Barring a doomsday scenario, Israel may be forced to concede to Washington at least some of its freedom to make independent decisions aimed at militarily neutralizing or even delaying the Iranian nuclear threat. In the near future, Israel is far less likely to receive American backing and support for an attack on Iran, as it might have just a few months ago.
In short, Israel and the United States may be falling out of sync regarding Iran.
In recent days we were informed that the United States had agreed to deploy an American-manned, high-power early-warning system in the Negev. By linking up to a sophisticated American radar and satellite system, Israel would increase its early-warning time against missiles launched from Iran by crucial minutes and could intercept them at a greater distance from home. The catch is that an American green light is now required before Israel can launch a preemptive attack against Iran.
In parallel, the United States reportedly refused to sell Israel sophisticated new aerial refueling tankers — the kind that could be used to extend the flight time and range of F-15s attacking Iran. Additional reports indicate that recent visits to Israel by high-level American military officers were dedicated to informing Jerusalem that the United States would not give its aircraft access to Iraqi airspace on their way to and from Iran, and to warning Israel not to preemptively attack Iran without first consulting Washington.
Regardless of the precise credibility of these reports, their overall thrust points to an emerging new reality. A number of Israeli security planners have long argued that, in view of geostrategic realities, Israel in any case has to tighten its security relationship with the United States in order to deal with a distant and determined enemy like Iran — an enemy that is likely to be armed with nuclear-tipped intermediate range missiles.
Such a reality, they argue, inevitably means conceding some degree of operational freedom. Indeed, since 2001 the prospect that Iran would retaliate for an Israeli attack by targeting American forces in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf has tied Israel’s hands even without a formal commitment to Washington.
The likelihood that Israel and the United States would at some point soon agree on the necessity of one or both preemptively attacking Iran has decreased even further due to the dramatic events this month in the Caucasus. The United States — and indeed, the entire Western alliance — may now feel obliged to soften their approach to Iran as their security concerns focus increasingly on Russia.
In parallel, tensions between the West and Russia may in any event render it impossible for the United Nations Security Council to agree on tightening economic and other sanctions against Iran. Russia’s increasingly obvious ambition to reassert its superpower status, meanwhile, is already bringing it into closer military ties with hostile countries like Syria and Iran.
Those same recent events in the Caucasus that may shape Western priorities regarding Russia and Iran also suggest an imperfect yet instructive comparison to Israel’s dilemma with Iran. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili felt compelled to attack Russian troops and interests on Georgia’s borders. He apparently believed that an American deterrent, along with the Western interests his country represented — after all, he had been told that Georgia would become a NATO member — constituted a kind of insurance policy.
We may never get a truly objective account of the extent to which Saakashvili’s apparent reliance on the West for security and deterrence was based on genuine assurances or wishful thinking. But at last count, his country’s security had been seriously compromised.
Now that an American early-warning base is going to be stationed in the Negev, does this mean an upgrade in the American commitment to the security of Israel (which is in no way a candidate to join NATO in the foreseeable future)? Or does it in fact compel Israel to abandon its own security standards and accept Washington’s when it comes to Iran?
It is worth noting that the United States and Israel do not even necessarily agree on a definition of the redline that might constitute a casus belli with Iran. Jerusalem draws the line at Tehran achieving an independent capability, despite sanctions, to produce a nuclear weapon; Washington’s draws it at Iran actually building a bomb.
If, in the ultimate doomsday scenario, Israel were attacked by Iran, it is hard to imagine that the United States would not support an Israeli counterattack. Indeed, the United States might well lead that counterattack. Nor, for that matter, would Israel bother under those circumstances to ask Washington’s permission.
But what happens now to the more ambiguous scenarios — the gray areas? And what are the ramifications of Israel’s conceding even a degree of its independent strategic decision-making regarding Iran?
On the other hand, how wise is Israel’s decision-making likely to be on this crucial issue? The Olmert government already made a strategic mistake of Saakashvili-like proportions two years ago when it launched a failed war in Lebanon. And the joint Israeli-American body that discusses the Iran issue every six months is chaired on the Israeli side by former defense minister (and current candidate for Kadima leader and prime minister) Shaul Mofaz, whose irresponsible talk about attacking Iran hardly inspires confidence. Then again, how wise is the strategic decision-making of Israel’s partner, the Bush administration?
Taken together, these troubling questions suggest that there is now increasing room for Israel and the United States to misinterpret one another’s strategic thinking and make bad decisions regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions — an issue of existential importance for Israel’s security.
Yossi Alpher, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of online publications.