Martin Indyk: Israel “cried wolf”

Having pulled all the stops to avert an Israeli attack against Iran last spring that never happened, has the Obama administration given all that it has to Israel’s hawkish leaders only to learn that it has been played? If so, how might this affect the US response to Israeli warnings that it will attack Iran before the 2012 presidential election?

Martin Indyk, a former US Ambassador to Israel during the Clinton years who now heads foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, is reported by the Sheldon Adelson-owned Israel Hayom to have told Israel Army Radio on August 23 that:

The administration was convinced that Israel was going to attack in the spring. That was the official assessment, everyone ran to battle stations, mobilized, engaged with the Israelis, did whatever they could to calm them down and make it clear that the President [Barack Obama] was absolutely committed to Israel’s security and to ensuring that Iran would not get nuclear weapons. That seemed to work fine. But after that, the administration concluded that Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and Defense Minister [Ehud] Barak were engaged in a complete bluff, and having succeeded in bluffing them, I think they were wary of being bluffed again.

When Obama met with Netanyahu in March, according to Indyk, the president came away convinced that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities was about to occur. He did everything possible to reassure Israel’s leader that the US would do whatever was necessary to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. “Apparently, Israel complied, as no attack has yet taken place,” according to the religious nationalist news site, Arutz Sheva.

A diplomatic success story? Hardly, according to The Jerusalem Post:

After no Israeli strike took place, Indyk said that the US officials felt as though they had been duped by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s ruse. The former ambassador added that there is a sense within the US government that Washington is once again being misled by Israeli declarations and leaks.

It’s not clear whether Indyk is working for or against the President in suggesting that the Obama administration feels it was played by Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Or, by stating that after having been misled about Israel’s intentions, the administration remains committed to preventing Iran from developing  nuclear weapons but views Israel as “the boy who cried wolf” and is therefore taking less seriously the hyperbolic hints that Israel will attack Iran prior to the US election. It’s possible that Indyk’s current message intentionally contrasts with the recent recommendation of fellow Clinton adviser Dennis Ross that Obama try to avert an Israeli military strike on Iran by promising Netanyahu even more armaments and military support.

The author of the Clinton administration’s “dual containment” policy that simultaneously targeted Iran and Iraq (instead of playing the two Persian Gulf powers off against one another as traditional “balance of power ” strategic logic would have suggested), Indyk has served as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East affairs, Special Assistant to the President, and the US National Security Council’s senior director for Near East and South Asia. Bill Clinton appointed Indyk as Ambassador to Israel in 1993. A former Research Director at the American Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Indyk was the founding director of the Washington Institution for Near East Policy (WINEP), an AIPAC-created think tank dedicated to influencing the executive branch on Middle East foreign policy while AIPAC focused on lobbying members of Congress. Indyk is also the founding director of Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy. During the 2008 presidential primaries, Indyk backed Hillary Clinton, but supported Barack Obama when he won the Democratic nomination.

In the past several months, however, Indyk has grown critical of Obama’s foreign policy. As co-author of  Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy (with Michael O’Hanlon and Kenneth Lieberthal) he classified Obama as a pragmatist who opted for reasonable policies — often the least-worst available options — “with an approach typified by thoroughness, reasonably good teamwork, and flexibility when needed”. Indyk told Nahum Barnea of the Hebrew-language Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot in an interview coinciding with the book’s publication that despite the greatness of the vision he presented, “Obama’s  cold, analytical and aloof attitude didn’?t suit the Middle Eastern climate.”

?In a February 29 op-ed in the New York Times, Indyk criticized the “fundamental design flaw” in the Obama administration’s Iran sanctions policy. Indyk warned that “crippling” sanctions designed to “persuade the Israelis that there is a viable alternative to a preventive strike” could backfire as “the Iranians conclude that they have no choice but to press ahead in acquiring the ultimate means of assuring the regime’s survival.” Furthermore, Indyk opined, the constant warnings of Obama’s military advisers about the grave consequences of a military strike by Israel might signal that the US can be counted upon to restrain the Israelis from launching a war against Iran. Indyk also suggested that election year rhetoric might impact Iran’s strategic calculus. The louder Obama insists that that he will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, the more likely it is that that Iran will respond defiantly:

The only way out of the vicious circle is for Khamenei to understand that Obama is not seeking his overthrow — that behind the negotiating door lies a path to Iran’s peaceful use of nuclear power and not a corridor to the gallows. But how, while pursuing sanctions designed to cut Iran’s economic jugular, can Obama credibly signal this to Khamenei without opening himself up to the charge of weakness? Any hint of reassurance to the Iranian regime will surely be seized upon by his Republican rivals as a sign of appeasement.

Yet during an Yediot Aharonot interview at the end of May, Indyk recommended that Israelis be wary of US efforts to negotiate with Iran. “?The Israeli response must be skeptical, regardless of what exactly is agreed upon there,” Indyk said. “?When others are negotiating in your stead, you have every reason to suspect you are being sold out.”

In his latest interview, Indyk’s message seems to be that Obama has nothing left to promise Netanyahu:

Essentially, the U.S. had done everything it could to reassure Israel, the president doesn’t have anything more in his quiver, no other arrow to shoot to reassure it. I think this time around they thought, ‘Here we go again, there’s nothing more we can do we’ll just learn to live with it.

What exactly is Indyk’s game?

Marsha B. Cohen

Marsha B. Cohen is an analyst specializing in Israeli-Iranian relations and US foreign policy towards Iran and Israel. Her articles have been published by PBS/Frontline's Tehran Bureau. IPS, Alternet, Payvand and Global Dialogue. She earned her PhD in International Relations from Florida International University, and her BA in Political Philosophy from Hebrew University in Jerusalem.



  1. I can’t know what Indyk’s game is without knowing what his and Netanyahu’s larger strategic calculus is. First, as former NSC member General Keane has said about Obama: I am convinced Obama has absolutely NO intention to attack Iran pre-emptively under any circumstances after his re-election. So, what is Israel to do under such circumstances? Given that Iran will continue to develop its ability to ‘breakout’ at some point in the future to weaponize its nuclear program, regardless of what ‘negotiations’ might be envisaged now for 2013, and given understandable US reluctance to strike Iran under almost all conceivable conditions, I am of the opinion that, provided enough Knesset cabinet members can be persuaded, that Bibi will strike Ian in the next month, relying on the very reliable US government response to support Israel unconditionally in the run-up to the November elections. Sure the US was played back in the spring. But striking now, at the end of the summer, will show that Israel does NOT bluff, and will also show that in the prior 6 months Israel was bending over backwards to allow sanctions and diplomacy to work as long as possible before Iran began to enter the zone of immunity from an Israeli strike. The strike on Iran will also remove any international attention from the Palestinians and achieve the strategic objective of the right-wing in Israel and AIPAC to solidify Israeli territorial gains in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and, in the subsequent multi-year turmoil in the Middle East, to forever lock in Israeli domination of Greater Israel. So here is the biggest gamble in Israel’s existence. Risk suffering the inevitable surprises and reversals with a strike now on Iran having the massive US military presence in the Persian Gulf hemming in Iran and having the still strong political support from the US because of the Red States and the Christian Zionists’ vigorous backing of right wing Israel…or squander this opportunity, appear weak before Iran’s growing militancy and hegemony in the Middle East, and allow public attention to re-focus on the Palestinian issue as the world concludes that Israel was only bluffing all along. With Peres’ public anti-strike stance in Israel, and all the other opposition, it remains a close call, a 50-50 proposition, but I’m betting that in the final analysis, in the next few weeks with Iran’s military infrastructure a little more deteriorated because of the cumulative effects of the economic sanctions, that Bibi will roll the dice. We’re on a razor’s edge alright.

  2. Indyk has always been a bit vague as to his own agenda. But Netanyahu’s is the real question. So far he has actually proven rather cautious, but this may be the one he defines himself by. The previous commenter set out the calculus to strike well, but not the risks. Israel could suffer huge losses (far more than hundreds) if it gets out of control, Iran and Hezbollah and Syria have spoken of targeting vulnerable sites in Israel that could cause severe damage, and may engage in other forms of ‘revenge’ attacks, and Iran certainly will regardless (Bushehr alone could kill vast numbers slowly). The world economy could stagger into even worse depression, and the blowback for Israel’s image and popularity could be severe as a result. One can see why it has not happened yet, but there is a feeling in the air that this clash that has been building for so long is going to erupt finally, all the chips seem to be lining up, and despite the risks it seems Netanyahu and Barak will not let what they may consider the last chance to pass, unless both within and outside Israel the chorus of opposition is overwhelming.

    It’s been left far too late to be doable without possibly disastrous consequences for all.

  3. Israel bending over backwards to allow the Iranians to grovel and obey their sovereign behest? Plumstead’s amazing formulation shows us how successfully the Zionists have established widespread belief in their “right” to dominate the entire Middle East, not just from the Nile to the Euphrates, and of course the entire Washington establishment….de Gaulle was right in summing up their arrogance and lust for power. Indeed, who can rely on being outside Greater Israel. Appeasement of these two gangster states, the US and Israel, does not work. It would be nice to imagine that the IAEA meeting to consider nuclear weapons in the Middle East will start some pullback from this slavish appeasement…..

  4. Indyk engages in too much sock puppetry to know “What exactly is Indyk’s game?”

    Indyk was research director of during the Joint Israeli Ministry of Economics/AIPAC data theft of classified US confidential business information in the mid-1980s.

    During the investigation, the FBI uncovered allegations that an Israeli intelligence officer was on the staff of AIPAC at the time it was negotiating the duty-free entry of Israeli goods into the US.

    All of the economic propaganda coming out of AIPAC about the trade issue then was attributed “Patricia Blair.”

    Whatever he’s up to, one thing is certain: it is to advance the Israeli government, rather than any American interest.

  5. Marsha Cohen writes”Having pulled all the stops to avert an Israeli attack against Iran last spring that never happened, has the Obama administration given all that it has to Israel’s hawkish leaders only to learn that it has been played? ”
    Pulled out all the stops? The US has many other stops to pull to avert the unprovoked aggression on the part of Israel with which they have been conniving. Even an official inquiry into the unprovoked 1967 attack by Israel on USS Liberty might give the guilty parties – both in Israel and their quisling in the US – pause for thought. But the US has larger weapons than that – much larger weapons, I believe. And not just commercial ones….
    Marsha Cohen’s outrageous assumptions – in effect, that the US must follow Israel’s every policy like a heavily armed lapdog – demonstrates the truth of Cartwright’s comments. The gentile governments are even more disgusting than the likes of Netanyahu and Barak in their false pretence of neutrality

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