Gen. Martin Dempsey arrives Thursday, Jan. 19, for his first visit to Israel as Chairman of the Joint US Chiefs of Staff amid a major falling-out between the two governments over the handling of Iran’s nuclear weapon potential. debkafile’s military and Washington sources confirm that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands by the view that Iran is advancing its plans to build a nuclear bomb full speed ahead, undeterred even by the threat of harsher sanctions. Netanyahu therefore stands by his refusal of President Barack Obama’s demand for a commitment to abstain from a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear sites without prior notice to Washington.
The US president repeated this demand when he called the Israeli prime minister Thursday night Jan. 13. Netanyahu replied that, in view of their disagreement on this point, he preferred to cancel the biggest US-Israel war game ever staged due to have taken place in April. The exercise was to have tested the level of coordination between the two armies in missile defense for the contingency of a war with Iran or a regional conflict.
The prime minister was concerned that having large-scale US military forces in the country would restrict his leeway for decision-making on Iran.
In an effort to limit the damage to relations with the US administration, Defense Minister Ehud Barak struck a conciliatory note Wednesday, Jan. 18, saying, “Israel is still very far from a decision on attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities.”
Striking the pose of middleman, he was trying to let Washington know that there was still time for the US and Israel to reach an accommodation on whether and when a strike should take place.
debkafile’s sources doubt that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are in any mood to respond to Barak’s effort to cool the dispute. Obama needs to be sure he will not be taken by surprise by an Israel attack in the middle of his campaign for re-election, especially since he has begun taking heat on the Iranian issue.
Republican rivals are accusing him of being soft on Iran. And while the economy is the dominant election issue, a majority of Americans disapprove of his handling of Iran’s nuclear ambitions by a margin of 48 to 33 percent according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll this week.
Wednesday (Thursday morning Israel time), President Obama responded by reiterating that he has been clear since running for the presidency that he will take “every step available to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
Echoes of Barak’s arguments were heard in the words of US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Wednesday night: “We are not making any special steps at this point in order to deal with the situation. Why? Because, frankly, we are fully prepared to deal with that situation now.”
Panetta went on to say that Defense Minister Barak contacted him and asked to postpone the joint US-Israeli drill “for technical reasons.”
Before he took off for a short trip to Holland, Netanyahu instructed Barak and IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz not to deviate in their talks with Gen. Dempsey from the position he took with the US president, namely, no commitment for advance notice to Washington about a unilateral strike against Iran.
The Israeli prime minister is convinced that, contrary to the claims by US spokesmen and media, that current sanctions are ineffective insofar as slowing Iran’s advance toward a nuclear weapon and the harsher sanctions on Iran’s central bank and oil exports are too slow and will take hold too late to achieve their purpose.
In any case, say Israeli officials, Washington is again signaling its willingness to go back to direct nuclear negotiations with Tehran, although past experience proved that Iran exploits diplomatic dialogue as grace time for moving forward on its nuclear ambitions.
US spokesmen denied an Iranian report that a recent letter from the US president to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proposed opening a direct channel for talks.
Still those reports persist. American and European spokesmen were forced to deny a statement by Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi Wednesday on his arrival in Ankara that Iran and the big powers are in contact over the revival of nuclear negotiations.
Netanyahu fears that dialogue between Iran and the five powers plus Germany (the P5+1) will resume after bowing to an Iranian stipulation that sanctions be suspended for the duration of the talks. Once again, Tehran will be enabled to steal a march on the US and Israel and bring its nuclear weapon program to conclusion, unhindered by economic constraints.