On Wednesday afternoon, May 26, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel handed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an invitation from President Barack Obama to meet him for a working meeting at the White House Tuesday, June 1 on his way home from Canada.
Emanuel's visit – he arrived on May 23 – was described as a private family trip to celebrate his son's bar-mitzvah in Jerusalem. But the US president found his right-hand man's journey useful for tying the hands of prime minister Netanyahu and Defense minister Ehud Barak, in case they contemplated mounting an attack on the 800 Syrian Scud-D missiles piled up on the Lebanese border to prevent them reaching the hands of the Lebanese terrorist Hizballah – or even going ahead and striking Iran's nuclear sites.
(See the first item in this issue on the placement of these missiles on the Syria-Lebanon border).
A day earlier, May 22, John Kerry, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was dispatched to Damascus to try and dissuade Syrian president Bashar Assad from shifting the Scuds the last few miles into Lebanon.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington report the Obama administration is going all out to ward off a military showdown in the Middle East because it would interfere with his plans to resume nuclear dialogue with Iran.
But Thursday, May 27, brought high noon closer. Netanyahu flew off on trips to Paris and North America that morning and Israel's five-day homeland defense exercise drew to a close. However, the night before, Syria placed all its armed forces on combat readiness for the first time since the 2006 Lebanon War and ordered its missile units to take up firing positions.
(See HOT POINTS below for details)
Washington turns its face to diplomacy, not war
In the midst of these war signals, Washington forged ahead with its policy of diplomatic engagement for solving conflicts on all fronts – against all the odds. But President Obama did not neglect to shore up his assets ahead of the talks by sending a nuclear submarine to cross the strategic Strait of Hormuz past the Iranian coast Thursday, May 27.
Tuesday, May 25, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summed up her two days of talks with Chinese officials in Beijing to reporters: "We discussed at some length the shortcomings of the recent proposal put forward by Iran in its letter to the IAEA. There are a number of deficiencies (in the Iranian-Turkish-Brazilian nuclear agreement) which do not answer the concerns of the international community."
Her comment could be taken to mean that there is some basis for discussion in the new proposal and if the flaws are repaired, the agreement may be acceptable.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly 446 of May 21 (It May Not Be All Bad, Say Obama's People) outlined the changes the administration wants to see.
The day before (Monday, May 24), Washington asked the UN Secretary General to pass on the message that if the Brazilian-brokered enriched uranium deal for half of Iran's stock to be swapped for nuclear rods in Turkey were accepted and implemented, it might serve as an important confidence-building measure for opening the door to a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue.
In other words, there was room for discussion.
To persuade the American public that the administration was not again bending over backward to let Iran get away scot free, a leak was dropped into the Tuesday, May 25, US media revealing that Gen. David Petraeus, chief of the US Central Command, had last September signed an order authorizing clandestine military operations in allied and hostile Middle East, Central Asian and Horn of African nations for surveillance and cooperation with local security forces. Iran appeared from the document to be singled out for covert operations – most likely for gathering intelligence about the country's nuclear program or identifying dissident groups that might be useful in a future military offensive.
It was hoped in administration circles that people would forget how cynically Tehran trifled with the sharp ultimatums President Obama slapped down exactly a year ago when Iran was discovered to have hidden a clandestine uranium enrichment facility (since abandoned) in a mountain near the holy city of Qom.
Israeli leaders agreeable
In Jerusalem, Netanyahu had no trouble giving Rahm Emanuel the same promise Assad gave Senator Kerry, namely that, barring unexpected events, he would do his utmost to cool border tensions and keep them from flaring into a fully-fledged war.
The Israeli prime minister was delighted with the affection showered on him now by the White House in Washington after a year of Obama's icy aloofness – which, incidentally, helped him keep his government coalition on an even keel. He expects his White House welcome Tuesday, June 1 will be a lot warmer than the last two.
For both Israeli and Syrian leaders, "barring unexpected events" is a catchall caveat in case they choose to be let off the hook of their promises.
Netanyahu in particular may not be allowed to stay the course of restraint in the face of rising criticism from Israel's military and security chiefs.
(This is discussed in detail in the next article.)