As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prepares for his unprecedented Congressional address, his allies in the U.S. are ramping up the hysteria to help him blow up a potential deal to limit the Iranian nuclear program. For the second time in two weeks, Elie Wiesel put his name on full-page newspaper ads, the most recent of which smeared Obama National Security Adviser Susan Rice. While the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is underway in Washington, on Monday Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) will host Wiesel and Michael Jackson celebrity rabbi Shmuely Boteach in an event titled, “The Meaning of Never Again.” And on Sunday, the usual suspects on the right began spreading a story that President Obama threatened to shoot down Israeli jets if the Netanyahu government ordered unilateral strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities.
The story, as first relayed by Arutz Sheva, reported that a “Kuwaiti paper claims unnamed Israeli minister with good ties with the US administration ‘revealed the attack plan to John Kerry.’”
Al-Jarida also reported Sunday that “well placed” sources confirmed an unnamed Israeli minister disclosed the plan to Secretary of State John Kerry, and that Mr. Obama replied by warning that he would foil the plan by shooting down Israeli jets before they could reach their target destinations.
“Netanyahu and his commanders agreed after four nights of deliberations to task the Israeli army’s chief of staff, Benny Gantz, to prepare a qualitative operation against Iran’s nuclear program. In addition, Netanyahu and his ministers decided to do whatever they could do to thwart a possible agreement between Iran and the White House because such an agreement is, allegedly, a threat to Israel’s security,” the report said.
Of course, there’s plenty of reason to be skeptical about tale being spun by those “well-placed” sources and “an unnamed Israeli minister.” For starters, the report claims Netanyahu decided to launch the unilateral attack some time” in 2014 “after Israel discovered the United States and Iran had been in secret talks over Iran’s nuclear program and were about to sign an agreement in that regard behind Israel’s back. But there was nothing secret about those talks that had been in progress for years. More importantly, the notion that the U.S. would shoot down Israeli warplanes just doesn’t pass the smell test. Besides, the Netanyahu government has made it clear for years that Israel would not warn the United States in advance of any attack it might launch on Tehran’s nuclear sites.
Word that Israel would not give Washington a heads-up about a decision to unilaterally hit Iranian nuclear facilities first became public in 2011. That November, U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey acknowledged the differences between Israeli and U.S. expectations over sanctions as well as differences in perspective about the future course of events. As Reuters reported:
Asked directly whether Israel would alert the United States ahead of time if it chose to go forward with military action, Dempsey replied flatly: “I don’t know.”
Dempsey’s revelation came just days after the Netanyahu government refused to give the Obama administration assurances it will first notify the U.S. of its intentions. In an October 2011 meeting with Netanyahu and then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, American Defense Secretary Leon Panetta came away empty handed:
Once all but a handful of trusted staff had left the room, Mr Panetta conveyed an urgent message from Barack Obama. The president, Mr Panetta said, wanted an unshakable guarantee that Israel would not carry out a unilateral military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations without first seeking Washington’s clearance.
The two Israelis were notably evasive in their response, according to sources both in Israel and the United States.
“They did not suggest that military action was being planned or was imminent, but neither did they give any assurances that Israel would first seek Washington’s permission, or even inform the White House in advance that a mission was underway,” one said.
Israeli intransigence continued into the election year of 2012. While Netanyahu made no secret of support for his friend and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, his government again told the White House Israel would not seek Washington’s permission before launching operations against Tehran. As The Independent reported on February 29, 2012:
Relations between Israel and its staunchest ally, the United States, appear increasingly strained after Israeli officials said they would not give Washington any advance warning of a decision to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to US intelligence sources…
Far from allowing Washington a veneer of deniability, however, the claims seem likely to drive a deeper wedge between the two countries at a time of deep frustration in Washington over Israel’s hawkish intentions towards Iran, which many fear could draw the US into a prolonged Middle East war.
Six months later, USA Today warned, “Israel is unlikely to provide much if any advance notice to the United States if it attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities, Middle East experts say.” While most, including President Clinton’s former ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, rightly predicted that Israel would not initiate hostilities before that November’s presidential election, many feared a surprise Israeli strike could catch American assets in the Persian Gulf unprepared and with their guard down:
The assumption is that U.S. warning of an Israeli attack would come “significantly less than an hour” before it began, said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “How much of that would come from Israeli notification and how much would come from sensors we have in the region, I don’t know”…
That puts the United States at a disadvantage. Getting a warning would allow the United States to reposition military and other assets to defend against a counterattack by Iran or its surrogates in the Gulf and around the world, says Michele Dunne, an analyst with the Atlantic Council.
While it’s true the United States received no advance warning about the Israeli bombing of Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 or suspected Syrian facilities in 2007, the Iranian scenario is altogether different. Neither Saddam Hussein (then an American ally) nor Bashar Al-Assad posed a serious threat of military retaliation to the one-off Israeli strikes. Crippling Tehran’s nuclear capability would require a sustained military campaign that, short of total invasion and occupation, would only temporarily delay the Iranian program. And the danger from an Iranian response is quantitatively and qualitatively of a different magnitude.
At a minimum, thousands of Iranian civilians would die in an American attack against Tehran’s nuclear installations. Even if the Israelis alone launch a strike against Iran’s nuclear sites, Tehran will almost certainly hit back against U.S. targets in Iraq, in the Straits of Hormuz, throughout out the region, possibly in Europe and even potentially in the American homeland. And Israel would face certain retaliation from Hezbollah rockets launched from Lebanon and Hamas missiles raining down from Gaza.
To be sure, a unilateral, surprise Israeli assault on Iran would not be in the national security interests of the United States. But anonymous Kuwaiti and Israeli sources hardly make the case that President Obama would order IAF warplanes shot out of the sky over Iraq. But judging from the hysteria in right-wing media here and in Israel, it’s more than enough evidence for the water carriers of the Republican Party.
UPDATE: In an interview Sunday (covered in Arutz Sheva and The Times of Israel), former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz announced he was never given an order to launch strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, attacks he said he opposed at the time.