US President Barack Obama declared in ringing tones Wednesday, Nov. 30, "We don't compromise when it comes to Israel's security. No ally surpasses Israel in importance to the US." Three days later, US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in a lecture to the Brookings Institute was crystal-clear about what America expects Israel to deliver in return.
He cited "Israeli estimates" to argue against an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear facilities because "it would set back (the program) by one to two years at best." He urged Israel to take risks and get to "the damn negotiating table" with the Palestinians, and "mend fences with countries like Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, which share an interest in regional stability"- in view of Israel's "growing isolation in a volatile region."
The content and tone of the defense secretary's lecture were clearly designed to rebut Israel Defense Minister Ehud Barak's comments Thursday, Dec. 1, that as a sovereign state, Israel is bound to determine its own security needs and the ultimate responsibility for its national security rests with the government in Jerusalem and the Israeli Defense Forces – no one else.
Panetta's lecture was long on generalizations and contradictions and short on facts.
The "Israeli estimates" he cited referred to the most outspoken opponents of the Netanyahu-Barak government, namely the former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, the ex-chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi, former military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, as well as Kadima leader Tzipi Livni.
debkafile: Their political agenda would tend to overrule their true views on the merits of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear sites. It also runs contrary to the assessment of every responsible, knowledgeable Israeli intelligence and military expert, who all believe an attack could delay Iran's nuclear armament by three or four years at the least.
Yet Panetta chose the contrary, minority view to support his arguments against an Israeli attack.
He also contradicted himself on at least one point:
On the one hand, the defense secretary told the Washington forum that, "No greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran," adding that Obama has not ruled out using military force to stop Iran from going nuclear.
On the other hand, Panetta warned "the consequences (of an Israeli attack) could be that we have an escalation that …would not only involve many lives… but trigger Iranian retaliation against US forces, and ultimately spark a backlash in Iran that would bolster its rulers."
The facts contradict this assertion: An opinion poll secretly conducted at the universities of Tehran, Shiraz and Isfahan in early November showed that 72 percent of those canvassed were certain the population of Iran's cities would rise up against the Islamic regime the moment the US or Israel attacked its nuclear program.
As to the secretary's argument that it would also be hard for attackers to reach Iran's nuclear installations because some of them (the centrifuge plant transferred to Fordo, near Qom) have already been moved underground, he failed to answer two key questions:
1. Why was Israel held back from carrying out a military operation when those installations were still on the surface and vulnerable?
2. By continuing to hold back Israel back, is he saying that Iran should be allowed to go all the way to manufacturing a nuclear bomb without military interference? Is the US defense secretary advising Israel to learn to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, even though its menace is constantly expanding?
Panetta did not supply an answer to either question. But he was a lot clearer on Iran's threat to American security when he said: "…any disruption of the free flow of commerce through the Persian Gulf is a very grave threat to all of us" and a redline for the US."
Was he saying that a nuclear-armed Iran was not a red line for America?
The defense secretary then offered the opinion that "sanctions and diplomatic pressure were working" to isolate Iran. debkafile's Middle East sources emphasize that he would not find a single informed politician, general, intelligence official or economist in the region who agreed with him. Just the reverse: the region's leaders and international financial community report that the Islamic Republic has overcome sanctions with remarkable success and they have not slowed down its nuclear progress by a second.
The US would safeguard Israel's security, said Panetta, but "Israel has a responsibility to pursue shared goals (with the US) – to build regional support for Israeli and United States' security objectives."
He was referring to the US offer of a security shield in return for Israel's pursuit of "shared goals." The only trouble with that offer is that when it was put before Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, Turkey, Egypt and Jordan, they agreed to pursue only certain "shared goals" – but not those affecting their national security, especially on the Iranian question, which they preferred to address by developing their own independent nuclear options. Therefore, the US shield on offer would be very limited.
His assumption that if Israel could persuade the Palestinians to sit down for peace talks and if it reached out to Turkey, Jordan and Egypt, relations would instantly improve, is just as fallacious.
Perhaps Panetta has not heard that Mahmoud Abbas stands by his year-long refusal to face Israel across any "damned tables" and only this week tried to manipulate the Middle East Quartet into forcing Israel to accept an indirect track.
Neither does he address the anti-Israel posture adopted by the rulers of Egypt, Turkey and Jordan to persuade their people of their affinity with the Islamist forces rising in the region, like the ultra-orthodox Salafis of Egypt.
Neither Israel, nor any of the mainstream Arab governments accept the Obama-Panetta proposition that time will magically temper the extremism of the Islamist regimes. They have before them the example of a former Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, who made the same argument 32 years ago for the West to dump the shah and welcome Khomeini's ayatollah regime.
It is time for Jerusalem to state clearly to the Obama administration that there is no way to reconcile Israel's essential security needs with the rejection of a military operation to cripple Iran's nuclear program; or to promote the rise of Islamist forces in the Arab capitals neighboring on the Jewish state and at the same time hold Israel to account for not reaching out to them.
Israel must put its cards on the table, after Panetta put his, by saying: "I understand the view that this is not the time to pursue peace, and that the Arab awakening further imperils the dream of a safe and secure, Jewish and democratic Israel. But I disagree with that view."