Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak received a loud slap from Leon Panetta, U.S. Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. Speaking at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy (at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. ), Panetta took a stance clearly opposing their position on the Iranian nuclear issue, and Netanyahu's negotiations freeze toward the Palestinians, which Barak failed to melt. The former head of the CIA praised his former Mossad counterpart, Meir Dagan, a bitter rival of the two. Sitting in front of Panetta as he spoke was their main rival in the upcoming elections for the Knesset, Tzipi Livni.
Panetta's Italian origin emerged during his speech in the use of colorful language, repeating three and four times "Get back to the damned [negotiating] table," a call to Netanyahu and Abbas. His language was particularly blunt when he diverted from the written speech, prepared by his staff, ditching diplomatic jargon and enunciating what's really bothering him and his president.
Yesterday he had the wording prepared, key parts of which - with dos and don'ts for Israel - had been disseminated in advance. There were also improvised responses and Q&As, which set aside the refined formats and captured Obama's stance in a few words: Do not bomb Iran because you will undermine an essential interest of ours. Return to dialogue with the Palestinians - in other words, make more concessions than Netanyahu has so far agreed to. Improve your relations with key countries in the region: Turkey, Egypt and Jordan. Consider yourselves, along with the necessary operational measures, as part of the region that is finally moving toward democracy.
In recent weeks, senior administration officials were keen to give Israel the title of "ally." Two weeks ago National Security Adviser Tom Donilon described Israel as "our closest ally in the Middle East," and Barack Obama said last week, during a fund-raiser among the Jewish community in New York, that "no other ally is more important than Israel." Part of this is an effort to compete with the language of Republican candidates in the race for the White House. In practice, it is a loaded statement, placing on Israel duties along with the rights that are granted with it.
During the first decades of its existence, Israel dreamed of a move closer to the Americans, from just a "friend' to the status of "ally." In the 1980s, Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush finally granted this status. For the Americans, this is not an empty word. They went to two World Wars alongside allies. They then established contractual alliances around the world, first and foremost with NATO. Every alliance limits the freedom of action of the President and may embroil his country in some foreign adventure, contrary to the warnings of George Washington in his farewell address, and requires the approval of the Senate. Only in terms of security assistance do Israel and other Asian countries have the status of "a main ally which is not in NATO"; not really a Ph.D., just an honorary doctorate.
Now comes Obama and his team responsible for defense. They also care about his reelection, and clarify what it means when they say that Israel is an ally, a close ally, in the region and in general. A close ally has responsibilities. It must take into account American interests, especially when it is defined as "essential." In alliances, the obligation is mutual. There are allies who contribute forces to a joint mission, in order to assist in a substantive way, or just symbolically; and there are those whose active involvement is problematic and therefore their role is to avoid action, in order not to make things complicated. An ally is not the boss; it does not drag the U.S. behind it.
The basic assumption of Obama and Panetta is diametrically and publicly opposed that of Netanyahu and Barak. The regime in Tehran is determined to go nuclear, but is in the process of becoming weaker from abroad and at home. An Iranian bomb will block this trend and undermine regional stability, which is a security asset for Israel. The joint aim, of preventing a nuclear Iran, does not justify the means which is so desired by Netanyahu and Barak, certainly not before an election test for themselves and Obama.
Panetta is demanding that, for now, for a year, they make do with economic and political pressure. There can be no clearer message to the Israeli leadership and, no less, to its voters.
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