Israel’s leaders, especially Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, are worried that the threesome President Barack Obama has chosen to fill the top international and defense slots in his second administration promise continued US inertia against Iran, Syria and Hizballah.
Jerusalem expects from Secretary of State John Kerry, Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense and designated CIA Director John Brennan more foot-dragging and protracted, idle diplomacy, occasionally interrupted by restrained, pinpointed Israeli military action – with or without a green light from Washington.
No one takes lightly President Obama’s assurances of steadfast support for Israel’s security. But whenever those fine words come to be translated into deeds, the fur flies in the two capitals.
The Pentagon’s leak Saturday, Feb. 9, of excerpts from a secret study casting doubt on whether the multibillion-dollar missile defense system planned for Europe will ever be able to protect the US from Iranian missiles is seen in Jerusalem as an elegant cop-out to avoid finishing a program that should also have defended Israel against Iranian rockets.
Military officials in Washington said the problems “could be overcome and are moving forward, but proposed fixes could be difficult.”
“Difficult” sounded like a euphemism for “unfeasible” – especially in the current climate in Washington of defense budget cutbacks.
New White House staffer is committed to diplomacy with Iran
Three days later, on Feb. 12, outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak was on a plane for a hurried, unscheduled trip to the United States, unexpected after he had already been there to take leave of colleagues. He was urgently tasked with discovering the fate of the Israeli link in the missile shield and whether Israel would have to cast about for a new means of standing up to missile attacks by Iran, Syria or Hizballah.
Monday, when Barak was closeted in closed-door conferences with US officials in Washington and Netanyahu was receiving the leaders of American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, a fresh piece of unwelcome news came in from the Obama administration: Philip Gordon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasian Affairs, was to join Obama's National Security Staff.
He will have a senior role overseeing the broader Middle East at a rank equal to that previously held in the White House by Dennis Ross.
His first job, effective immediately, will be to organize President Obama’s coming trip to Israel on March 20.
Gordon's work in the past four years has focused on coordinating joint US-European efforts in the Middle East at large, including Iran.
Of British origin, he acted as American coordinator with European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton for the nuclear talks with Iran.
This made him responsible on behalf of the US president for the interminable dragging out of round after round of dead-end nuclear diplomacy with Tehran, so as to provide the context for fobbing off any Israeli initiative for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program.
Pickering’s plan to give a Shiite fatwa international legitimacy
Obama has therefore beamed a dual signal to Jerusalem: On the one hand, his talks with Israeli leaders will cover the Iranian issue (and about time); but, on the other, Philip Gordon will be there to keep the diplomatic dialogue with Tehran running on idle for another four years (dismay).
Jerusalem was further dismayed by an outlandish plan for resolving the argument over Iran’s nuclear weapons program published on Tuesday, Feb. 12 by US Ambassador Thomas Pickering. He proposed that the UN Security Council endorse a fatwa issued by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, which condemned nuclear weapons and which Tehran circulated as evidence of its claim that its nuclear program was entirely peaceful.
Pickering has served in numerous diplomatic posts in a career spanning five decades and is one of Obama’s most influential advisers on Iranian policy.
He argues that the ayatollah has the last word on his government’s negotiations and how far they may go and is therefore the man to cultivate. In Pickering’s view, a US draft resolution conferring the UN stamp on his fatwa would boost Khamenei’s international profile and oblige his government to obey the religious ban he laid down on nuclear armament. It would also be a starting-point for resetting relations between the Obama administration and the Iranian leader on a new footing.
Israeli officials uneasy over Brookings alumni takeover
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Iranian sources point to the absurdity of the Pickering proposition: A Khamenei fatwa has no religious or practical standing – even inside the Shiite Muslim sect – because he lacks the authority and erudition of a grand ayatollah. It would carry no weight at all for Sunni Muslims who are the majority sect, least of all the international community at large.
The plan to endow a dubious Shiite edict with the legitimacy of an internationally accepted ruling is therefore no more than a bad joke.
But it is also a pointer to the direction in which the Obama administration may be heading in its approach to Iran.
Pessimism in Jerusalem about the future of relations with Washington was not eased by the possible nomination of NSS Senior Director for Europe Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall to succeed Gary Samore as the White House coordinator on weapons of mass destruction.
A former Clinton administration Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, Sherwood-Randall previously served on a Defense Threat Reduction review panel as an advisor to the Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, and as a senior research fellow at Stanford University, before joining the Obama White House in 2009.
Israelis officials, who had hoped Samore would be appointed to a higher post in the administration were disappointed.
A less than friendly lineup for Israel
Several Israeli officials said privately in Jerusalem this week that a consistent pattern is emerging from Obama’s choices for his second administration Middle East team: A strong trio committed to the White House’s non-intervention and anti-military engagement posture in Middle East crises is ensconced in State, Defense and the CIA. Kerry, Hagel and Brennan are backed by a second tier of Brooking Institute alumni who espouse the same policies.
From Jerusalem, this team is seen as less than friendly to Israel than its predecessors and much less sympathetic to Israeli interests, including its security concerns.