Barak and Netanyahu in the Knesset - Olivier Fitoussi - December 2011
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, left, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset in December. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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Visits to Jerusalem by senior U.S. officials this week reflect a growing concern in Washington over the possibility that Israel will decide to attack nuclear sites in Iran. The Americans are particularly worried about the hawkish line that Defense Minister Ehud Barak has adopted on the matter. They apparently have the impression, however, that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to come to a final stance on the dispute.

The number of visits that have been made here by senior members of President Barack Obama’s administration in recent months is unusual. A delegation headed by U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon arrived Saturday evening; and later this week, Israel will host James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence. On separate visits this past fall, the new director of the Central Intelligence Agency, David Petraeus, paid a visit to Israel, as did U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, whose trip here came shortly after a visit to the United States by Barak.

Last month, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, came to Israel, not long after taking office. In another two weeks, Netanyahu will be in Washington to deliver an address before the policy conference of the pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. The Israeli premier is also expected to meet with Obama in the course of the visit. Even prior to that, next week, Defense Minister Barak will apparently make his own trip to the U.S. capital to meet with senior administration officials.

This air bridge between Israel and the United States has one primary purpose − to make clear to Israel that the time has not yet come for military action against Iran’s nuclear program, and that any premature assault would disrupt the increasingly stringent process of international sanctions against Iran that Obama has been leading.

In discussions with their Israeli counterparts, senior U.S. administration officials have said the sanctions regime that the Americans have spearheaded is unprecedented in its severity and more time is needed to gauge its impact on the regime in Tehran. Within the Israeli cabinet, there are also ministers who acknowledge that the sanctions exceeded most of the expectations Israel held until a few months ago.

On Saturday, Iran announced an immediate halt to the sale of oil to Britain and France. The move came in response to the tough stance the two European countries have taken on the Iranian nuclear program, and in reaction to
the European embargo on Iranian oil that is due to take effect in July.

In a television interview at the beginning of the month, Obama said it was his understanding that Netanyahu was allowing more time to gauge the success of the sanctions and had not yet decided whether to attack Iran. However, others in the Obama administration have voicing more concerns. Defense Secretary Panetta has been quoted as saying he thinks Israel is close to a decision to attack this spring. In a CNN interview broadcast yesterday, Gen. Dempsey of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said such timing would not be prudent and would undermine the stability of the region.

For his part, British Foreign Secretary William Hague also said an Israeli assault would not be wise.

Washington, like Jerusalem, appears to be under the impression that Barak will play a key role in Netanyahu’s decision-making. According to various assessments, in the constellation of forces within the senior forum of eight capital ministers, Barak represents the hawkish camp, while ministers Moshe Ya’alon, Dan Meridor and Benny Begin are leading the opposition to an assault at this time.

In a report in the New York Times about two weeks ago, U.S. administration officials were critical of Barak, who has warned against the prospect within a few months of Iran entering a “zone of immunity,” after which it would be impossible to destroy its nuclear facilities. Barak defines the “zone of immunity” in accordance with Iran’s progress in installing centrifuges at the Fordow underground site near Qom, the location of which would make an aerial assault much more difficult.

The officials have contended that Israel is placing undue importance on the “zone of immunity” issue and mentioned Netanyahu’s request that his ministers keep quiet about Iran. Since then, other than the Israeli premier, only one senior Israeli continues to constantly make statements on Iran − Defense Minister Barak, who again made expansive comments on the issue in Japan and Singapore last week.
Support for Barak’s position came yesterday from Vienna, where the International Atomic Energy Agency is based.

The Associated Press quoted senior diplomats in the Austrian capital as warning that the Iranians recently carried out significant work at the Fordow site.

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