Text size

The secretariat of the Israel Defense Forces High Command, which is situated like a subtenant in the chief of staff's bureau, is waiting for the conclusion of the legal proceedings against Louis Mascuta, the corporal who allegedly got the better of a lieutenant general by photographing for his private use the latter's credit card details.

The handgun Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi received from a high-ranking visitor, General John Craddock, was placed in the souvenirs cabinet. At the time of his visit to Israel, at the beginning of this year, Craddock, in line with NATO practice, served in a dual capacity as commander of its military operations and as head of EUCOM, the U.S. European Command. The Colt pistol he presented to Ashkenazi is a Peacemaker, the model that gained glory in the Wild West.

Craddock retired this summer and was replaced in both capacities by Admiral James Stavridis. He invites all those interested to follow his career via Facebook and Twitter, and he also has a blog, called "From the Bridge," of his musings and travels. For sure, in his blog he will heap praise on Israel and the IDF. The country that has hosted him and he badmouthed in return has yet to be found.

The head of EUCOM oversees the American part of a joint EUCOM-IDF, missile-rich exercise codenamed Juniper Cobra. In this series of biennial maneuvers the missile-intercept forces of the two armies train to repulse ballistic threats of different ranges, particularly the Iranian missile threat. Coordination is polished between the radar, discovery, control and launch officers of the various missiles: Patriot, Arrow, THAAD and Standard.

The Americans are sharpening their ability to differentiate via the tracking systems between missiles that penetrate the remote defense layer and constitute an imminent threat and fragments of missiles that were hit but whose fall to the earth does not justify the launch of a missile.

For Israel, it is also an opportunity for self-marketing aimed at 500 American officers and soldiers who will be exposed to the reality in the country and feel firsthand what it means to have a population of about a million civilians in Metropolitan Tel Aviv exposed to the Iranian threat.

Following the elimination of the Iraqi threat, the determination of the U.S. to protect Israel against Iran was declared in 2007 and previously in 2005, when the managers of the exercise reported with satisfaction that 15 Patriot missiles were fired and all hit their targets.

In 2003, the exercise was held in an emergency format, parallel to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. At that time, American and Israeli intelligence assessed mistakenly that Saddam Hussein still had a few Scud missile launchers, and that in his distress would order the missiles to be fired. To avert Israeli intervention in the war, the launches had to be thwarted, or at least intercepted before reaching their target. U.S. Special Forces were sent to the conjectured launching areas in western Iraq, but the need to utilize them on the road to Baghdad took precedence. As a substitute, Special Forces from Britain and Australia were sent in, and the breach that was liable to be created if missiles really were fired was filled, alongside the IDF, by Juniper Cobra forces.

The present situation is different and more problematic. If Iran continues to pretend it has no offensive intentions, and Israel in its suspiciousness decides to strike first, and American forces arrive to assist Israel against the Iranian counterstrike, and in effect cooperate with the IDF even as the campaign continues in the form of mutual strikes, Washington will not be able to dissociate itself from the accusation of involvement in the Israeli attack plan.

The American attitude toward a possible IDF operation in Iran is ambivalent. The official pronouncements are always both against a nuclear Iran and against an Israeli operation. But, unofficially, the discussion about Israel's ability to strike at Iran is convenient for Washington. It is almost the only whip the Americans have against the rest of the world in the political maneuvering to toughen the economic sanctions against Iran, the last chance to avoid a military strike.

"The military can play an important role in solving this complex problem without firing a single shot. Publicly signaling serious preparation for a military strike might obviate the need for one," retired Air Force General Charles Wald wrote this month in an article that resonated in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and led to a series of interviews with him in the American media. The title of the op-ed, "There is a military option on Iran," rekindled the public debate over this issue in Washington.

The secretary of defense in the second half of the Clinton administration, William Cohen, expressed a similar view when he said that the Arab states in the Persian Gulf are more worried about Iran's nuclear project than Israel is. He added that if Iran does not respond by the end of September to President Barack Obama's offer of a dialogue, and if the sanctions are not toughened (with the consent of Russia and China), "there is always Israel, and it is not going to sit indifferently on the sidelines and watch Iran continue on its way toward a nuclear weapons capability."

Wald testified before Congress: "Sitting in the heart of the Middle East is the greatest strategic challenge facing the United States at the dawn of a new century: the regime in Tehran." Wald said that the reason is its nuclear project, but not only that: Iran's unpredictable regime, which threatens the oil sources in the Gulf, obliges the United States to reduce its dependence on petroleum. Wald's solution, like that of the officer who was his counterpart in the IDF, former deputy chief of staff Moshe Kaplinsky, is electric cars.

In the military analysis he published, Wald was careful not to reveal operational secrets and to remain "within legal limits," but asserted that "the U.S. military is capable of launching a devastating attack on Iranian nuclear and military facilities."

It is not true that the U.S. military is overstretched, lacks adequate intelligence about Iran's secret nuclear sites and that the known sites are too heavily fortified, Wald wrote in the op-ed. True, ground forces of the U.S. Army and the Marines are occupied in Iraq and Afghanistan, but that burden does not affect the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force. Moreover, the American presence in countries bordering Iran will facilitate the operation of Special Forces and intelligence. Huge bombs that will be dropped by the U.S. Air Force may not penetrate subterranean facilities but will bring about the collapse of their entrances and exits, thus effectively burying them.

An operation against Iran, whether the Americans initiate it or are dragged into it in the wake of an Iranian response to an Israeli strike, will be conducted in CENTCOM. Stavridis' role in EUCOM will be secondary: launching missiles from submarines in the Mediterranean, allocating forces to reinforce and assist Israel in the Juniper Cobra format. In the Middle East, the seam between the two U.S. commands runs along Israel's borders (which are part of EUCOM, along with the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) with Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon (which are part of CENTCOM). Admiral Stavridis wrote recently that the 21st century is highly complex and is illuminated to humanity only in the form of brief flashes, so "at times it feels like we are reading Shakespeare by lightning."

Damascus is one of the focal points of the regional entanglement, which entails five American efforts: to reduce subversion against Baghdad ahead of the completion of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq; to pry Syria loose from the embrace of Iran; to stabilize Lebanon despite the growing strength of Hezbollah; to weaken support for Hamas to increase the prospect for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian political process; and to achieve an Israeli-Syrian peace.

The maps, which do not document well the line of June 5, 1967, which is one of the stumbling blocks in the discussions on an Israeli-Syrian peace, photograph only one layer, which is superficial and is not necessarily consistent with Western logic. In his book "The Gamble," Thomas Ricks, the military correspondent of the Washington Post, describes the U.S. military's success in reversing the thrust toward defeat, in reinforcing its troops and in drawing on the assistance of tribes and other local elements against Al-Qaida. Ricks quotes a conversation between an American officer and the leader of a tribe in the western province of Al Anbar, which borders on Syria. Why are you smuggling sheep (and fuel) across the border, the officer demanded to know. To which the tribal chieftain replied: Why did you put the border in the middle of the sheep?