Columnists

Murray Dobbin
Netanyahu is calling Obama's bluff

| April 5, 2010

There is a new theme developing in U.S.-Israeli relations and while not a new one it is the first time U.S. officials have talked about it so openly: Israeli and U.S. interests in the Middle East are not identical. So far these words have not passed the lips of Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and have only been uttered by military brass. Whether the brass would have the jam to make these statements to pressure Obama on his Mid East policy or they are simply playing their role in an Obama strategy is unclear.

But the reason the theme is now being talked about publicly is that with the extreme right in power in Israel, the potential for catastrophe in the Middle East has been ratcheted up exponentially. Israel now has a prime minister in Benjamin Netanyahu prepared to play chicken with its longtime sponsor, protector and financial backer.

The most obvious issue and the one bringing this theme out into the open is Israel's blatant rejection of any serious intention of negotiating with the Palestinians. That was the singular message of the announcement of 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

In effect Netanyahu is calling Obama's bluff regarding his tougher talk on the issue, and making the assumption that Obama will not change his long held position: that the U.S. will not threaten to withhold any of the $2.7 billion in yearly aid to the country. Netanyahu knows that this is the only card Obama holds and he knows Obama has promised not to play it. There is nothing else in America's hand that can prevent Israel from doing whatever it wants.

That includes attacking Iran if there are not major moves by the U.S. and E.U. to convince Iran to abandon its nuclear enrichment program. But few experts believe that new sanctions will be effective enough simply because there are too many dissident players, like China and Russia, who won't go along.

Such is the complex relationship between Israel and the US -- made even more so by a liberal Democrat U.S. president and an extreme rightist Israeli prime minister -- that unless the U.S. plays its only trump card it could be convinced that attacking Iranian nuclear sites itself would be preferable to Israel trying to do so.

That this is a possibility got a major boost by reports two weeks ago about the movement of US made "bunker buster" bombs closer to the theatre of a future attack. In what it calls an exclusive story The Sunday Herald of Scotland reported that "Hundreds of powerful US ‘bunker-buster' bombs are being shipped from California to the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in preparation for a possible attack on Iran." In 2007 the Herald reported that US "...stealth bomber hangers on the island were being equipped to take bunker-buster bombs." The Herald's claim included very specific numbers, allegedly from the delivery manifest of a private shipper contracted by the Pentagon. Included were "...195 smart, guided, Blu-110 bombs and 192 massive 2000lb Blu-117 bombs."

The U.S. has issued no denials of the story nor made any other comments. Other recent stories, which received scant coverage in U.S. or Canadian media, detail a military buildup that seems designed for one purpose: to strengthen America's Arab allies around Iran to assist in the aftermath of as US attack. The Guardian reported in January: "The US is dispatching Patriot defensive missiles to four countries -- Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait -- and keeping two ships in the Gulf capable of shooting down Iranian missiles. Washington is also helping Saudi Arabia develop a force to protect its oil installations."

All of this is designed to counter Iran's almost certain aggressive response to an attack. The Guardian quoted U.S. administration officials as saying that these move were meant to deter Iran, reassure friendly Arab states so they would not pursue nuclear weapons themselves, and also included "...an element of calming the Israelis as well."

But he did not comment on what would happen if Israel was not calmed. General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. central command, declared that the Gulf States are worried about Iran: "Iran is clearly seen as a very serious threat by those on the other side of the Gulf front." This is a convenient fabrication as Iran has never indicated any aggressiveness towards its Arab neighbours. But it does help the U.S. build a case for an attack.

The key to the timetable of a potential attack is Israel's claim that Iran could have a nuclear weapon within a year -- at least five years earlier than the best estimate of U.S. intelligence agencies. Based on this false assessment of Iran's capability (and intentions) the clock really is ticking for the Obama administration.

Would the U.S. decide that attacking Iran's nuclear sites (and perhaps its air force) would be preferable to Israel doing so? The U.S. would face serious consequences if it attacked on its own. But the consequences would be far worse if Israel attacked. The nightmare scenario for the U.S. is an ongoing war between Israel and Iran in which Iran manages to inflict far greater casualties in Israel than expected. As the war gets out of hand, and Israel faces attacks from Iran's proxies Hezbollah and Hamas, what are the possibilities of Israel using some part of its 200 strong nuclear stockpile to bring a decisive halt to Iran's counter-offensive?

Iran is a long way from Israel and the U.S. would have to decide early on whether to help or hinder Israel if it decided to attack -- for example by denying it authority to fly through Iraqi air space on the way to Iran or to end access to sophisticated U.S. radar. Once the first bomb is dropped events would move incredibly quickly creating the conditions for tragic errors in judgment.

This insane situation only seems normal because the U.S. seems incapable of deciding what its interests in the Middle East really are. Israel as always been seen to play the role as a sort of U.S. cop in the Middle East but that was predicated on certain parameters of behaviour. At what point does the U.S. see Israel as the biggest problem it faces in the region?

Israeli and U.S. threats against Iran could become a self-fulfilling prophecy -- Iran knows (observing how carefully the US handles North Korea) that having the bomb would be the ultimate protection against attack. The notion that Iran would use a bomb (it would take another year to build a second one) offensively against Israel and be vapourized in response is sheer stupidity. The Iranian leadership is not suicidal. But it smells the hypocrisy of the U.S. talking about halting nuclear proliferation without ever mentioning Israel's nuclear arsenal.

This is the situation the U.S. finds itself in. At the highest levels of its leadership it is paralyzed by a changing relationship with Israel, the petty demands of domestic politics, other (uncooperative) players like China and Russia, and the fact that having the largest military in world history tends to make it look at military solutions even when they promise disaster. If Obama cannot quickly come to grips with the consequences of failed leadership on this issue, history will not be highlighting his Medicare bill. It will document how he dithered his way to a Middle East conflagration.