What Israelis Hear When Obama Officials Talk About Iran

Over the weekend I had the privilege of sitting in on the 8th annual Saban Forum, a high-level, Brookings-sponsored dialogue between Israeli
and American officials (current and former) along with journalists,
intellectuals, and representatives from other countries in the Middle
East. The participants discussed many significant topics, including the
Arab Spring and its aftermath, the prospects for renewed peace
negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the state
of the relationship between the United States and Israel.

By far the gravest issue, though, was how to proceed in the face of a
looming Iranian nuclear threat. I came away from the two days with a
dark and disturbing conclusion: There is a gulf between Israel and the
United States that could have momentous consequences in 2012. When
American officials declare that all options are on the table, most
Israelis do not believe them. They have concluded, rather, that when the
crunch comes (and everyone thinks it will), the United States will shy
away from military force and reconfigure its policy to live with a
nuclear-armed Iran. This is an outcome that no Israeli government can
tolerate. For Israel, the Palestinian issue is an identity question:
What kind of country will Israel be and what kind of life will Israelis
lead? But the Iranian issue is an existential question: Will Israel and
Israelis survive?

Most of the Forum was conducted under “Chatham House rules,” which
prohibit naming or identifying participants. Secretary of Defense Leon
Panetta’s opening address was on the record, however. Much of the press
coverage has focused on peace talks and on Panetta’s characteristically
salty advice: “Just get to the damn table.” But from the Israeli
perspective, the real news lay elsewhere.  

In his opening remarks, the Secretary of Defense restated President
Obama’s declared position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions that “we have not
taken any option off the table.” During the question period, however, he
offered a long list of reservations against the military option: Some
of the targets are very difficult to get at, and even a successful
attack would set back the Iranian program by no more than two years. The
Iranian regime, now approaching pariah status, would be able to
mobilize renewed support at home and abroad. U.S. interests in the
Middle East would be subject to retaliation. The fragile economies of
the United States and Europe would be gravely disrupted. And worst of
all, the ensuing conflagration could “consume the Middle East in a
confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.” Whatever Panetta’s
intention, Israelis heard those remarks as a declaration of his
opposition to the use of force against Iran, even if that country was on
the verge of producing nuclear weapons. (The administration’s
reluctance to go along with sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran—a
matter Israelis raised repeatedly during the meeting—only adds to its
credibility problem.)

During a break, I button-holed a knowledgeable, highly respected
former Israeli official and asked whether he thought that the military
option was still on the table for the United States. No, he replied, the
United States had shifted to a containment strategy two years ago.
Another former official, equally knowledgeable and respected, shook his
head in dissent. No, he said, it was one year ago. While I didn’t meet
all the Israelis in attendance, I talked with quite a few and didn’t
encounter a differing view. And it was not a hard-line group: Supporters
of Prime Minister Netanyahu were in a distinct minority in the Israeli
delegation, a fact that occasioned humor on both the Israeli and
American sides.

Secretary Panetta’s speech was far from the only source of Israeli
concern. Just last week, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a remarkably frank interview. He said that
the United States was convinced that sanctions and diplomatic pressure
was the right path to take on Iran, along with “the stated intent not to
take any options off the table.” But, he continued, “I’m not sure the
Israelis share our assessment of that. And because they don’t and
because to them this is an existential threat … it’s fair to say that
our expectations are different right now.”

In December of 2009, Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy
organized a day-long crisis simulation of an Israeli strike on the
Iranian nuclear program. (Full disclosure: I was part of the U.S.
government team.) At the outset, some participants protested against
what they saw as an improbable hypothesis underlying the
exercise—namely, that the Israelis would proceed without informing the
United States in advance. On the basis of what I heard this weekend,
they should consider changing their minds. The more Israel believes that
giving the United States advance warning of a strike would trigger
American demands to call it off, the less likely it is to provide that
warning. When General Dempsey was asked whether he thought Israel would
notify the United States in advance of a strike on Iran, he bluntly
responded, “I don’t know.”

Of course, Israel’s beliefs about American intentions toward Iran may
well be mistaken.  But it is a fact that they hold those beliefs and
will continue to do so unless the Obama administration can persuade them
that the use of military force remains a live option. 

On November 22 at Brookings, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon
delivered a speech designed in part to do just that. Toward the end of a
comprehensive assessment of multilateral efforts to impede Iran’s
nuclear program, Donilon declared that “Even as the door to diplomacy
remains open, we’ll take no option off the table.” And he continued,
“Our focus and purpose are clear: Pressure is a means, not an end, and
our policy is firm.  We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring
nuclear weapons and all that flows from that.” 

I asked an Israeli journalist what he made of Donilon’s speech. “Very
clear,” he replied, “but not convincing.” As far as I can tell, his
judgment echoed the vast majority of Israel’s governing class. I do not
claim to understand the intricacies of the relationship between the
United States and Israel, and I know nothing about the ongoing private
conversations between their senior officials. But one thing is clear:
There is a chasm between the message U.S. officials say they’re sending
and the message Israeli officials say they’re receiving. And if the two
countries continue not to understand each other, the results could be