When they met on Sunday, Nov. 7, in New Orleans, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered the opinion to US Vice President Joe Biden that Iran "must be made to fear a military strike against its nuclear program." He was urging Washington, in other words, to take substantial military measures against Iran further – for example, to embark on practical preparations for war.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking from Melbourne, quickly retorted: "I disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions that it needs to, to end its nuclear weapons program."
Netanyahu's remark sounded oddly misplaced given the Obama administration's unprecedented military pressure on Iran since mid-October, when a second American aircraft carrier, the USS Abraham Lincoln, was stationed off of Iran (on October 17) for the first time in the two years of this administration, joining the USS Harry S. Truman; and a French aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, which arrived in the Persian Gulf Saturday, November 6. And, furthermore (as we reported exclusively in our last issue) President Barack Obama in person asked NATO leaders and commanders to start drafting operational plans for military action in Iran that would just fall short of full-blown war.
Certainly, President Obama has leaned on Iran with more visible military might than any of his predecessors. They include especially President George W. Bush, who in his memoir, "Decision Time," published this week, wrote: "I cannot justify an attack on a sovereign nation unless my intelligence agencies stand up and say it's a weapons program."
Netanyahu's silence traded for Obama's sanctions
It was on those grounds that in 2007 Bush refused an appeal from Israel's Prime Minister at the time, Ehud Olmert, for America to bomb the Syrian nuclear reactor (which Israel proceeded to do itself). But the former president omits to mention that at the end of the same year, he rejected Olmert's request to attack Iran and on the same grounds: the National Intelligence Estimates – NIE just put on his desk concluded that Iran had stopped developing a nuclear weapon.
Today, Washington admits that the NIE got it wrong. In private, some US officials are willing to admit that its conclusion was deliberately faked to mislead Bush into shelving any plans he or Israel might have to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
Another fact, brought out in several previous DEBKA-Net-Weekly issues, is that earlier this year, President Obama and Netanyahu agreed on the quiet that Washington would take economic and financial sanctions against Iran to the fullest extent in return for the Israeli prime minister holding his horses and refraining from harping on the military option, American or Israel – unless Tehran actually went into production of a nuclear bomb or warheads.
Netanyahu scrupulously upheld his side of the bargain to the point that his silence was deemed harmful to Israel's fundamental interests – until he saw Vice President Biden in New Orleans on Sunday.
So what made Netanyahu veer suddenly from an embarrassing silence on the Iranian nuclear question to blunt rhetoric?
Newly hard-hitting on Iran, talks with the Palestinians, Hizballah
That was not the only odd feature of the Israeli premier's unusually lengthy five-day trip to the United States.
Asked why he traveled to America when Obama was away in Asia, senior ministers in Jerusalem just shrugged and said that when they had put the same question to Netanyahu, he was evasive.
Then, too, on the day he saw Biden, an announcement came from home that 1,300 new housing units had been approved for Jerusalem suburbs across the old Green Line, recalling the awkwardness generated between Israel and the Obama administration of a similar announcement during the Vice President's visit to Israel nine months ago.
Equally bizarre was Netanyahu's meeting with UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon in New York Monday, Nov. 8.
In a briefing to US and Israeli reporters, his spokesmen said he would inform the UN Secretary that Israel was willing to hand over to United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) control of the northern part of the divided village of Ghajar, one of its strategic footholds in Lebanon. Ban has been pressing Israel to make this gesture for the last two years in the hope it would reduce border tensions between Israel and Hizballah.
But then, when the meeting took place, the prime minister changed his mind and said only that the Ghajar issue needed to be aired further by his political-security cabinet.
All in all, in America, Netanyahu has shown a distinct hardening on the toughest issues facing his government – Iran, talks with the Palestinians and Hizballah, generating conflicting hypotheses to account for this change of face – depending on who one asks.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources in Washington and Jerusalem offered two explanations – one Israeli and one American:
1. Israel: Talking tough to deter Iran from jumping into Lebanese crisis
1. The prevailing view among Israeli insiders is that as Lebanon plunges ever deeper into a crisis (See a separate article on the Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah plans to overrun Lebanon) which is expected to peak in the coming four to six weeks, Netanyahu is getting the country set for a possible spillover into war with Syria, Hizballah and possibly Iran. He stayed quiet in respect of his deal with Obama for as long as it was tenable. He then chose the American arena for a switch to a tough military stance – more to deter Iran from stepping into a possible clash on the side of Syria and Hizballah than to halt its march toward a nuclear weapon. The latter goal, he is convinced, Tehran will pursue no matter what.
The published approval of 1,300 new homes in the established Jewish neighborhoods of Ramot and Har Homah in East Jerusalem – which could have gone through routinely without fanfare – was Netanyahu's rejoinder for the Damascus get-together on Nov. 9 of Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah and the extremist Hamas, to work out a plan seriously detrimental to Israel's security.
They have been talking about posting Fatah units to the Gaza Strip in return for Hamas gunmen taking up position on the West Bank opposite Israel's heartland.
Their concurrence on this rearrangement, say our Israeli sources, would pave the way for the two feuding Palestinian factions to bury the hatchet and form a radicalized, power-sharing administration. Those sources point out that Israel's prospective peace partner, Mahmoud Abbas, is clearly gambling on Syria and Iran gaining the upper hand in the Middle East. For the sake of making up with their extremist Palestinian ally, he is willing to open the West Bank to terrorists, knowing he is crossing an Israeli red line and by doing so reducing the prospects of reaching the US-sponsored negotiating table.
Netanyahu decided to show the Palestinian leader that by opening one door he risked closing another.
2. US: Hard line conceals big strides towards Israel-Palestinian accord
US administration insiders take the opposite view. They argue that backdoor negotiations far from being in stalemate have been going great guns for some weeks – so much so that the Israeli prime minister felt the need to keep from letting the cat out of the bag before he could prepare the ground at home and preempt a coalition crisis that would abruptly put paid to the negotiations. Informed US quarters believe that he assumed a tough stance as camouflage.
Progress, Washington informants told DEBKA-Net-Weekly, has been remarkable in the quiet talks taking place in the Jordanian capital of Amman between US, Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian representatives. They have come close to accord in principle in five key areas, although many details remain to be filled in and more issues are pending.
Knowledge of their content, say those sources, would most certainly bring the Netanyahu government tumbling down. They all prefer, therefore, to have a deal in the bag before word gets out.
The talks are anchored on five points of progress
Those points, according to our sources, concern the following:
A. The Jordan Valley which runs north to south and the Jordan River meandering through it.
Every Israeli government since the 1967 War has stipulated that any peace accord must leave this strip in Israeli hands as its security border to the east.
But now, the round-table negotiators have accepted the principle of a foreign, namely Jordanian, troop presence there in a deployment that would satisfy Israel's security requirements and provide a barrier against the smuggling of missiles, other munitions and fighters into the West Bank when it comes under independent Palestinian rule.
If this clause survives the negotiations, the Hashemite Kingdom, for the first time since the Jordanian Army withdrew from the West Bank 43 years ago, would regain a military presence on the both the West and East Banks of the River Jordan and a springboard for reviving its influence over the former.
Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994.
B. The Jordanian military's functions along the Jordan River and on West Bank soil would be governed by agreed rules of conduct. Those rules would extend to other parts of the West Bank where the deployment of foreign forces is under negotiation.
C. The Israeli settlements in the Jordan Valley would remain in place and continue to develop – on the understanding that after several decades, 30-50 years, their disposal would be renegotiated with the possible option of passing the area to the Palestinian state. This item is still under discussion.
D. Israeli Defense Forces positions remaining there for now would be gradually reduced in size and number.
E. The above provisions would go into effect only after an independent Palestinian state is established.
These points are published here for the first time by DEBKA-Net-Weekly's exclusive sources. They have been kept secret from Israeli political and military officials excepting only those participating in the secret talks. Netanyahu is holding his cards close to his chest, not sharing them even with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Chief of Staff Lieut. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi or National Security Council Chairman Dr. Uzi Arad.
All these officials know is that the talks have progressed dramatically. The only person possessing all the information is the prime minister's political advisor and confidante, Yitzhak Molcho.