Jim Lobe’s suggestion the other day that the postponement of the joint maneuvers between Israel and the US might indicate “some serious distancing by the Obama administration from Israel’s provocations and possibly some serious interest in engagement with Iran” may unfortunately be premature and overly optimistic. Same goes for his latest story co-written with Gareth Porter for IPS.
…several current and former American officials told Yahoo News Sunday on condition of anonymity that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak had last month issued a request to the Pentagon that the exercise be postponed. The United States did not seek the delay–and American sources privately voiced concern that the Israeli request for a postponement of the exercise could be read as a potential warning sign that Israel is leaving its options open to conduct a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the spring. Thus, the concern went, it may not want 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Israel in April and May, as had been scheduled for the exercise.
Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and govt. spokesman Mark Regev have publicly declared that the postponement of the joint military drills (code-named Austere Challenge) was a mutual decision by Israel and the US to avoid exacerbating tensions in the Middle East and Persian Gulf. However, one of Rozen’s sources bluntly calls this “b.s.,” asserting that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak personally requested the postponement of the maneuvers a month ago. The postponement was leaked to Israel Radio prior to, and thus preempting, the formal announcement by military and diplomatic officials from both sides on Sunday afternoon, even before it was announced in the United States.
Rozen notes that “Observers of the awkward efforts to explain the war-games postponement can’t help but wonder at the fact that an exercise that was supposed to show unprecedented mutual cooperation between the United States and Israel with an eye toward Iran has instead revealed signs of strain and apprehension in the two countries’ defense relations.”
Without in any way negating or countering the reasons the US may have–or should have–had for postponing the maneuvers cited by Jim Lobe, here are some back-story considerations I would suggest that may have influenced the Israeli decision to postpone the military drills with the US:
US domestic politics: U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro had told WINEP (the Washington Institute for Near East Policy) in a speech titled “Ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Edge” on Nov. 4, 2011 that Austere Challenge, the U.S.-Israeli drill scheduled for May 2012 would be “the largest and most significant joint exercise” in the history of the two allies:
I am proud to say that this administration has taken steps to strengthen the US-Israel relationship and preserve it in a new century and era of dramatic change. As a result of the Obama Administration’s commitment, our security relationship with Israel is broader, deeper and more intense than ever before. Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that the security cooperation between our two countries is “unprecedented.” In fact, I believe that no American administration has done as much as ours for Israel’s security.
As such, the joint maneuvers scheduled for May 2012 could only serve to counter the canard in the Israeli and the neoconservative US media that President Barack Obama is the worst president in US history, whose maltreatment of Israel requires that everything possible must be done to assure that he is not re-elected. Many Israelis have been predicting–and eagerly anticipating–Obama’s defeat since the 2010 midterm election, and, in some cases, since he took office as president.
Several of Netanyahu’s American supporters with deep pockets are also financially backing contenders for the GOP nomination (although not necessarily the same one). Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson has sunk $5 million into a pro-Gingrich SuperPAC. It’s not yet clear who the members of the Falic family (the owners of Duty Free America who have provided half of all of Netanyahu’s funding for his next re-election campaign) are favoring for US president in 2012, but since they contributed to the McCain/Palin presidential campaign in 2008, it’s unlikely to be Obama. Still others may be choosing to support GOP contenders for the presidency through PACs and SuperPACs.
From the US domestic-politics perspective, delaying Austere Challenge until “the second half of the year” means putting it off until a Republican candidate for president has been agreed upon, and perhaps just before (or more diabolically, after) the 2012 presidential election. At that point, Obama may not be able to gain much, if any, political traction from the joint maneuvers with Israel. On the contrary. Obama’s critics on the right will complain that the unprecedented size and scale of the maneuvers is “too little, too late” to qualify as heartfelt support for Israel, and deride the military drills as a desperate, over-the-top stunt to woo Jewish and pro-Israel voters just before the election. The claim will no doubt be made that it was indeed the US that initiated the postponement and forced Israel to go along, turning Jim’s arguments on their head and using them against Obama.
Progressives will be appalled at Obama’s pandering to Israel, and be reminded of their disappointment with the presidential candidate they voted for in 2008, who had promised to reach out to the Arab world and Iran. Ron Paul isolationists, either licking their wounds at their disenfranchisement or licking their chops as they prepare to support him as a third party alternative to both Obama and Romney, will be able to point with glee to Israeli control of US foreign policy and its influence in military affairs.
Punishing Obama for not enforcing the sanctions against Iran. “Although Washington has ratcheted up pressure on Iran of late with a combination of more aggressive statements, an initiative to increase international sanctions and what appears to be an approaching clash over Iran ‘s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, Jerusalem is not satisfied,” write Avi Isaacharoff and Amos Harel in Haaretz. Israeli politicians are charging that Obama hasn’t fully enforced the sanctions against Iran because he wants to avoid the domestic political repercussions of the price of petroleum skyrocketing just before the election. Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon complained to Israel Radio Sunday (Jan. 15) that “In the United States, the Senate passed a resolution by a majority of 100-to-one to impose these sanctions, and in the U.S. administration there is hesitation for fear of oil prices rising.” (The right wing blog Israel Insider immediately claimed that Obama had abruptly canceled the joint drills on Sunday “in a fit of pique” in retaliation against Ya’alon’s criticism.)
Postponement of the maneuvers until Israel is actually ready to attack Iran later in the year. Amos Harel of Haaretz notes that “…putting off the joint exercises until the second half of the year actually fits into a scenario that has Israel attacking Iran in that time framework.” With US forces in Israel engaged in military exercises, it would be impossible for Washington to do anything other than fully back Israel when Iran responded to a military strike. Defense Minister Ehud Barak (who, according to Laura Rozen’s sources, requested the postponement of the U.S.-Israel drill) told CNN in an interview last November that the window during which an effective strike against Iran ‘s nuclear facilities is possible would close in about one year. Harel points out that “a massive U.S. military presence in Israel, especially advanced antimissile air defenses, would be very useful in protecting Israel in the event of an Iranian counterattack.” This would also seem to support the concerns expressed by Rozen’s Pentagon sources about Israel’s determination to attack Iran, with or without US approval.
None of these counter Jim’s reasoning as to why the US should have asked to delay or cancel Austere Challenge. Unfortunately, the weight of evidence appears to be that it is the Israelis who, for their own purposes, postponed the military drills. Helpless, the Obama administration is now trapped in a lose-lose situation, with Israeli politicians doing everything possible to sabotage Obama’s re-election bid while undercutting any movement he might be tempted to make to ease tensions with Iran.
UPDATE: (h/t to Laura Rozen): Jeffrey Goldberg has just posted a piece for the Atlantic headlined Pentagon: Israeli-US Missile Exercise Postponed at Israel’s Request. He cites as Barak’s justification for taking the drill “off the calendar” on account of the Israelis’ concern that “they did not have the resources in place to carry it out effectively”–in other words, budget cuts in Israel, as reported by Ron Kampeas of JTA. [Contra Kampeas and Goldberg, who is reviving the original “official” explanation for Israel’s acquiescence to the delay, Israel’s Defense Ministry has explicitly stated that budgetary concerns were not the reason for the delay, according to Haaretz.]