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. Mr. Indyk is weaving a tall tale. Neither the US nor the Israelis had any intention of attacking Iran. Israel was fully briefed on the war simulation results carried out in Jan-Feb 2012. This was a comprehensive and lengthy study. Under all reasonable war scenarios considered in the simulated war games Israel suffered devastating losses. Under one scenario, the chaos in Israel would provide sufficient cover for the Palestinian armed resistance to cause major security havoc on the ground. Mr. Netanyahu has been accused of being a “mad man” at times but in reality we all know he is a very shrewd politician.

    Mr. Indyk is simply attacking the President because Mr. Obama did not bend to the wishes of Mr. Netanyahu – which had little to do with Iran and a lot to do with the Israel’s Arab neighborhood. We should ask Mr. Indyk to come clean and tell us what Israel is really asking the US taxpayers to do!

  2. I agree with Uvi Avneri on this: there won’t be an attack. Israel’s biggest vulnerability is that it simply cannot take losses. The outcome of any strike on Iran; whether by Israel or the US – or by Israeli jets with US markings; is too uncertain with Iranian medium range ballistic missiles targeting Tel Aviv. The Lebanese debacle, against the relatively weak forces of Hezbollah, proved how fickle is Israeli resolve in the face of a courageous foe – the government’s initial 85% public approval rating withered, once people started getting killed, and we all know the humiliating outcome.

    Iran is just too capable of hitting back. Even with the dubious security of Iron Dome, planners have to prepare for civilian losses in excess of a thousand. Unsustainable politically.

  3. I disagree with most of the above assessments. Israel does not have the luxury of writing off Iran’s belligerence as merely shrill rhetoric. They have little to no strategic depth, an Alamo complex rightly assumed from sixty years of war and the historical trauma of the Holocaust. No, they can’t accept heavy losses. They also, however, can’t accept existental threats. It’s not about politics or belaying dealing with the Palestinians. The Mossad was wrong about the Yom Kippur war.Peres voted NOT to attack Osirak in ’81. Their opposition to this potential strike has little bearing on what will happen. Look for a strike, with careful cost-benefit considerations weighed in, to happen very soon, IMO.

  4. The Jewish community in the United States has had quite enough of Bendyamind Netanscrewyou. There will be no attack on Iran. Intelligent Jews will not allow it. He will not survive his shame. There will be an end to this fascist and messianic Prime Minister in 2013 as he will resign due to criminal indictment for corruption…
    already in progress … the same story as most of Israel’s leadership over the past 10 years. Bendyamind Netanscrewyou overplayed his cards and his game of brinksmanship is a lost bet. History will slowly simmer him with the rest of the Neocon nutjobs. Obama will be win the election and take the gloves off against the Israeli right wing in his second term for being so blatantly brutal, arrogant, and ignorant. Israel’s percieved position of power within the United States Foreign Policy establishment is an illusion. The movement away from Israeli and American right wing strategies has already been decided. The awakening is here and now.

  5. Interesting discussion in both article and comments…I have reached the following conclusions :It is obvious that both the US and Israeli intelligence services have found clandestine nuclear facilities elsewhere in Iran , the presence of which are unknown to the IAEA (which regularly monitors all the other Iranian sites..). Also clear judging by the frequent , casual talk in the mass media about striking nuclear facilities of any nature, is that there is absolutely no possibility whatsoever of nuclear contamination / fallout , either from the bombed facilities, or by use of weapons containing depleted uranium, leaving the immediate vicinity of the attacked site , and spreading out killing thousands …and that the fallout will simply stay neatly within Iranian borders and not spread to Gulf Arab countries or to others in the north such as Azerbijan and Armenia.. No possibility of Israel itself getting a whiff of the fallout / contamination…On another note , depleted uranium ,used in both Gulf wars, and suspected to be the cause of the Gulf War illness suffered by many US war veterans ,plus Hiroshima-type birth defects in Iraq ( and children of the same Gulf War Vets ), was detected in the atmosphere in Britain…The irony is that those pushing the regime change agenda ( which is the real motivation for the concern about Iran) may find that they cause regime change elsewhere in the region ( including Israel),especially if fallout / contamination spreads ..

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