Is the U.S. Making Sure Israel Doesn't Attack Iran?

Andrew Shapiro, Hillary's Clinton's assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the Department of State, speaks to Haaretz about Mideast policy.

Andrew Shapiro, Hillary's Clinton's assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the Department of State, was a guest of the Saban Center in Washington last Friday.

During your speech at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, you mentioned that the Obama administration took military cooperation with Israel to its highest level in history. However, a period of tensions between the governments led to an explanation that all those high-level military officials' visits to Israel originated in a suspicion that Israel might surprise the U.S. and attack Iran, and these intensified meetings made sure it wouldn't happen.

"From my perspective, that's not accurate. From my perspective, that was the priority that the president and the secretary of state had from the beginning of the administration. That was a priority emanating out of President [Barack] Obama's presidential campaign, and that the secretary mentioned during the recent speech to the American Jewish Committee or Congress. She asked me, her closest aide in the Senate, to make sure Israeli security is protected and its qualitative military edge is maintained. So this has been a core policy goal of the administration since the beginning, to stand by Israel's security."

Andrew Shapiro
Natasha Mozgovaya

You are probably working during times of unprecedented openness regarding the discussion of possibly striking at another country - Iran - at least at the level of academia and military specialists. Do these "red light-green light" public discussions complicate the U.S. administration's decision-making process?

"Our policy is focused on the sanctions track right now, that's what we are talking about. I can't control what other people talk about. But for us, our policy is very focused on continuing international pressure on Iran, because we think that to sustain international pressure on Iran has the best chance at forcing the Iranian government to change its calculations.

"The administration began with an engagement strategy with Iran - and it was not because we welcomed the Iranian program, but because it was designed actually to probe their intentions and to make progress where we could. But at the same time it enabled us to garner additional international support for tougher action against Iran.

"And indeed that's the way it played out. We had the UN Security Council resolution with tough sanctions on Iran. The U.S. approved additional sanctions, and so did the EU. So we are ratcheting up the pressure on Iran so they, as Secretary of State Clinton put it, so they make a determination that their security is not better enhanced by developing nuclear weapons and that it's best served by not developing nuclear weapons."

In the first months, however, we had some reports suggesting that some voices in this administration might have suggested using military assistance to Israel as a lever to put some pressure on Netanyahu's government. Did you ever hear anything like that?

"I didn't hear anything along these lines and this administration intends to honor the commitments of the 20-year memorandum of understanding regarding the assistance to Israel, even in tough budgetary times."

Three billion dollars annually, more than 50% of the $5 billion the U.S. distributes in military aid to 70 countries - can you explain why it's a good investment for American taxpayers?

"There are a few different issues. Israel is a country with which we share values. And so there is a natural affinity between the U.S. and Israel. We are both democracies, we both face threats from terrorism. But also it serves our strategic interests. We believe that Israel is an important part of our regional security, and a strong Israel is good for the United States.

"Finally, we think that an Israel that feels secure will be better able to make tough decisions that will be required through the peace process. There are many good reasons why we get good value out of this, and indeed the evidence of this is that Congress overwhelmingly supported the assistance that this administration has asked for - not just what was asked in the 10-year MOU - but additional funding for Iron Dome, which goes above and beyond it."

At the Saban Center on Friday you presented a long list of examples of military cooperation. In the past, we had some examples where the U.S. gave a very clear "no" when Israel asked for some sensitive weapons. During the Obama administration, did Israel get any 'no's?

"This frequency and intimacy of consultations has meant that we are better in touch with Israel's security needs and they understand our security needs. So it doesn't turn into 'yes' or 'no,' but a dialogue to reach common understandings as to what their security needs are and what our security needs are. We come to a common assessment of what their security needs are and how we can best fill them. We talk about the F-35 strike fighter as being important to helping Israel maintain its qualitative military edge. And we identify other systems."

We've heard some U.S. officials were not really fond of leaks from the meetings.

"Discussions that I participate in are very security-focused. The leak issue has not been my experience. It comes down to the fundamental diplomacy which is about bridging gaps, finding common ground and reaching common understandings. What we've done through this process that the Obama administration set up - we've taken it into an intense and intimate level which enables us to reach a greater meeting of the minds."

With all these assurances and assistance, do you sense that Israeli officials feel more secure?

"The feedback that I've got from the Israeli officials about the quality of these discussions - it's been very positive, they welcome this level of dialogue and find it very valuable in addressing their own security needs. The level of confidence has been improved as the result of these discussions."

Following your speech at the Saban Center, the leader of the pacifist organization Code Pink told you that you sound "more like an Israeli agent than a U.S. official" and that there are better things to invest in.

"One of the great things in a democracy is that people are allowed to express all sorts of opinions. As I mentioned, we think that this is a relation worth investing in and supporting. We think that there is great value to the relationship. She was welcome to share her opinion, but this administration's position is that the support of Israel is not only the right thing to do, but that it's also very valuable to the U.S.

"I would say on the Palestinian side it's not zero-sum, we explained to everyone in the region that our support of Israel is not zero-sum. And we've supported Palestinian security forces and training of the Palestinian forces. We are working with both sides to build security capacity, but the threats that Israel faces are so severe that it requires an intense level of engagement and discussion."

What about gestures from the Arab countries?

"Certainly our hope and focus is on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, that's what Senator [George] Mitchell is working on. But not just the Israelis and the Palestinians - we hope for progress on the regional level as well. If we can get the peace process going, hopefully it can lead to positive momentum, and we will be able to get positive gestures from Israel's Arab neighbors as well, so it can lead to a virtuous cycle in the peace process."

For how long do you believe it will be possible to maintain Israel's qualitative edge against so many simultaneous threats, especially if Iran is eager to reach the same capabilities one day?

"As long as it takes. We have a 10-year MOU and then we'll continue the discussions. But in the U.S. experience, we had a Cold War which lasted for decades, which we had to invest in - we hope it doesn't take as long to reach peace in the Middle East. That's why we are actively engaged and doing everything we can to encourage the peace process. If it is successful, it will mean that there will be less of a threat to Israel. And progress on the peace process will enable all the countries in the region to focus on bettering their peoples' lives rather than potential military conflict. And that's why Senator Mitchell is in the region hoping to get things going."