There is one central player remarkably absent from the recent revelations concerning Israel’s decision not to bomb Iranian nuclear sites in 2011 and 2012 – the United States. According to Ehud Barak, former prime minister and defence minister, the US was not a factor when key decisions against a strike were made.
Israel is a notoriously self-centred political culture. But even so, the revelation that the US’ views were not centre stage in the two critical meetings, when Israel’s political and security establishments debated the merits of war against Iran, is unprecedented.
Washington may not have been in the room when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defence Ehud Barak failed to win over political and security colleagues.
But Netanyahu had, nonetheless, reserved a key role for the US in implementing his twin goals: to deal a devastating strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and to cripple Iran’s power to contest Israeli (nuclear) hegemony throughout the region.
Reason to be confident
Indeed, Netanyahu – had he made a decision to hit Iran – considered the US a key player, whether it wanted to be or not. He depended on forcing the US to accommodate the Israeli fait accompli and join the regional war against Tehran that was certain to result.
Bibi had reason to be confident of his ability to move the US in his direction. He saw US President Barack Obama as an easy mark. If Bibi made the decision to go to war, he counted on his ability to force Obama to join Israel in a joint campaign against the ayatollahs.
The Israeli prime minister had taken the measure of the US president and was confident that Washington could be “played” through a determined Israeli desire to create facts on the ground that Obama would have little choice but to support.
Sound familiar? It should. This was the lesson Bibi learned from his victory over Obama’s disastrously unsuccessful demand to freeze settlements between 2009 and 2010 – a lesson that, to this day, plays a central role in Netanyahu’s extraordinary efforts to push US policies in Israel’s direction.
On two occasions – first in 2010 and again in 2011 – Netanyahu and Barak failed to win the approval of key political and security officials for a strike against Iran before it entered a “zone of immunity” that would imperil Israel’s ability to destroy Iran’s progress towards a bomb.
“Ultimately, you need the [Israeli army] chief,” Barak said in the recordings featured on Israeli television last week, after approval by the military censor. “The [Israeli army] chief has to say that there is operational capability… The answer was not a positive one.”
Signals on Iran
One year – and a new chief of staff later, the situation changed. According to Barak, in a meeting held at Mossad headquarters, Chief of Staff Benny Ganz “said the capability was there. You know all the limitations, everything – all the risks. Bibi, me and [then-foreign minister Avigdor] Lieberman supported the operation”, but unexpected opposition from cabinet members prevailed.
As the end of his presidency approaches, Obama is demonstrating the kind of leadership and commitment on Iran that is sorely lacking on Palestine.
“If they hadn’t changed their minds,” Barak said, “there would have been a majority of five or six, and then we may have convened the full cabinet to take a decision, and there would have been an operation”.
Netanyahu and Barak are two veteran leaders well-schooled in the ways of Washington. It is hard to believe that they were prepared to roll the dice without at least a cautionary green light from Washington, where the signals on Iran were famously marked by indecision.
The failure of the White House, Congress, and the Pentagon during this critical period to communicate unambiguous opposition to an Israeli strike only encouraged Bibi’s confidence in winning – or forcing – US support for whatever Israel decided.
Bibi had good reason to be confident. He was used to defying the US – and winning. The seminal issue in this regard was the Obama administration’s signature call for a settlement freeze.
In Washington, policymakers would prefer to forget the disastrous efforts to make a permanent and complete freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and to make East Jerusalem the Obama administration’s new, central foreign policy goal.
But no one from Pyongyang to Damascus could fail to be impressed by the Obama administration’s lack of commitment to achieving this policy objective it had set for itself. If Washington was unable to get a friend and ally like Israel to adopt its agenda, then why should its adversaries?
Israel’s security doctrine
At a Washington press conference with a visiting Netanyahu on May 18, 2009, Obama declared that: “Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward.”
New Secretary of State Hilary Clinton set the standard for this initiative 10 days later when she explained that Obama was demanding “a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions. We think it is in the best interests of the effort that we are engaged in that settlement expansion cease. That is our position. That is what we have communicated very clearly”.
Over the next year, however, it transpired that Netanyahu was more determined to continue settling than Obama was to stop it.
Netanyahu naturally concluded that a president who lacked the commitment to prevail – on settlements and the larger issue of negotiating a peace agreement with the Palestinians – would not be able to derail whatever policy Israel adopted towards Iran, the other main pillar of Israel’s security doctrine.
Netanyahu has lost his bet on Iran. Obama, at long last, appears to have denied Israel, in the words of US Senator Diane Feinstein, the power to “determine when and where the United States goes to war”.
As the end of his presidency approaches, Obama is demonstrating the kind of leadership and commitment on Iran that is sorely lacking on Palestine. But even as he is denied the ability to make war on Iran, Netanyahu continues to win big on Obama’s other legacy issue: settlements, the jewel in the crown of Israeli policy for almost half-a-century.
Geoffrey Aronson writes about Middle East affairs. He consults with a variety of public and private institutions dealing with regional political, security, and development issues.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.