x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Week in review: Israel impatient with US

While the Obama administration dispatched an array of its top officials for meetings with their Israeli counterparts this week, pressure is being applied in both directions. The US president's determination to advance the peace process is being challenged by Israel's insistence that time is running out if Iran's purported nuclear ambitions are to be thwarted.

While the Obama administration dispatched an array of its top officials for meetings with their Israeli counterparts this week, pressure is being applied in both directions. The US president's determination to advance the peace process is being challenged by Israel's insistence that time is running out if Iran's purported nuclear ambitions are to be thwarted. "Strains between the United States and Israel surfaced publicly in Jerusalem on Monday, as Defense Secretary Robert M Gates tried to reassure Israelis that American overtures to Iran were not open-ended, and as Defense Minister Ehud Barak of Israel expressed impatience with the Americans for wanting to engage Iran at all," The New York Times reported. " 'I don't think that it makes any sense at this stage to talk a lot about it,' Mr Barak said at a joint news conference with Mr Gates at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, referring to the American offer to talk to Iran about giving up its nuclear programme. Nonetheless, he said Israel was in no position to tell the United States what to do. "But, alluding to a potential Israeli military strike against Iran if it gains nuclear weapons capability, he added: 'We clearly believe that no options should be removed from the table. This is our policy, we mean it, we recommend to others to take the same position, but we cannot dictate to anyone.' "Later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Mr Gates, and his office released a statement saying that he had pressed Mr Gates on the need to use 'all means' to keep Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon. "Israel has been anxious for months about the Obama administration's willingness to engage Iran in talks, but Monday was unusual in that the tensions crept into public view at a news conference of the top defense officials of both countries. "After traveling on to Amman on Monday, Mr Gates said at a news conference that he had received assurances from the Israelis that as long as there was a time limit on the outreach to Iran, 'the Israelis were prepared to let it go forward.' " The Washington Post noted: "Both Gates and Barak stressed that the opening for engagement with Iran was a limited one. 'If there is an engagement, we believe it should be short in time, well defined in objectives followed by sanctions,' Barak said. He noted that it wouldn't take 'too much time to clarify' whether talks can produce results. "Gates also warned that the Iranians would not be allowed to use the cover of engagement to 'run out the clock' while they continued to make progress in the nuclear programme. 'The timetable the president laid out still seems to be viable and does not significantly raise the risks to anybody,' he said. "The half-day trip to Israel marked Gates's first visit to the Jewish state as defense secretary. From the outset of his tenure as Pentagon chief, Gates has stressed that any strike by the United States or Israel on Iran would have a profoundly destabilising effect on the Middle East. He has also said repeatedly that an Iranian nuclear weapon would provoke an arms race in the region that would be very damaging." John Bolton, one of the most hawkish members of the Bush administration, wrote in The Wall Street Journal: "Mr Gates' mission had extraordinary significance. Israel sees the political and military landscape in a very inauspicious light. It also worries that, once ensnared in negotiations, the Obama administration will find it very hard to extricate itself. The Israelis are probably right. To prove the success of his 'open hand,' Mr Obama will declare victory for 'diplomacy' even if it means little to no gains on Iran's nuclear programme. "Under the worst-case scenario, Iran will continue improving its nuclear facilities and Mr Obama will become the first US president to tie the issue of Israel's nuclear capabilities into negotiations about Iran's. "Israel understands that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent commitment to extend the US 'defense umbrella' to Israel is not a guarantee of nuclear retaliation, and that it is wholly insufficient to deter Iran from obliterating Israel if it so decides. In fact, Mrs Clinton's comment tacitly concedes that Iran will acquire nuclear weapons, exactly the wrong message. Since Israel, like the US, is well aware its missile defense system is imperfect, whatever Mr Gates said about the 'defense umbrella' will be politely ignored. "Relations between the US and Israel are more strained now than at any time since the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. Mr Gates's message for Israel not to act on Iran, and the US pressure he brought to bear, highlight the weight of Israel's lonely burden." Al Jazeera reported: "Iran's foreign ministry has said the United States should concentrate on getting Israel to dismantle its nuclear arsenal, instead of criticising Tehran's nuclear programme. "The comments came after Hillary Clinton last week said the US would arm its allies in the Gulf region if Iran built a nuclear weapon. " 'There is no need for the US to provide a defence umbrella for the neighbouring countries,' Hassan Qashqavi, a foreign ministry spokesman, said on Monday. " 'It is enough to tell its ally, the Zionist regime and convince it for the issue of disarmament and dismantle its own 200 nuclear warheads from the occupied territories. " 'It automatically will bring security to the region and all countries of the region will feel secure. The solution for defence umbrella is removing nuclear warheads of the Zionist regime and has no other way.' " In a television interview on Sunday, Mrs Clinton had said: "We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment, that if the United States extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the Gulf, it's unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won't be able to intimidate and dominate as they apparently believe they can once they have a nuclear weapon." In The National, Emile Hokayem wrote: "Mrs Clinton's statement understandably ignited a controversy. For a start, it appears that it was not cleared with the White House. Then, Mrs Clinton seemed to raise a hypothetical rather than an issue of state policy. But if the US administration has not yet made its mind about the merits of such a measure, why would Mrs Clinton raise it in the first place? The statement may have also had the unintended and counterproductive effect of convincing the very countries it sought to reassure that the US is grudgingly acknowledging the inevitability of a nuclear Iran and moving from a policy of prevention to one of deterrence. "In follow-up comments, Mrs Clinton sought to clarify her remarks and put the idea of a defence umbrella in context, though some would call this back-pedalling. It was a mere restatement of policy, she said. In a way, she has a point. It is well-known that the US has intense defence relations with the Gulf states, to which it provides support, training and weapons systems. It has bases in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the UAE and defence agreements with every Gulf state. An initiative known as the Gulf Security Dialogue seeks to solidify these relationships. General David Petraeus, the commander of Centcom, regularly speaks of building a 'network of networks' to foster security interdependence and interoperability. Most importantly, the US went to war to liberate Kuwait, a deed that remains vivid in the minds of Gulf rulers and established a credibility that survives any bad blood from recent times. "So, if Mrs Clinton was merely stating current policy, why the ruckus? In fact, Mrs Clinton was proposing to formalise its defence relationship with the Gulf states, which may be a step too far for everyone." Meanwhile, in Time magazine, Robin Wright described what she terms "phase two" of the Iranian protest campaign. "Six weeks after millions took to the streets to protest Iran's presidential election, their uprising has morphed into a feistier, more imaginative and potentially enduring campaign. "The second phase plays out in a boycott of goods advertised on state-controlled television. Just try buying a certain brand of dairy product, an Iranian human-rights activist told me, and the person behind you in line is likely to whisper, 'Don't buy that. It's from an advertiser.' It includes calls to switch on every electric appliance in the house just before the evening TV news to trip up Tehran's grid. It features quickie 'blitz' street demonstrations, lasting just long enough to chant 'Death to the dictator!' several times but short enough to evade security forces. It involves identifying paramilitary Basij vigilantes linked to the crackdown and putting marks in green - the opposition colour - or pictures of protest victims in front of their homes. It is scribbled antiregime slogans on money. And it is defiant drivers honking horns, flashing headlights and waving V signs at security forces. "The tactics are unorganised, largely leaderless and only just beginning. They spread by e-mail, websites and word of mouth. But their variety and scope indicate that Iran's uprising is not a passing phenomenon like the student protests of 1999, which were quickly quashed. This time, Iranians are rising above their fears. Although embryonic, today's public resolve is reminiscent of civil disobedience in colonial India before independence or in the American Deep South in the 1960s. Mohandas Gandhi once mused that 'even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled.' That quotation is now popular on Iranian websites."

pwoodward@thenational.ae