U.S.-IDF relations are much warmer than U.S.-Israel ties
At the end of his week in Washington, Defense Minister Ehud Barak will have to decide where he stands - with the IDF or with Netanyahu.
This week, Iran held a celebration to mark the 30th anniversary of Operation Eagle Claw - the failed attempt to rescue the 53 hostages at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. No Iranian forces were actually involved in the incident: When the air force pilots decided to abort the operation, with president Jimmy Carter's approval, a helicopter and a Hercules aircraft collided and the would-be invaders left behind fatalities and wreckage. It was a costly disgrace. It contributed to Carter's loss in the elections six months later, made the Pentagon recognize the importance of establishing a body to oversee the Special Forces from all the military branches, and encouraged the latter to cooperate with the Israel Defense Forces.
Lt. Gen. (ret.) Jerry Boykin was the elite Delta Force operations officer during Eagle Claw and later its commanding officer, and senior leader of the Special Operations Command. In his memoirs, he published a photograph of himself and his colleague Peter Schoomaker, who later became chief of staff, wearing IDF uniforms during a visit to Israel.
A U.S. Army investigation noted that Eagle Claw's planning and execution had been flawed, but acknowledged that the operational concept itself had been right on target. The aim was to free the hostages through a limited invasion that would not lead to an American-Iranian war. The method was to send in cells in advance to check access, prepare weapon caches and establish infrastructure for communications and landing; to fly in forces and equipment from distant bases to an "airhead" - an improvised landing strip somewhere in the huge empty desert; to unite all the forces during a period of 24 hours; and to leave for Tehran the following night.
The Iranians shouldn't dismiss the ability of an advanced Western army, decades later, to carry out pinpoint jabs around their country. Something that failed once will not necessarily fail again. They themselves know they failed in October 1980 in an attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor - something which the Israeli air force succeeded to do, seven months later.
That attack, in June 1981, was carried out by F-16 aircraft from the Ramat David base, whose pilots zealously defended their exclusive right to bomb the reactor, to the chagrin of F-15 pilots from the Tel Nof base, who accompanied them almost until Baghdad to protect against interception attempts and were eager to participate in the bombing as well. The F-16 used in the reactor attack, like today's F-15I Ra'am (Thunder) and the F-16I Sufa (Storm), came to Israel thanks to American generosity.
Military aid depends on Israel not doing anything to upset the Americans - i.e., no strategic surprises, such as initiating a war or doing something that may cause a war, and no tactical surprises either, such as those relating to the timing and scale of smaller moves. The Americans determine how much freedom the IDF has. They also can cut the connection to the galaxy of GPS satellites, without which there is no precise navigation or GPS-guided weaponry (although there are also missiles and bombs guided by other means).
This aid serves an American interest, of course: It wants its allies, including Israel, to all use compatible operational systems and logistical infrastructure. Therefore, Washington wants Israel to acquire F-35 aircraft. Should the U.S. Air Force, which will be primarily using F-35s in the coming years, need to deploy squadrons to Israel during an emergency, it would want to find suitable maintenance here.
Israel is slated to decide within three months whether to acquire F-35s and, if so, how many. There are plans, apparently, for one costly squadron ($120 million to $130 million per plane) in 2015 and another one or two ($90 million per plane, because certain fixed costs are included in the first purchase) over the following decade.
At the end of talks at the Pentagon this week with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Defense Minister Ehud Barak stressed the importance of making sure the IDF has proper equipment. Gates and the American top brass are demonstratively embracing the Israeli defense establishment, Barak and Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi - which is not exactly the same treatment Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman are getting.
The administration, from President Barack Obama and his National Security Advisor James Jones through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to the top generals and admirals, has been running a damage-control operation to amend the (correct) impression that there's a rift between Washington and Jerusalem. Everyone has read aloud from the page of talking points, which start with a firm commitment to Israel's security.
Most notable was Central Command head Gen. David Petraeus, who two weeks ago attended an event at Washington's Holocaust museum honoring Holocaust survivors and their American liberators. Petraeus, who commands the forces in western Asia, did not mention Iran by name, but declared that the current generation must "read the storms before they break upon us." To ensure the message reached its target, Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren was also invited to the event. The message was this: If Gen. Dwight Eisenhower liberated the death camps and insisted on witnessing sights that were unbearable to someone as tough as Gen. George Patton - then Petraeus, who might run for president like Eisenhower did, must help prevent a second Holocaust.
American policy-makers assume that the means should suit the aim. The aim is to prevent Iranian nuclearization, for four good reasons (foiling an existential threat to Israel, stopping Iran from gaining control of the Gulf, preventing nuclear weapons from reaching terror organizations and stopping the nuclear arms race). The means may ultimately be military, but diplomacy is important in order to prove there was no alternative.
In the meantime, America's power needs to be augmented, both diplomatic and military. The Israeli role is to help the Americans help those who are helping them: i.e., the moderate regimes in the region. This is essential to block Iran and to stabilize Iraq and Afghanistan. Al-Qaida sees getting rid of those regimes as the second stage in its five-step plan to impose Islam on the world: expelling the Americans from the region, toppling regimes, destroying Israel, and conquering Europe and thence America.
Therefore, Israel has been asked meanwhile to help by behaving with diplomatic moderation. Netanyahu's efforts to present a frightening "Obamazen" combination of the American president and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are damaging Israel's security. They are also interfering with the preparations for a possible American-Israeli military response to Iran. The IDF brass believes the political leadership, by avoiding progress on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks, is wasting the period of quiet the army has afforded it. At the end of his week in Washington, Barak will have to decide where he stands - with the IDF or with Netanyahu.