During the final U.S. presidential debate, which focused on foreign policy, President Barack Obama mentioned Israel no fewer than 17 times. He reiterated once again the message that he has repeated throughout his presidency: Israel is a true friend and the greatest U.S. ally in the region. He also repeated his commitment to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Some argue that the President’s statements should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that they were made during a close election campaign and that Mr. Obama was intent on wooing both the Jewish and evangelical vote. Now that he has been re-elected, the question becomes: Can Israel take the President at his word and rely on his promises regarding Iran?
A nuclear bomb is not only a threat to Israeli security but also to U.S. national security. Mr. Obama has made this clear and, since taking office in 2009, has consistently warned against the grave ramifications of a nuclear-armed Iran. In an effort to force Iran to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons drive, the President has painstakingly cobbled together an international coalition that has imposed the most crippling sanctions against Iran to date, built up a highly visible U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, developed a regional missile defence system and, according to reports in leading Western media outlets, engaged in covert action aimed at delaying the nuclear program.
Yet, despite sharing the same strategic goal and pool of intelligence on Iran, the U.S. and Israel have developed materially different approaches to the resolution of this crisis. How is it that two countries that agree so wholeheartedly on an issue’s beginning and end points do not agree on what comes between? The differences stem from three areas.
Different traumas: Israel sees the threat posed by Iran, in part, through the prism of the Holocaust. The Iranian regime’s threats to wipe Israel off the map resonate of the propaganda expounded by the Nazi regime. The U.S. trauma, on the other hand, is the highly controversial and costly war in Iraq. Amid its drawn-out war in Afghanistan, the U.S. public and leadership are unlikely to stomach yet another war in a Muslim nation.
Different timetables: Israel maintains that the past decade is proof of diplomacy’s failure to stop Iranian nuclear ambitions. The U.S., however, contends there are indications that diplomacy has begun to influence the regime in Tehran. Whereas Israel’s clock on military action is ticking, the superior operational capabilities of the U.S. military allow it to wait another year or two before these Iranian nuclear sites become “immune” to an American attack. Furthermore, Israel has said it can’t allow Iran the capability to build a nuclear weapon, whereas the U.S. “red line” is an actual Iranian breakout for a weapon. Israel fears that, once Iran achieves this capability, it may be too late to stop any breakout.
Different realities: The U.S. is more than 440 times the size of Israel, with a population that is more than 40 times as large. Washington lies about 10,000 kilometres away from Tehran – well out of Iranian missile range – compared with the roughly 1,500 kilometres between Tehran and Tel Aviv – well within Iranian missile range. The U.S., the world’s only superpower, is armed with an exponentially larger military, has the largest economy in the world, and wields much greater diplomatic clout. These drastically different parameters not only generate different perceptions of the Iranian threat, but also provide the U.S. with significantly more deterrence.
Given these serious differences between the U.S. and Israel, only trust between the leaders can align their strategies to achieve the common goal of preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb. Mr. Obama and whoever will be elected Israeli prime minister in January must work to build the trust between them. Significantly, Israel has not asked the U.S. for a “green light” to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. If necessary, and only as a last resort, Israel can attack alone.
Yet, if Mr. Obama believes there’s still time for diplomacy and sanctions to prevent Iran from being able to break out toward a nuclear weapon, Israel must trust the President and his pre-election commitments. Washington and Jerusalem would do well to work together to generate a new sense of trust.
Major-General (ret.) Amos Yadlin is is Executive Director of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University and former head of military intelligence for the Israel Defence Forces. He will be in Toronto on Nov. 26 to take part in the Munk Debate on Iran’s nuclear ambitions.