In his recent visit to Israel, American Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta did not get a clear commitment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israel would not take action against Iranian nuclear facilities without coordinating any such operation with the United States.
According to American officials who were briefed about the visit Panetta made a month ago to Israel, the two Israeli leaders only answered Panetta’s questions regarding Israel’s intentions toward Iran in a general manner.
Panetta arrived in Israel on October 3 and, in addition to Netanyahu and Barak, also met with Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz and senior members of the IDF General Staff. The U.S. defense secretary’s visit came against the backdrop of a sense among members of the American administration that they didn’t clearly understand where Israel was headed with regard to the entire subject of the threat from Iran.
Officials in the U.S. administration noted that, in the months prior to Panetta’s visit, there had been a substantial reduction in Israeli pronouncements on the Iranian issue, both in public but also privately through diplomatic and defense channels. This caused the Americans to come to the conclusion that they needed to get a clearer picture from Israel regarding where things stood, the American sources said.
Panetta raised the Iranian issue in his talks in Israel with both Netanyahu and Barak. He sought not only to hear about Israel’s intentions but also to underline that the U.S. was interested in full coordination with Israel on the issue of the Iranian nuclear threat. The American defense secretary hinted that the Americans did not want to be surprised by Israel. For their parts, however, Netanyahu and Barak avoided providing a clear response, answering vaguely and in general terms.
During his visit here, Panetta held a joint news conference with Barak at which the American hinted that his country opposes an Israeli assault on Iran. Panetta said countries must work together to assure that Iran did not pose a threat to the region, adding that a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue requires the coordination of the international community.
The defense secretary’s visit and what he heard here led, in the opinion of commentators, to two main schools of thought in Washington on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran. One view was that the evasiveness displayed by Netanyahu and Barak to Panetta’s questions stemmed from the fact that planning is indeed taking place for Israeli military action against Iran, without coordinating the operation with the Americans.
According to the second school of thought, however, the message the United States is receiving from the defense echelon is what reflects reality, while the lack of clarity conveyed by the political leaders was designed to apply pressure on the U.S. administration so it in turn steps up pressure on Iran.
It is possible that what Panetta heard on his visit here, and particularly what he did not hear, lies behind what senior American military officers told CNN over the weekend. According to the television network, U.S. concern over an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is growing and the Americans have therefore stepped up efforts to follow military activity emanating from both Israel and Iran.
In the past, the American military officials said, they sensed that they had an Israeli assurance that the United States would get advance warning of any attack on Iran. Now, however, the feeling is that those assurances are not firm.
In an interview that Ehud Barak conducted with CNN over the weekend, he said Iran was determined to obtain nuclear weapons, adding that the international community must also act in a determined fashion, through sanctions, diplomacy or any other means, to prevent Iran from getting atomic weaponry.
When asked by his CNN interviewer if he had discussed an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities with Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli defense minister said there have been discussions for years within Israel on the Iranian issue. Israel prefers that the issue be resolved through diplomacy, but sees the Iranians moving forward, he stated, adding that Israel is telling its friends around the world to take any steps it wishes on the issue but also urges that no option be excluded.
When pressed by his CNN interviewer, Barak said he does not think Israel is at the stage at which military action is being discussed, and even if it is under consideration, it would not be carried out at this moment. But the Iranians, he warned, are working on nuclear weapons and missiles that within a decade could not only reach all of the Middle East but also Europe.