Agreeing to Disagree
President Obama’s visit to Israel heralded the beginning of a series of visits by American officials. Secretary of State Kerry has seen more of Israel in the past month to last a lifetime, and judging from the pearls of wisdom emitted from his mouth, the challenges he confronts during these visits are beginning to take their toll. Secretary of Defense Hagel’s visit was supposed to convey a message to both Israel and Iran that the U.S. (and Hagel personally despite his past rhetoric) is committed to Israel’s defense. But despite appearances, there are some worrying signs that demonstrate all is not hunky-dory with relations between Jerusalem and Washington, and that there is a crucial divergence of interests.
Take for example the latest disagreement over whether Assad has, or has not, used chemical weapons against Syrian citizens. A high-ranking Israeli intelligence officer was quoted yesterday as saying that there is enough proof supporting the claim that Assad has crossed the very same red line the Americans set as a casus belli for American military intervention. By the way, the U.K. and France also believe Assad has made use of chemical weapons, and even sent a report to the U.N. stating just this. But Kerry himself found the need to deny any such assertion, despite growing evidence to the contrary. He even called Netanyahu to clarify the matter.
Another red line which the Americans and Israelis have different definitions of, is, of course, the Iranian nuclear program. Judging from the past few weeks, Israel now believes Iran is on the verge of achieving the capability to produce a nuclear weapon in a very short period of time. The Americans on the other hand are talking of a very different red line, and are thinking in terms of years and not months.
The American perspective as reflected in the response to the claim made in the Syrian case must worry Israel since it inadvertently implies that despite any past commitments, the U.S. will act only according to its own interests – America is recovering from two wars in the Middle East, and does not want to risk an Iranian/Russian response and a conflagration in world oil prices. Israel on the other hand is “on-site”, and is naturally worried about any use of chemical weapons in its vicinity and the precedent such an action sets in an already highly unstable and volatile environment.
Israeli decision makers facing the decision to either act unilaterally against Iranian nuclear plans or rely on American promises, are bound to ask themselves two questions: Are American commitments to Israel in the case of Iran any different than the ones made to the international community in respect to Syria? And, are the Iranians thinking the same as they push forward with their plans?
Sadly, all this amounts to the fact that we are edging closer and closer to the point where Israel decides to act on its own. I say sadly because I rely on numerous military experts when I say that Israel has nothing to gain and everything to lose from such an adventure. We can at least take comfort in the fact that it will not be the first time governments pursue policies contrary to their own interests, despite the availability of feasible alternatives. Indeed, “The March of Folly”.