High Noon in Washington

The much-hyped showdown between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu left the big guns holstered but with Iran still in both men's long-range sights.

WASHINGTON, D.C. - An eve-of-war atmosphere is presently far more pervasive in Washington than in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. The United States is just starting to emerge from the so-called Great Recession - its worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The Americans are concerned that an attack on Iran will immediately send the already high price of oil skyrocketing, and plunge their economy into a downward spiral.

The contestants for the Republican Party's nomination as presidential candidate, who are looking for the Jewish vote, have made Iran a central issue in the primary campaign, which was supposed to have focused wholly on the economy and domestic affairs. President Barack Obama has been dragged into the debate in their wake.

Obama, Netanyahu - GPO - March 2012

Meanwhile, the Atlantic magazine this month inaugurated a new project, a kind of "doomsday clock": Each week, a team of international experts will be asked to determine how close Israel or the United States is to attacking Iran in the year ahead.

In any event, it's possible that not much has actually changed with regard to an attack. True, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who went through a difficult rehab period in the effort to shake his addiction to Holocaust imagery, reverted to a comparison between Auschwitz and the Iranian threat in his speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference this week. But rhetoric aside, Netanyahu has not yet shackled himself to a commitment to attack.

It's more probable that the basic logic remains valid: Anyone who talks so much (after once again asking his cabinet ministers to seal their lips ) is not yet ready to attack. Nor has there been a substantive change in the approach of the Obama administration. The essential element here is the two-part message being sent by the administration: a powerful embrace of Israel combined with more sharply worded threats to attack Iran in the future, but with an equally sharp message that an attack at this time will not serve the interests of the two countries.

The topic of a possible Israeli attack stayed on the agenda this week. There is also the possibility of an American strike after the presidential election in November - which is undoubtedly something Netanyahu desires. The question is whether the way to achieve this goal is by means of provocative bear hugs with the president's Republican rivals, when the polls are indicating that Obama is likely to be reelected. As the Republican hopefuls floated empty threats against Iran, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell raised the bar in his AIPAC conference speech, by calling for bipartisan legislation that would obligate the United States to bomb Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Overall, the Senate and the House are more hawkish than the White House on the Iran issue.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded to the Republicans the next day with a tough speech that seemed to come straight out of a Western. "In this town it's easy to talk tough. Acting tough is a hell of a lot more important," he said, promising U.S. military action in Iran if needed.

Most fascinating of all was the U.S. president's speech to the pro-Israel lobby. After an unusual attack on television commentator Liz Cheney (daughter of former vice-president Dick Cheney ), who also spoke at AIPAC, and in the face of demonstrative hostility from part of the audience - Obama asserted that he should be judged by his actions, not by his declarations. He then rattled off a long list of sanctions against Iran, imposed after the inaction of the Bush administration.

According to leaks from senior sources in the administration, the president will consider seriously Israel's request to supply it with two crucial elements for an attack on Iran: more refueling tankers and GBU-28 bunker-busting bombs. If Israel is still in need of these munitions, one may say, how are we to construe its tough talk about being ready and able to mount an attack on its own? David Makovsky, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the U.S. military establishment has reservations about an Israeli attack, with many doubting that the Israeli armed forces have the capability to execute such a complicated mission.

In a meeting with White House correspondents on Tuesday, Obama explained at length why Israel should not launch an attack at this time. Israel has the right to decide how to defend itself, he said, but a premature attack would have serious consequences, both for Israel and the United States. A window of opportunity still exists for making decisions - an assessment that is shared by the Israeli intelligence community.

Obama noted that negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, are about to resume. Their aim is to come up with a diplomatic arrangement for suspension of the nuclear project. The tough conditions that Netanyahu laid down for the Iranians (closure of the subterranean site at Fordo, stopping uranium enrichment and transferring high-grade enriched uranium abroad ) will not be adopted by the international community as so-called threshold demands.

Obama's administration will now pull out all the stops in an effort to prevent an Israeli attack in the months ahead. If awarding the Presidential Medal of Freedom to President Shimon Peres this week will not be enough to restrain Israel for a time (some Washington wags said it would have been smarter to bestow the honor on Sara Netanyahu ), Obama might also consider making his first presidential visit to Israel early this summer.

When it comes to Iran, Obama has both time and responsibility. The diplomatic door to Iran is still open, he told reporters. He also reminded them that he, as commander-in-chief, knows the terrible cost of war, from corresponding with families who lost loved ones in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Knockout victory

The drums of war from Washington partially drowned out the noise from the major story at the beginning of the week: the state comptroller's draft report on the so-called Harpaz affair, in which a forged document attempted to discredit the campaign of potential IDF chief of staff Yoav Galant. An in-depth gathering of details from the draft - which was not made public in full - turns up a far sharper picture than the one initially painted in the media.

A few weeks ago, we wrote in these pages that Defense Minister Ehud Barak was likely to emerge from the report as the victor in his battle against former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, but that it would be a victory on points. That was also the impression readers got from the headlines on Monday morning.

The media reported - based on leaks from both sides - that, according to the report, Ashkenazi's bureau collected material to besmirch Barak and his aides. Some media outlets balanced this picture by noting Barak's insensitive and abusive attitude toward Ashkenazi. Others deliberately wrapped the report in a thick fog, so that it was hard to understand who was being singled out as bearing principal blame in the scandal.

But conversations with a number of people who are well-informed about the report, some of them not connected to one side or the other, reveals a very different bottom line: They say that, according to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, Barak wins not on points but by a knockout. Lindenstrauss attacks Barak on issues of courtesy and procedure, but reserves the great bulk of his criticism for Ashkenazi and his close aide Col. Erez Weiner.

The draft report attributes numerous failures, of both an ethical character and in the realm of military authority, to the chief of staff's bureau. Ashkenazi and his aide were wrong to develop ties with Lt. Col. (res. ) Boaz Harpaz, who admitted to forging the document; did not break off the relationship when they should have; mishandled the document from the moment they came into possession of it; and took a bizarrely long time to provide a full and reliable account of events after the document was publicized by Channel 2 News.

According to the draft, Weiner suffered an "eclipse of values," and by his actions undermined the spirit of the IDF and the Basic Law on the Army, which stipulates subordination and loyalty to the political branch. As the state comptroller does not draw a distinction between the steps taken by the chief of staff and by his aide, but emphasizes that Ashkenazi was aware of at least some of Weiner's actions - the implication is that many of the allegations are aimed also at the former chief of staff.

It is hard to understand how Ashkenazi, who was one of Israel's best chiefs of staff in recent decades, stumbled in this way.

The first leak of the draft report, which came exactly an hour after the report was made available to those involved, claimed that a "war atmosphere" existed between the offices of Barak and Ashkenazi. However, in his report, Lindenstrauss quotes Weiner, who uses the war atmosphere as an excuse for what he and Harpaz did. The quote is meant to describe Weiner's mental state, not the objective situation. The chief of staff's aide feels that his bureau is at war with the minister's bureau. And a la guerre comme a la guerre - all is fair in love and war.

What comes through clearly from the report is the obsessive behavior of Ashkenazi and his aides toward the defense minister. For example, the report cites an emotional exchange between the chief of staff and the minister's advisers, after Barak's office released a photograph in which Ashkenazi looks tired and drawn during a visit to Northern Command headquarters. By contrast, Barak is seen conversing with the then-GOC Northern Command, Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot. The chief of staff's bureau presented the incident as incontrovertible proof of malicious behavior by Barak. The state comptroller found that a very similar photograph was posted on the website of the IDF Spokesman's Office.

The draft report also indicates that Weiner, with his superior's knowledge, utilized Harpaz as an agent in Barak's bureau. This went on intensively for half a year. Harpaz, a former intelligence officer, provides the chief of staff's aide with amazing access to information, worldwide ties and complex intrigues. Neither Weiner nor Ashkenazi put a stop to the flow of ideas and proposals from Harpaz's fertile mind, though the state comptroller found no evidence that Harpaz even knew Barak's aides.

One of the questions that the Weiner and Harpaz tried to probe was whether a request for defense aid from the U.S. administration was meant to further Barak's alleged economic interests. They also tried, in vain, to find connections between the minister's chief of staff, Yoni Koren, and the New Israel Fund. They even tried to find out about the number of miles Barak's wife had accumulated in the Frequent Flyer program.

No less serious are the state comptroller's comments about the partial information that the former chief of staff and his aide provided about the extent of their connections with Harpaz. Lying was apparently the preferred option, even in petty matters. The tape recordings in the state comptroller's possession document a consultation by Ashkenazi's aides, who are looking for a way to have their boss evade a female journalist who is trying to meet with him. The solution: They will refer the matter to Barak's office, on the assumption that Barak will refuse to authorize the interview. However, Barak surprises them by authorizing it and the aides have to come up with another excuse.

These stories are troubling for two reasons: because of the inability of the chief of staff's bureau to distinguish the permissible from the impermissible in relations with the political echelon, and because of the vast energy that was devoted to all this by one of the busiest and most important bureaus in the country.

In case anyone was still wondering: according to the state comptroller, the fundamental debate between Barak and Ashkenazi over whether to attack Iran had nothing to do with the bad blood between them.

Gabi's town

By an odd coincidence, on Monday the city of Or Yehuda named a street after Gabi Ashkenazi. A square in the city was already dedicated to him more than a year ago. In 2010, the IDF Spokesman's Unit "adopted" Or Akiva. Even though the usual practice is for a city to adopt a unit (Ramat Gan has adopted the Paratroopers, Afula has adopted the Kfir Brigade ), when it comes to a "brand" like the IDF Spokesman, the opposite turns out to be the case.

The dedication ceremony provided Ashkenazi with an ideal platform from which to offer his measured public response to the report: a festive occasion, children playing in the background, no questions. The city spokesman sent invitations to the event not only to local reporters, but also to the military and legal correspondents.

As with Ashkenazi's decision to visit Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market with the General Staff forum at the height of the confrontation with Defense Minister Barak, his political winks seem to lack a certain subtlety. It might have been expected that he would be ultra-cautious in the public arena. In the meantime, we have seen the opposite.

Let's hope that Or Yehuda still has some ammo left for after the publication of the state comptroller's final report. Maybe then it will be possible to name the whole city for Ashkenazi.