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Obama's Dangerous Game with Israel

The Obama administration is stepping up the pressure on the new Israeli government before a critical meeting between the president and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 18.

In the wake of comments made by influential National Security Adviser Jim Jones (the de facto secretary of state, in my opinion) to a European foreign minister that America will take a more “forceful hand”  towards Israel than previous administrations, comes a new riposte to show that the State Department refuses to be one-upped by the NSC when it comes to dealing with Israel:

Rose Gottemoeller, assistant secretary of state and America’s chief nuclear arms negotiator, has called on Israel (along with Pakistan, India, and North Korea) to sign the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT). By including Israel on a list of nations known to either have nuclear weapons or be close to acquiring them (North Korea), Gottemoeller broke with a decades old diplomatic policy of America. Since the late 1960s, America has pursued a policy of not demanding transparency from Israel and, in return, Israel agreed not to test a bomb or declare that it had developed a bomb. This policy was known as “strategic ambiguity.”

The call on Israel to sign the NNPT also has put in jeopardy a secret U.S.-Israel accord, writes Eli Lake in the Washington Times:

President Obama’s efforts to curb the spread of nuclear weapons threaten to expose and derail a 40-year-old secret U.S. agreement to shield Israel’s nuclear weapons from international scrutiny, former and current U.S. and Israeli officials and nuclear specialists say.

For the past 40 years, Israel and the U.S. have kept quiet about an Israeli nuclear arsenal that is now estimated at 80 to 200 weapons. Israel has promised not to test nuclear weapons while the U.S. has not pressed Israel to sign the nuclear NPT, which permits only five countries — the U.S., France, Britain, China and Russia — to have nuclear arms.

The U.S. also has opposed most regional calls for a “nuclear-free Middle East.” The accord was forged at a summit between Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and President Nixon on Sept. 25, 1969, according to recently released documents, but remains so secret that there is no explicit record of it. Mr. Cohen has referred to the deal as “don’t ask, don’t tell,” because it commits both the U.S. and Israel never to acknowledge in public Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

The policy has worked well. Israel’s rumored arsenal serves as a deterrent for those enemies who would employ weapons of mass destruction against her, given that the nation arose from the ashes of the Holocaust and is surrounded by enemies who would like nothing better than to stage a sequel to that horror. Her possession of such weapons has been judged a vital strategic interest (was this why Saddam Hussein did not place poison gas on the rockets he bombarded Israel with during the Gulf War?).

Neighboring nations did not feel the need to embark on their own programs, nor has this been an issue for the international community. This is because Israel is a Western democracy, allied with America, and could be trusted with such weapons. Israeli leaders have never broadcast their desire to destroy their neighbors, nor have they ever harbored and nurtured apocalyptic desires to bring about Armageddon — as does Iran’s president.

At the same time, Israel has declared that it would not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons (and by logical extension, any weapons of mass destruction) in the region.  Such a weapon is best left sheathed.

American presidents have appreciated Israeli’s need for such a posture — and its need not to fall under the control of the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty. That treaty would lead to very intrusive investigation of Israel’s nuclear program. Should nuclear weapons be found, Israel would be under severe pressure to relinquish them. Given that the International Atomic Energy Agency, like all United Nations agencies, is dominated by anti-Israel nations, this would be a foregone conclusion. Israel would be stripped of the very weapons she deems necessary to ensure her survival.

So why the change now?

There is a pattern emerging that this administration intends to use tools at its disposal to pressure Israel to follow America’s lead in the region. A sign of this has been the linkage the Obama team is trying to propound between efforts to derail Iran’s nuclear program and efforts to establish a Palestinian state. The prospect of Israel being compelled to sign the NNPT is another card being played by the Obama team to “encourage” Israel to yield to American proposals on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts.

Other notable “hiccups” were the Chas Freeman and Durban II controversies that went on for far too long and America’s move to rejoin the United Nations Human Rights Council — a group that has obsessively focused on criticizing Israel while shielding dictators.

Haaretz (the New York Times of Israel) recently published a column noting that there has been a sharp decline in the coordination between Israel and the United States on security and state affairs since President Obama entered the White House:

“Obama’s people brief their Israeli counterparts in advance much less about security and Middle East policy activities than the Bush administration used to,” the officials said.

In addition, when they do brief Israeli officials, they don’t consult with them or coordinate their statements in advance.

This has caused several coordination “malfunctions” between the two states in the past two months, they said.

This followed other equally problematic incidents. The American policy shift toward Syria and opening direct talks with Damascus followed minimal coordination with Israel. For example, Israel was not briefed about senior American diplomats’ trip to Damascus, which the U.S. had initiated.

Another incident concerned U.S. envoy for Iranian affairs Dennis Ross’ trip to the Gulf states a few days ago for talks on Iran. Israel was briefed on the trip in general details, but no consultations or message-coordination took place before the trip. In addition, Ross did not pass through Israel on his way to the Gulf or back to brief Israel on the talks’ outcome.

However, the official said the new administration no longer seems to see Israel as a “special” or “extraordinary” state in the Middle East, with which the U.S. must maintain a different dialogue than with other states.

“The feeling is that the dialogue and coordination with the Arab states and with Europe is today no less important to the U.S. and perhaps more so than with Israel,” the official said.

A recent White house meeting between Israeli President Shimon Peres and the Obama team was less than comfortable for Peres, according to Laura Rozen of Foreign Policy.

The Israelis hear that and have been making diplomatic gestures to move closer to the Obama positions.

But what do the Iranians hear? What message are they getting?

Well the administration does not seem to be inclined to use a forceful hand with the mad mullahs.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and others on the Obama team have said there is no military solution to Iran’s nuclear program. This is an implicit warning to the Israelis (and a get out of your bunker card to the Iranians).

Regime change has been explicitly rejected.  Barack Obama and his advisers appear to believe that unilateral disarmament on the part of America is a precondition we should impose on ourselves before we even begin to engage with the mullahs.

Instead of a forceful hand, Barck Obama has extended, in his own words, an open hand to the Iranians.

In just 100 days, President Obama (who during the campaign had dismissed Iran as not a threat; a claim he withdrew the following day when criticized) has praised the “Islamic Republic” of Iran, paying homage to the ayatollahs in using that phrase, redolent of the theocracy that reigns there.  He has apologized for what he views as mistakes America has made in the region.

The approach and the open hand were swatted away. What has been Plan B to Iranian rejection?  Silence. The whole effort to deal with Iran seems to have been dropped from his schedule.

Even worse, the State Department has refused to place a deadline (and I am loath to use that word) on negotiations with the Iranians. These efforts to reach agreement can go on for some time. All one has to do is ask the IAEA and the Europeans about their interminable talks with the mullahs and their proxies. Furthermore, by opening up the issue of Israel and the NNPT, he has given the Iranians one more card to play so as to divert attention from their own program.

The moral of the story is that obduracy brings rewards. Meanwhile, the centrifuges spin away: 24 by 7.

The Iranians know how to prolong “negotiations,” as anyone who has ever shopped there should appreciate.

The diplomatic world is one grand bazaar for them.