Jerusalem — Although warm and effusive in their congratulations, Israeli officials fear President Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize could limit his options on Iran.
They argue that Obama, having won the prestigious award for restoring the role of diplomacy in international affairs, may be more inclined to take the military option off the table, paving the way for Iran to advance its nuclear plans with relative impunity.
The Israelis have similar concerns on the Palestinian track, fearing the prize might encourage Obama to redouble his efforts for an independent Palestinian state by 2012 by pressing Israel to make far-reaching concessions.
Even before news of the Nobel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had deep misgivings about the new U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran.
Successful dialogue could lead to pressure on Israel to dismantle its reputed nuclear arsenal. One Israeli nightmare scenario is that Iran demands Israeli nuclear disarmament as a condition of its agreement to drop its nuclear weapons program.
Were this to happen, the Israelis fear the praise the Norwegian Nobel committee heaped on Obama’s advocacy of a nuclear-free world could exacerbate their predicament.
What worries Israeli strategic thinkers more is the more likely scenario of a U.S.-Iran dialogue that fails to produce conclusive results, sucking the Obama administration into a long-meandering process the Iranians use as a cover to advance their nuclear activities.
The concern persists despite U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s reassurance in London last weekend that “the international community will not wait indefinitely for evidence that Iran is prepared to live up to its international obligations.”
With all these developments, the Netanyahu government seems to be developing a pragmatic Iran strategy. Netanyahu seems resigned to waiting out Washington’s efforts at dialogue and to giving international sanctions a chance if dialogue fails. Some of Netanyahu’s close advisers say the dialogue stage is necessary so that when it fails – as it is bound to do, they argue – Obama will be able to muster an effective and widely backed sanctions regime.
The main plank of the Israeli waiting game, however, is to coordinate throughout as closely as possible with Washington on intelligence and on possible military action. Netanyahu, who has warned repeatedly that Israel will not tolerate a nuclear Iran, does not want to act without close U.S. coordination.
That’s where this month’s huge joint military exercise in Israel’s Negev Desert comes in. In maneuvers dubbed Juniper Cobra, the Israel Defense Forces, the U.S. European Command and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency will test four defense systems against incoming ballistic missiles, such as those from Iran. The main purpose will be to hone the interoperability of Israel’s Arrow 2 and three state-of-the-art American systems: the high altitude THAAD, the ship-based Aegis and the lower altitude Patriot PAC 3.
All four will be coordinated by American X-Band Radar, deployed in the Negev since last October and capable of tracing an object as small as a baseball from a distance of approximately 3,000 miles. This means that with X-Band and the various interceptor systems, Israel theoretically could shoot down Iranian Shihab missiles shortly after take-off and possibly still over Iranian territory. Israelis also would get warning time of 5 to 7 minutes to take cover after Iranian missile firings.
About 1,000 U.S. soldiers and 15 U.S. naval vessels are taking part in the exercise, the fifth of its kind since 2001 and by far the biggest and most complex.
After the exercise, the Americans may leave behind some PAC-3 interceptors and deploy Aegis vessels in the Mediterranean and Red seas. Washington is considering deploying parts of the missile defense system it had intended for Eastern Europe in Israel, Turkey and the Balkans. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates says this will enable the United States to have a partial system working by 2011, whereas in Eastern Europe it would have taken until 2017.
All this sends a strong message to Iran. Attacking Israel would mean confronting an Israeli-American defensive umbrella at the very least, and possibly a lethal Israeli-American counter-offensive.
But it also sends a strong message to Israel. If it can count on a strong American umbrella, it should feel less compelled to act against Iran on its own, less concerned about giving up its reputed nuclear arsenal and more inclined to make concessions to the Palestinians.
Of course, that still leaves the $64,000 question unanswered: What happens if the United States gets sucked into a long, seemingly aimless dialogue with Iran, and Israel sees smoking-gun evidence of an incipient Iranian nuclear capability that America chooses to ignore?
That’s the scenario Netanyahu hopes his coordination strategy will help avoid. Otherwise he is facing one of the hardest choices of any Israeli leader: To antagonize America or face the consequences of a nuclear Iran.