Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his meeting with Hillary Clinton
Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Jerusalem July 16, 2012. Photo by Reuters
Text size

There will be a brief lull in the airborne conveyance of American VIPs to Israel, between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's visit to the country on Monday, and the anticipated visit of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta next week. For outward consumption, American and Israeli officials are striking diplomatic poses, and downplaying differences of opinion regarding actions to be taken, or not taken, regarding Iran's nuclear program. Clinton is likely to keep issuing pronouncements about how officials in Jerusalem and Washington "are on the same page" on this issue. Yet the uncharacteristic silence maintained by Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak in recent weeks about Iran, as well as the flying visits of top U.S. officials to this country, alternately stir and reflect worries in the Obama administration over the Netanyahu governments actual intentions toward Tehran.

Tension between Israel and the United States on the Iran question comes and goes with the seasons. Last fall, we witnessed similar tensions. However, differences on this issue could bring more serious consequences today than they have in the past. Despite Clinton's assurances that the Americans will display "prudence and creativity" while handling the Iranian file, America's analysis of what is happening in that country has remained static; nor has the Americans' stand on what should be done shown much development. The Obama administration continues to sanctify the sanctions, whereas Israeli officials have become increasingly skeptical about their efficacy.

MK Roni Bar-On (Kadima ), chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, claimed on Monday that Iran is capable of dealing with sanctions imposed on it for another year, at least. Israel insists it cannot wait such a long time; the concern is that the Iranians will exploit a year of waiting to complete work on nuclear reactors and pass the "threshold" - the point at which they could produce nuclear weapons without Israel being able to stop them militarily. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned that Tehran could reach this threshold in another few months. People who have talked recently with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu say he is displaying firm determination about Israel's possible response to the Iranian nuclear program.

Should a decision ultimately be reached to launch an attack against the Iranian nuclear facilities, Netanyahu will have to brace for three problematic repercussions: a grave, probably unprecedented, crisis in relations with the United States; the possibility of continual rocket and missile fire against civilian targets in Israel; the possibility that international reservations about Israel's unilateral action would impede "follow-up" activity - continued international sanctions against Iran and steps to stop the Iranians from quickly rebuilding their nuclear program.

The rub is that the defense of Israel's home front and the continuation of pressure against Tehran depend greatly on U.S. cooperation. The procurement of crucial components needed to protect Israeli civilian areas against enemy missiles is largely dependent on the favorable disposition of the Americans. For the time being, they are showing restraint and tact with Israel. But that will change should Netanyahu ignore warnings from President Barack Obama and attack Iranian targets shortly before the November 6 U.S. elections. It could be that Clinton's blunt pronouncement on Monday, giving every indication that convicted spy Jonathan Pollard will spend the rest of his life behind bars, was tied to tensions and developments in U.S.-Israeli diplomacy over how to deal with Iran.