After months of immobility, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is now telling his close advisers that Israel must go back to seriously considering a preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program without the United States. This revived momentum is starting to spill over into his public pronouncements.
Monday, Jan. 7, the prime minister referred to Iran in a comment rebuking the United State for publicly condemning Israeli construction in Jerusalem and in West Bank settlements, an attitude he suspected was dictated from the horse’s mouth in the White House and State Department.
“… The great challenges that we face, the great danger to the world is not from Jews building in our ancestral capital in Jerusalem," he said in English for the benefit of young visitors on a free Israel trip. "It's from nuclear weapons in Iran… it's chemical weapons in Syria falling into the wrong hands. That's the danger we have to focus on."
To his close advisers Netanyahu is confiding that the red line on Iranian uranium enrichment that he drew in his address to the UN General Assembly on Sept. 27, 2012, has been underscored by the element of time: The window of opportunity for hitting Iran’s nuclear sites is narrowing fast and no more than a month or two remain before it slams shut.
Israel disappointed in Obama backing away from Iran military option
Netanyahu generally keeps these thoughts to himself, just as he has held back on public comments on President Barack Obama’s choice this week of former Republican Senator from Nebraska Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and presidential counterterrorism adviser John Brennan as CIA Director.
In private, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Jerusalem report that the Netanyahu administration and his military chiefs took the two appointments very hard. They sensed a stinging White House putdown – not just because of Hagel’s history of anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish remarks, or even because Brennan belongs to the pro-Muslim CIA camp – but because the two appointments attested to President Obama having finally turned his back on military action against Iran’s nuclear program during this second term.
His first was marked by consistent food-dragging on America’s behalf, while restraining everyone else, including Israel, from acting on their own, against certain promises.
Netanyahu and his military and intelligence staff expected the US President to make good on the word he gave the prime minister – during and after his campaign for reelection — that military action would swing back as a realistic option if the secret nuclear talks Obama launched directly with Tehran on Dec. 1 failed to yield a breakthrough. But those talks have so far failed to budge Iran.
Iran stands fast on 20-pc uranium enrichment in Fordo
This was confirmed Wednesday, Jan. 9, by Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Director Fereydoun Abbasi who said Iran will continue the production of enriched uranium to a purity level of 20 percent at Fordo and Natanz uranium enrichment facilities – notwithstanding the fundamental US demands to halt the process, shut the underground Ford facility down and export stocks of 20-percent enriched uranium.
Well aware of the diplomatic impasse, the two key appointees to the new Obama cabinet, Hagel are Brennan, are reputed to remain firmly against war on Iran. Neither would they be likely to favor upgrading Israel’s military weaponry for the hardware required for a solo operation against its nuclear facilities. As for the intelligence-sharing on Iran extended by the outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former CIA Director David Petraeus, it is feared in Jerusalem that the new CIA director would be more grudging about this sort of cooperation or even discontinue it altogether.
Israeli leaders found their fears confirmed by an authoritatively-sourced New York Times report Tuesday, Jan. 8, under the caption "Hints of Syrian Chemical Push Set Off Global Effort to Stop It," which appeared hours after the Hagel and Brennan nominations.
The report started with this disclosure: "In the last days of November, Israel's top military commanders called the Pentagon to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pound bombs that could be loaded on airplanes."
An intelligence failure in Syria may well apply to a nuclear Iran
The troubling question raised in Jerusalem was this: Was the vast US intelligence networks covering Syria, Turkey, Israel and Jordan, inside Syrian rebel units and from satellites overhead, waiting around for Israel to tip them off that Syria was mixing sarin nerve gas ready for use?
If they missed that development, what reliance can Israel place on US assurances – from the president down to subordinate officials – that US intelligence would instantly pick up on an order from Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to start assembling nuclear bombs? And how credible is President Obama’s declaration, “The US will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
This assurance was echoed by designated Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in Washington Wednesday. It was discounted by seasoned observers as aimed at enhancing his chances of endorsement in congress.
The next NYT disclosure about this episode was still more alarming: "What followed next, officials said, was a remarkable show of international cooperation over a civil war in which the United States, Arab states, Russia and China have almost never agreed on a common course of action. The combination of a public warning by Mr. Obama and more sharply worded private messages sent to the Syrian leader and his military commanders through Russia and others, including Iraq, Turkey and possibly Jordan, stopped the chemical mixing and the bomb preparation."
In other words, miraculous international concord initiated by Washington brought the Syrian chemical weapons panic to a happy end.
US no more ready to strike nuclear Iran than Syria’s chemical arms
To Jerusalem, this disclosure confirmed the new Obama administration’s absolute trust in international consensus and diplomacy to right all the ills of the Middle East and defuse every crisis – even those arising from the use of weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical in Syria or nuclear in Iranian hands.
Israeli observers find it hard to believe any realist in Washington’s political or intelligence community subscribes to this dangerous misapprehension.
The same report added for good measure: "How the United States and Israel, along with Arab states, would respond remains a mystery. American and allied officials have talked vaguely of having developed ‘contingency plans’ in case they decided to intervene in an effort to neutralize the chemical weapons, a task that the Pentagon estimates would require upward of 75,000 troops. But there have been no evident signs of preparations for any such effort."
No leap of perception is needed to grasp that US operational preparations for handling an Iranian nuclear threat are no more advanced than are its “contingency plans” for “neutralizing” Syria’s chemical weapons
Indeed Hagel and Brennan step into an administration which, in the absence of a military option, is at a loss on how to proceed.
The Obama administration originally decided against military intervention in the Syrian conflict on the assumption that the horrendous violence would grind down the close-knit Tehran-Damascus-Hizballah front, slow Iran’s Middle East drive and eventually blow up in Tehran’s face. But by shying away from a direct military role in Syria, say DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military and intelligence sources, the US gave Tehran free rein to exploit the Syrian war to cement its influence in Damascus, tighten its grip on Lebanon by deepening its alliance with Hizballah and strike root in the Hamas-ruled Palestinian Gaza Strip.
Netanyahu is better placed than ever at home for an Iran strike
The case of Washington’s inaction in Syria has given Israel a powerful incentive for embarking on expeditious military action against Iran before Hagel and Brennan settle into their new jobs – especially with the Iranians making hay of their advantages in Syria to tighten the noose around Israel.
Prime Minister Netanyahu also finds himself better placed domestically for an attack on Iran, than he was in September-October 2012, say our Jerusalem sources
A mystery still hangs over his abrupt decision on Sept. 5 to adjourn a Diplomatic-Security Cabinet debate on Iran on the pretext that the issue was too sensitive to risk press leaks. For the next five months, he prevented a debate on military action against Iran from taking place in any forum – still without explanation.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources now disclose that, at the time, Netanyahu was beset with Barack Obama’s fierce opposition to striking Iran while he was running for reelection. Then, too, Defense Minister Ehud Barak had a change of heart and withdrew his support for an attack. This left the prime minister unsure of a majority in cabinet if he put a military strike on Iran to the vote.
This situation has radically changed. Barak has decided to retire from politics and depart the defense ministry when the incumbent government ends its term of office after the January 22 general election. Netanyahu’s party is far and away the favorite to win in all the polls.
Barak and Panetta, formulators of US-Israel Iran understandings, retire
Barak’s exit offers a further benefit. It was he who formulated the confidential understandings between the Obama and Netanyahu governments in private meetings with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
Both are now retiring. Their successors, Chuck Hagel, and most likely Israel’s Moshe Yaalon, Vice Prime Minister and former chief of staff, will no doubt review these understandings, make changes and put their own stamp on them. These changes will relieve Prime Minister Netanyahu of his commitments to the first Obama administration and leave him free to make fresh decisions without being tied down.
A new, more confident, mood in Jerusalem favors early action while it is still possible to finally sort out the Iranian nuclear threat hanging far too long over the Jewish state. The Hagel and Brennan nominations come on the scene as the secret US- Iranian dialogue apparently nears a nuclear accord, which leaves most of Israel’s demands unaddressed – notwithstanding the Obama administration promise to incorporate them in America’s terms for a deal. Israeli policymakers fear that President Obama will use the two new appointees as shields against recriminations on this score from Israel and American-Jewish opinion, if the US-Iranian deal sees the light of day.