The White House announcement Tuesday, Feb. 5, that President Barack Obama’s first foreign trip since entering his second term was to be a spring visit to Israel, was unexpected in more ways than one – but mostly in tone.
“The start of the president’s second term and the formation of a new Israeli government offer the opportunity to reaffirm the deep and enduring bonds between the United States and Israel and to discuss the way forward on a broad range of issues of mutual concern, including, of course, Iran and Syria,” said Jay Carney, the White House spokesman.
He made no mention of the Palestinian and settlement issues, for the first time sidestepping perennial bones of contention between the two leaders. As it stands, therefore, the White House announcement conveyed an entirely new and more positive approach by the US president toward Israel and its prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. Both have been brought into the wider US regional perspective for resolving the overriding issues of a nuclear Iran and the fate of the Assad regime.
Wednesday night, a second White House statement stressed that “President Barack Obama does not plan to use his coming trip to Israel to advance new proposals to break open the deadlock in peace talks with the Palestinians.”
Uppermost in Obama’s mind for his forthcoming consultation with Netanyahu, therefore, is the Iranian nuclear issue, followed by the Syrian war. He is making a point of assuring the Israeli prime minister that his scale of priorities has been radically reshuffled since his reelection and the thorny Palestinian issue can wait.
Clinton, Kerry, Donilon turn the president around
That reshuffle of priorities is the biggest surprise of all.
In the early days of his re-election, Obama’s advisers and spokesmen briefed prominent media figures on the president’s decision to reorient his policies on the Pacific region and relations with China and other Asian countries. They said he was anxious to stay out of profound involvement in Middle East or African affairs at this early stage in his second term. And indeed, he initially distanced his policies and pulled US military strength out of the Middle East, leaving a vacuum quickly filled by Russia and Iran.
The reversal registered Tuesday was startling. Not only had the US President suddenly decided to turn back to the Middle East; he was proposing to jump back in partnership with the Israeli prime minister after years of a famously rocky relationship.
This will not be a regional trip – he will not stop over in Riyadh, Cairo or Ankara – only Israel, Jordan and Ramallah. And that too is significant, as we shall show.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington have discovered that three figures were responsible for the US President’s about-turn: outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, her successor John Kerry and White House Chief of Staff Tom Donilon.
After Obama’s reelection last November, this trio decided to present to the president their case for urgently placing the disarming of Iran’s nuclear capacity before June, 2013, at the top of his agenda, followed closely by the removal of Bashar Assad from power in Damascus, and the weakening and isolation of the Lebanese Hizballah. Progress in the Israeli-Palestinian issue was assigned to fourth place.
Stopping a nuclear Iran tops revised Obama agenda
The president was won over. Indeed, he did not approve Chuck Hagel’s nomination as secretary of defense in mid-January until the former Republican senator accepted the revised order of policy priorities.
This new order was outlined for the benefit of the Israeli public by US Ambassador Dan Shapiro in an interview Wednesday, Feb. 6 to Kol Israel national radio.
Israelis were astonished to hear the ambassador characterize the working relations between Obama and Netanyahu as “excellent,” after years of being told that this key relationship was marred by discord and dislike.
The president’s official schedule indicated moreover that he intended to confer first with the Israeli prime minister on their alignment of policies and tactics before traveling to Amman and bringing Jordan’s King Abdullah into the picture.
One of the strongest arguments Clinton and Kerry put to Obama for turning back to the Middle East was that his focus on the Far East would leave Iran free to conduct its first nuclear test in mid-2013 after which there would be no stopping the North Koreans, undoing any prospects of drawing a line on global nuclear proliferation. Washington would find itself chasing after two rogue nuclear powers running hand in hand and taking turns to defy the US.
It would be left to Moscow and Beijing to divide the last modicum of leverage between them – President Vladimir Putin, who sometimes had the ear of Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and Hu Jintao and Chinese President-designate Xi Jinping, leading the only world power with any influence at all on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
A strategy centering on a military clash involving Israel
To Barack Obama’s credit, it must be said that he lost no time in making up his mind. It took him only a few days in mid-January to decide on a radical policy turnabout, unlike the months of uncertainty before he approved the US military surge in the Afghanistan war.
Once decided, he was presented by Clinton, Kerry and Donilon with a comprehensive strategic plan of military actions recommended for the Middle East- Persian Gulf region at large: Its centerpiece was a tough ultimatum for cornering Tehran between two options and mandatory acceptance of a third:
1. Iran must dismantle its nuclear program and send out of the country its entire stock of enriched uranium and all the nuclear bomb components completed and ready for assembling.
2. By refusing this demand, Iran would incur direct US, Israeli or combined military action to cripple its nuclear program.
This would be a limited military engagement, which would no doubt generate a military clash between Israel and the Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah alliance. The clash would be kept within bounds and not allowed to degenerate into all-out regional warfare requiring direct United States intervention.
Washington would accompany the hostilities with a three-month diplomatic campaign.
3. Syrian President Bashar Assad must be removed from power.
(See a separate item in this issue on US, Israeli, Russian and Iranian steps in Syria).
Assad’s ouster is critical for the Obama legacy
Clinton, Kerry and Donilon convinced Obama that although Assad appeared to be capable of surviving his enemies’ onslaught for now, if he was allowed to do so, the president’s cherished Arab Spring, which hinged on removing Arab autocrats from power – Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen – would go down the drain and his championship of popular Arab revolutions turn to ashes.
Assad’s ouster, they argued, was critical to his political legacy. The issue was not Assad as an individual, but rather his critical role as keystone in the Tehran-Damascus-Beirut-Gaza archway.
If that arch stayed intact, the axes binding Moscow and Tehran, and Beijing and Pyongyang would be strengthened as girders for holding up a world edifice inimical to the United States.
The decision for Obama was not an easy one. For four years, he invested all his personal, political, intelligence and military capital in holding Israel back from a military strike to pre-empt a nuclear Iran, while at the same time maneuvering tirelessly for a diplomatic deal to curtail Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Now, he was being asked to abandon this path and take the opposite tack of pushing Israel, its armed forces (IDF) and American military might out front and center, and confronting Iran with a direct threat to its nuclear program and strategic ties with Syria and Hizballah.
Obama’s new policy was up and running at Jamraya
Obama’s radical turnaround has found outward expression in two events: The first was the green light he gave Israel for its air strike on the Syrian military complex in Jamraya near Damascus on January 30; the second, his decision to visit Israel as soon as possible.
For the new Obama, the symbolism of the Israeli air strike lay less in its military scope than the commonality of the Jamraya compound as a mainline base shared by the three allies: The “military research institute,” as the site of Syrian chemical weapon labs; the vast warehouses in the compound, which housed the sophisticated weapons systems Iran had sent to Syria for transshipment to Lebanon and Hizballah’s use in a war against Israel.
Hizballah units had been arriving at the complex for regular six-week courses of instruction in the use of those weapons.
At Jamraya, the military cooperation between Iran, Syria and Hizballah was played out and sustained in practical ways. Its destruction by Israeli Air Force bombers was equally symbolic; it set Obama’s revised Middle East policy up and running.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources disclose that on Monday, February 4, White House Chief of Staff Tom Donilon met quietly with American Jewish leaders to brief them on Obama’s Middle East policy reassessment and his coming visit to Israel for consultation on the next moves.