Only two weeks ago, Israel’s chief of staff Lt. Gen. Gaby Ashkenazi, then visiting Washington, was denied interviews with US defense secretary Robert Gates and the chairman of the US chiefs of staff Adm. Mike Mullen. He cut short his visit after seeing national security adviser Gen. James Jones and Iran envoy Dennis Ross, lesser lights in terms of their direct influence on President Barack Obama.
Since then, the US president has decided the snub was ill-judged.
During 2008 and up until his exit from the White House, George W. Bush found Ashkenazi useful for conveying to the former prime minister Ehud Olmert and defense minister Ehud Barak his administration’s strong objections to an Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites. The US effort to hold Israel’s hand brought Mullen and an array of top US generals calling at the chief of staff’s Tel Aviv headquarters almost every ten days in the last months of 2008.
Mullen wanted to keep this effort afloat, but president Obama thought otherwise, which is why Ashkenazi was so coolly received in Washington in mid-March.
However, the inception of Binyamin Netanyahu as prime minister with Barak held over at defense occasioned a spate of declarations which worried the new administration: Netanyahu declared at his swearing-in last Tuesday that if American sanctions and diplomacy fail, Israel will be forced to take action against Iran’s nuclear weapon drive and time was running out.
His words were echoed by Barak.
Obama therefore decided to revive the Ashkenazi track, while he was still abroad at the G20 in London and the NATO summit at Strasbourg, and before visiting Istanbul next week. He feared that Israel might upset his broad strategic applecart which hinges on the co-option of Iran as its primary hinge.
Ashkenazi was therefore invited to Strasbourg to carry some more bad news to his government, i.e. that the Obama administration wants Iran as its key military and intelligence partner for resolving America’s Afghanistan-Pakistan (known now as “Afgpak”) predicament. The shape of this alliance lacks final form; backdoor US-Iranian meetings at various levels are in progress at different venues to determine how far Tehran is willing to go. But the US president has set his course.
The high points of the proposed collaboration were first revealed exclusively by DEBKA-Weekly 390 of March 27 and 391 of April 3.
Its impact was sensed at the NATO summit in Strasbourg.
Aside from UK premier Gordon Brown, NATO leaders by and large refused the US president’s appeal for more troops to fight in Afghanistan. German chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy told Obama there was no point in sending reinforcements to Afghanistan if US troops were on their way out, especially after Washington had opted for an “Iranian solution” for the conflict without reference to Berlin or Paris.
The Obama administration has a bitter pill for Israel to swallow for the sake of progress toward a strategic collaboration with Tehran on Afghanistan and Pakistan. It cuts close to the bone in terms of Israel’s security and international standing:
1. Washington will not brook any unilateral Israeli military action that might upset US-Iranian moves towards cooperation in the Afgpak Arena.
2. Washington will apply all its resources to obstruct such action.
[B]3. It will not be enough for Israel to stand idle as Iran develops a nuclear bomb. The Obama administration also has fish to fry with Taliban and is bent on an urgent breakthrough in Israel-Arab peacemaking for dividends relevant to this arena too.[/B]
Israel can therefore expect to be squeezed hard for sweeping concessions to Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians in order to enhance America’s hand on both these tracks.
4. This will bring Jerusalem’s Arab opponents to the negotiating table with loaded dice and no bar to treating Israel as the weak party.
The tidings Ashkenazi brings back to Jerusalem from Strasbourg will not be news because Israel officials have been aware of the state of play between Obama and Tehran for some weeks. The only question is how Adm. Mullen packaged his briefing: Did he offer the Israeli chief of staff the chance of military coordination with the United States alongside its evolving pact with Iran? Or simply outline the new situation as a take-it or leave-it proposition?
When this development finally percolates through to the Israeli public, opposition leader Tzipi Livni will no doubt use the opportunity to lay it at the door of the Netanyahu-Lieberman administration as the price for backing away from the Annapolis version of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Livni’s efforts to discredit the new government will be internationally popular – but chronologically and factually untenable. The new Obama strategy and its disastrous fallout for Israel took shape while she was still foreign minister and vice premier, for one; and, furthermore, a Palestinian state is clearly defined as the end product of the phased Middle East road map, which the Netanyahu government has formally embraced.
The Annapolis initiative never took off because the ensuing Livni-Olmert talks with Palestinian leaders led nowhere.