Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama
Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama following their White House meeting, July 6, 2010. Photo by AP
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Three brigadiers general in the reserves met secretly last month with a retired American admiral in Rome. This was at the Defense College of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Americans warned that should this became known, they would deny it and refrain from additional such meetings. A similar warning accompanied the strategic talks held in Israel at the end of June by teams headed by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Michele Flournoy and Udi Shani, Defense Ministry director general.

The reserve brigadier generals are civilians who do not pretend to represent the government of Israel or its military. Why was Rear Admiral John Sigler, who heads the Middle East research institute at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, so cautious about exposure of his meeting with Shlomo Brom, Udi Dekel and Baruch Spiegel, along with retired Foreign Ministry envoys? Is there a connection to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's meetings with President Barack Obama and top American administration people in Washington?

The White House staff prepared the public part of the hosting of Netanyahu by the book: smiles and handshakes - check; talk about our wonderful relations - check; a distinction between the good Israeli atom and the bad Iranian atom - check; hugs for Sara - check.

The U.S. administration really is committed to Israel's security but not to hanging on to the territories or the Jewish settlements. Obama is trying to clarify whether in the dispute between the two approaches Netanyahu truly represents the majority in Israel. He can get a partial answer, for example, in meetings between Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Michael Mullen and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi or the meeting between Sigler and the retired officers in Rome.

The demonstrable warmth in Obama's reception of Netanyahu is at most one third of the story. Another third is the American communications channel with other Israelis, and the remaining third is the channel the United States has with Arab figures, who hear from Obama and his envoys messages that are not identical to those Netanyahu is trying to emphasize in Washington.

Brom and Dekel served with air force intelligence and the general staff planning branch. Spiegel was the liaison officer to foreign forces, deputy coordinator of activities in the territories and an adviser to the defense minister. The possible alternatives for bargaining with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese can come as no surprise to them: They formulated the headquarters document that gets passed from one chief of staff to the next, from one defense minister to the next and from one prime minister to the next.

When Netanyahu tells Obama there is something he can't do because it would be the death of him, experts like the three brigadiers general can map out Israel's ranges of flexibility to Sigler, and through him pass them along to Mullen and thus to Obama. Sigler, a retired senior naval officer, heads an institute attached to the National Defense University in Washington (the research and education institution directly under the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff ). The regional institutes provide data and infrastructure for meetings with various elements, including those prohibited to diplomats, such as Hamas. This is a means for the two-way transmission of messages.

Another benefit, which is not unique to the NDU, derives from the education of foreign officer cadres. A lieutenant colonel or colonel who spends a year at such an institution soaks up America's power and acquires a proportionate approach to his own country's place in the universe. Today the top echelon of the Israel Defense Force boasts about a dozen officers who studied at American military colleges and/or served as military attaches at the embassy in Washington and its offshoots, including C-o-S Ashkenazi.

In their many conversations Mullen and Ashkenazi discuss security - heaven forbid, they would discuss politics - and exchange data and professional analyses. Were the veteran naval officer called upon to testify before the Turkel committee, he would say the Americans, too, lack the means for stopping a large ship like the Mavi Marmara without a takeover by fighters and friction with the passengers.

Mullen is able to explain the American problems in Israel effectively, and vice versa. However, since discussion of certain matters is prohibited to officers in uniform, there is scope for channels like the one Sigler set up with Brom, Dekel and Spiegel.

At the Jerusalem Conference last February, Sigler overflowed with friendliness toward Israel ("My father was Jewish" ) and expressed the hope it would reestablish its deterrent power. The word "victory," said Sigler, differs in meaning in different contexts. Israel will win if it continues to flourish, in the far future as well, as a strong democratic and Jewish country.

At the Pentagon they are far from seeing Israel as one of the major problems in the Middle East, but it's enough that Israel also contributes to the perpetuation of the problem - the danger of extremist Islam - and not only to its solution. Is Israel and an asset or a burden? The answer is both - a tactical asset, a strategic burden.

Last month's American air force magazine referred to the 1966 operation in which the Mossad lured a MiG-21 pilot to defect from Iraq with his plane. The MiG was examined by Israel's air force and then lent to the Americans to be examined, tested and brought into in air maneuvers. Identifying its limitations enabled U.S. fighter pilots to overcome their inferiority in air battles with the North Vietnamese and to end the war with a certain advantage.

This sort of praise for the Israeli military improves, at least among the defense community, the image of Israel's professionalism and the amity between the two countries. In the wake of praise like this, one must note the same magazine issue says the F-35, the next combat aircraft for America and for Israel, can also carry tactical nuclear weapons, bombs and missiles. It is a dual-purpose plane.

Foreign reports say Israel has surface-to-surface missiles and submarine-launch missiles. An American willingness to provide it with an advanced dual-purpose airplane would strengthen its deterrence.

Talking to the Arabs

The Americans also talk to the Arabs. Recently, for example, the transcript of a fascinating conversation was revealed - a December 1975 conversation between the then U.S. secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, and his Algerian counterpart, Abdulaziz Bouteflika, who was 38 at the time and had held the post for 12 years. (Bouteflika is now president of Algeria ).

Kissinger, expressing bitterness about the government of Yitzhak Rabin and his defense minister to his right, Shimon Peres, says: "Public opinion in America is more ready to do something than ever before. But we have a period of about nine months [the run-up to the elections] when we can't do everything.

"The attempt of the Israelis is to create maximum commotion in the Middle East. They think we can't do much to them. That is why they bombed in Lebanon. You saw in The Herald Tribune a report that we asked them to check with us. That isn't what we asked: We said we wouldn't be responsible for the actions they took without consulting us. That is very different. And we protested their settlements on the Golan."

Bouteflika got no satisfaction from Kissinger's words: "The implication which can be drawn [is] that all previous Israeli actions have been with American connivance."

Kissinger: "No, we have never known. They never tell us ahead of time.

"But that is not my major point. My major point is: They are deliberately provocative now. They established settlements; they announce they will never give up more than 200 meters of territory - which is an insult to Syria, because it is Syrian territory... The F-15 we promised a year and a half ago - but there was a delay because of delivery and the reassessment. Then he announced it as a new thing, as a response to Syrian MiG-25s. He did it to provoke the Arabs. It was a lie....

"They want to go back to the 1967-1973 period, when they were our only friend in the Middle East. They know time is running out. They can't get $2 billion a year for many more years. And they know they can't get deliveries on what is voted this year unil 1978-79. So we have all the means of pressure in our hands. That is why they are trying to undermine my authority. But that isn't the main thing.

"The main thing I want to say is the Arabs should show restraint for a year. A war wouldn't be so bad for us - we could show we are tough. The main thing is to make what little progress is possible this year, and work for next year. I say this as a friend."

Bouteflika: "We are grateful."

Kissinger: "Because you have practically won. You must not let yourselves be provoked. The Syrians must understand this, too."

Bouteflika: "You have some problems with them?"

Kissinger: "No. I'm afraid their pride may lead them to do something later on."

Obama is not Kissinger, but who knows what messages his administration is sending the Arabs? One thing is for sure: This didn't appear on the White House page of talking points this week.