotherhood
It could be said that the Netanyahu government's most signal lapse was dimming Israel's military strength instead of projecting it. This self-inflicted handicap is at the root of the diplomatic problems Israel is encountering with Egypt. Turning to Washington for help is of little avail because the US is also losing traction in Cairo.
This is largely because of the Obama administration's ambivalence on the next chapter of Egyptian history. On the one hand, the US calls on the Supreme Military Council to give Egypt stability; on the other, American officials are holding direct talks with members of the Muslim Brotherhood, without differentiating between its political Freedom and Justice Party and its clerical leadership.
A US diplomat stressed that the Brotherhood's role has grown since Mubarak was ousted and therefore expects the organization to be integrated into future Egyptian government.
This objective is far from the aspirations of Egypt's military rulers – much less by Israel, considering that the Brotherhood is the parent of the jihadist Palestinian Hamas.
In these circumstances, the Netanyahu government should be backing the Egyptian generals to the hilt and work to keep them in power. But because Israel is too afraid of putting up backs in Washington to take this line, Secretary Panetta feels free to accuse Jerusalem of sole responsibility for its growing isolation in the Middle East.
4. The same applies to America's Libyan and Syrian polices. Without comparing the rationales for US military intervention to topple Libya while keeping Bashar Assad in power in Syria, they have a common factor: the Obama administration's policy of promoting the rise of radical Muslim elements. In Libya, it went to the extreme of endorsing ex-al Qaeda elements' seizure of the capital Tripoli and northwest Libya, while propagating the fiction that they are an integral part of the democracy-seeking popular revolt.
In Syria, Washington encouraged Saudi Arabia and Turkey to provide arms, funding and logistic assistance to the Muslim Brotherhood which is spearheading the revolt against Assad.
Erdogan's crisis with Israel is self-serving
The Netanyahu government should never have held silent on these US policies. Israel should have caused a public outcry against an American course that places its most implacable Islamist enemies in positions of power around its borders, menacing not only Israel but the rest of the region as well.
Isolation is the least of Israel's worries from the epic changes Washington is promoting in the region.
President Obama chose to assign Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan the role of bridge to Muslim forces in the region. So how does Panetta square this with his demand that Israel "work to restore relations" with a leader who uses his privileged position at the White House to compete with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the dissemination of hatred for Israel?
After failing to make an impression on the Arab uprisings, Erdogan continues to whip up animus against Israel to conceal his own shortcomings from public opinion at home and in Washington and curry favor with the most radical anti-Israel forces which rejected him.
Panetta's remarks will further encourage him to put the entire onus on Israel for repairing ties although the crisis he generated is in fact entirely self-serving.