If I didn’t know any better I would assume that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey is trying to goad Israel into attacking Iran. Otherwise, why would he go to such great lengths to try and persuade them that Israel is on its own and can rely only on itself?
Because that is the net effect of Dempsey’s statements in London last week, especially his yet-to-be-properly-explained use of the word “complicit” as in "I don't want to be complicit if they [Israel] choose to do it.” Complicit? As in what – war crimes?
Even if one accepts the validity of Dempsey’s assertion that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would “delay and not destroy” Iran’s nuclear program, and even if one understands the need for him to spell out the Administration’s belief that such an attack would “thwart” the “international coalition” – whatever that means – his use of the word “complicit” is somewhere on the scale between unfortunate and way out of line. And to make matters worse, despite the days that have passed, it has yet to be explained or retracted or apologized for, as the Wall Street Journal correctly pointed out in its Friday editorial.
Israelis are already used to Dempsey’s periodic attempts to publicly dissuade the country’s leaders from launching an attack on Iran. Polls show that they have even taken them to heart: a plurality of Israelis consistently expresses opposition to an independent attack, clearly opting for a coordinated joint effort with the U.S. instead.
But over the past few days, the same public has been bombarded by discouraging news that cannot but harden its attitude. After the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that confirmed Israel’s worst fears about Tehran’s accelerated nuclear drive; after the disappointing pilgrimage of UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and other world leaders to Tehran, and the ludicrous endorsement of Iran’s “peaceful” nuclear programs by the 120 members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM); after the reports of the U.S. decision to scale down, for whatever reason, its participation in the joint Austere Challenge 12 military exercise; after all of these blows, Dempsey’s spiteful choice of word was a virtual coup de grace. The much-abused cliché “the whole world is against us” was driven home, as was Hillel’s guidance – mistakenly attributed in the GOP platform to their own elder, Ronald Reagan – “if I am not for myself, who will be?”
Perhaps Dempsey suffers from the same chronic misunderstanding of Israeli public opinion that afflicts many others in the Administration, including the White House. Administration officials have possibly misinterpreted the superficial newspaper headlines that “most Israelis are opposed to an attack on Iran”. Perhaps they mistakenly believe that by upping the ante and maintaining the pressure, they are strengthening the hand of those opposed to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s efforts to convince the Israeli cabinet that time has run out. Perhaps they are paying too much attention to pundits in both countries who claim that the U.S. needs to “bare its teeth” in order to get its point across.
If so, they are misreading the situation. Most Israelis, in fact, are not opposed to a military attack on Iran at all. Most Israelis are convinced, in fact, rightly or wrongly, that military force is the only way that the Iranian nuclear drive can be stopped. The number of Israelis who support an Israeli attack now together with those who prefer an American attack later combine to form an overwhelming and unassailable majority.
But most Israelis are rightly afraid of the consequences, especially if they decide to go it alone. And they know full well that the U.S. will do a much better job. So as long as they believe that there is an outside chance that the U.S. might carry out the task, or at least lend its formidable hand to an Israeli strike, they are willing to give more time to diplomacy and sanctions. As long as they believe that when push comes to shove, the U.S. will “have Israel’s back”, as President Obama has promised, they will continue to press Netanyahu and his cabinet to accommodate the Administration and to give peace a chance, if Washington really insists.
Dempsey’s harsh language may very well be understood by Israeli decision makers as a shot across the bow that cannot be ignored, but the popular interpretation will be that Israel cannot rely on the U.S. and needs to take matters into its own hands. And the hawks in the Israeli cabinet, politicians that they are, couldn’t be more pleased.
If President Obama wishes to dissociate himself from his army commander’s tone, explicitly or not, his upcoming speech at the Democratic National Convention provides a good and possibly last opportunity. If he continues to maintain his excessively low profile, as he has until now, many Israelis will be persuaded that he too does not wish to be “complicit”, and that Israel must take its fate into its own hands, before it’s too late.
Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev
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