Next week, a flock of senior US presidential emissaries will be making tracks for Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to discuss the next steps on Iran in the light of the altered perceptions in Washington.
Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrives Monday, July 27 in the vanguard, closely followed by National Security Adviser, Gen. James Jones, his deputy, Thomas E. Donilon, senior presidential adviser Dennis Ross, special Middle East envoy George Mitchell, Syria deskman on the Mitchell team Fred Hoff and a drove of military brass and Central Intelligence Agency high-ups.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly military and Washington sources report that they will sit down with the Israeli political and military decision-makers on ideas for handling the Iranian nuclear program in the light of its domestic post-election crisis and the impact thereof on Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.
Our sources report Gates will ask Israel to turn up “the military sound-effects” beamed toward Iran with the unacknowledged concurrence of the Barack Obama White House.
They have already begun and were publicized ahead of the US envoys' visit in Israel.
Significant too was the timing of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton's remark in Southeast Asia on July 22.
Washington could extend a “defense umbrella” to protect its Arab allies, she said, if Iran succeeds in developing nuclear weapons. (Read a separate article on Obama and the military option.)
This comment went down badly in Arab capitals and Israel because it implied a willingness to accept a nuclear-armed Iran.
Israel's minister for secret services Dan Meridor said: “I heard unenthusiastically the American statement that they will defend their allies in the event that Iran arms itself with an atomic bomb, as though they have already reconciled with this possibility, and this is a mistake… Now, we don't need to deal with the assumption that Iran will attain nuclear weapons but to prevent his.”
The dark shadow of the failed Arrow II test
Another dark shadow fell on the high-powered US-Israel talks next week from the US Pacific testing site of central California where on Thursday, July 23, Israel's anti-missile Arrow II missile failed its first long-range test.
The test was critical for proving Israel armed with an anti-missile defense system capable of protecting the country from long-range Iranian ballistic missiles by their interception at a distance of 1,000 kilometers and more before reaching target. Not surprisingly, the news caused jubilation in Tehran.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources report that the interceptor was not launched because the Arrow's radar system failed to come up with the necessary data on the targeted “enemy” missile fired from a USAF Boeing Globemaster III C-17.
It is too soon to say for sure whether a technical malfunction occurred or the Arrow is simply not up to tracking a solid-fuel powered ballistic missile at this range, a finding that would leave both Israel and the United States without recourse against Iran's Sejil missiles.
The letdown occurred at the very moment that president Obama had decided to step up the military heat on Iran using Israel to spearhead his new strategy.
Up until then, the US and Israel were going forward smoothly on joint military projects.
An Israeli “Dolphin” class nuclear-capable submarine and missile boats had passed back and forth between the Red and Mediterranean Seas through the Suez Canal. Their voyages were approved by Washington and the Mubarak government in Cairo.
The Israeli Air Force was invited to send dozens of F16C fighter jets to participate in this week's Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force base in Nevada. Israeli C130 Hercules transport aircraft are competing this week in the Rodeo 2009 competition at McChord Air Force base in Washington.
Israel asked to put up a show of war preparations
All this was a far cry from the situation only two months ago when Obama sent CIA chief Leon Panetta post-haste to urgently warn Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Mossad chief Meir Dagan against daring to attack Iran, whether by military means or by covert action, without applying for advance clearance from President Obama.
Now, Washington has two requests of Israel, according to a senior figure close to the Pentagon:
One, to look as though it is seriously contemplating an attack on Iran – in other words, to display the Israeli military option prominently at all times.
Two, to keep Israel's military, naval and aerial movements in the Middle East and the Horn of Africa hyperactive – as though Israeli preparations for a strike on Iran are gathering steam.
The first signs of a growing understanding between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government encompass some of the thornier aspects of the relations, DEBKA-Net-Weekly sources in Jerusalem report. The turnaround from the widely-predicted collision between them came about in the form of messages to Binyamin Netanyahu through trusted emissaries that President Obama is not looking for a showdown.
According to one of those messages, as revealed by the President's confidants, the Israeli prime minister misunderstood the president's words at their White House meeting on May 18 and they should be put straight.
Netanyahu unresponsive to Obama's gestures
– Obama does not intend putting forward a new plan for settling the Middle East conflict and an Israel-Palestinian peace. This plan was abandoned.
– The President is willing to back down from his unyielding demand to halt all settlement construction activity on the West Bank, including expansion to accommodate natural growth. He now accepts the completion of construction-starts, amounting according to our sources to roughly 4,000 buildings. This number will take three years to complete, namely up to 2012, when both Obama's and Netanyahu's terms of office draw to a close.
– The administration flatly denies the news reports claiming US plans to draw the borders to which Israel must withdraw in a final settlement.
Washington has assured Jerusalem that no teams have been set up to draft these maps, nor will there be.
The Israeli prime minister has nonetheless come under sharp criticism from his American visitors for his laggard responsiveness to Obama's new ideas. Possibly for domestic political gain, Netanyahu may be interested in keeping alive the appearance of conflict with Obama's White House.
Since meeting the US president in May, he has declared his acceptance of a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians at least four times. Had he been willing to make this statement then, their relations would have got off on the right foot, but, say US sources, he deliberately held back.