Category Archives: Israel





By Tyrus W. Cobb

Colleagues: Speculation is rife that with or without U.S. support, Israel will attack Iranian nuclear facilities, possibly soon. Clearly the Obama administration and the US’s military leadership do not share the Israeli viewpoint, with respect to the extent of the threat, how well sanctions can impact the challenge, and whether a military strike is advisable or workable.

The Israeli Perspective and its Supporters in the U.S.

There seems to be a wide gulf between what the Israelis (and much of the Jewish community in the U.S.) believe with respect to Iran’s nuclear objectives and what professional military officers and defense experts in this country conclude.

Israeli writers dismiss this American caution, charging that these observers simply can’t understand that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would be an “existential threat” to Israel. Many here in the West cannot and do not appreciate what Israelis have confronted for more than 60 years, and what Jews worldwide experienced before that—from the Dreyfus Affair in France to the Holocaust, to a sense of being isolated in a world of autocratic, anti-Semitic Arab and Persian neighbors. They fear once again being caught unprepared in the face of a severe military threat (1973); they tend to perhaps exaggerate adversary intentions and capabilities; they tend to rely on the belief that a preemptive, quick strike (Osirak, 1981; the 1967 war) is a proven path to military success.

Tel Aviv’s fears have been stoked by continuing incendiary statements by Iran’s leaders, including President Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, who advocate the destruction of Israel. Western observers may dismiss these comments as sheer rhetoric; Israel’s leaders take them much more seriously. Thus, as Israeli professor Efriam Inbar concludes, “delaying an Iranian capability by only a few years would be a worthwhile achievement”, and that fears of regional repercussions from any strike on Iran are “exaggerated”.

They have virtually no faith that an outside superpower like the U.S., and certainly not China or Russia, will intervene to effectively halt the Iranian program. Or if Tehran did achieve a nuclear weapons capability, that any outside power—including the U.S.—would do anything about it. Israeli officials also feel that they have shown great patience over the past few years, with little to show for it as the Iranian nuclear program steams ahead.

The leading War Hawk in the Netanyahu administration, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, argues that to allow the Iranian nuclear program to continue would result in Tehran producing such a number of weapons that Israel would be unable to conduct an attack that would permanently cripple the Iranian capability. Barak sees a current “window of vulnerability” for Iran that will close soon as the Iranian program escalates, Iran receives advanced air to surface missiles from China or Russia, and Tehran’s terror networks coalesce. This will provide, in Barak’s words, a “zone of immunity”.

And certainly the leadership in Tehran is doing nothing to dampen those fears. As former DOD official Jack David wrote, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei emphatically proclaimed recently Iran would continue its nuclear program, called Israel a “cancerous threat” that should “be cut”, and threatened to accelerate its global support of terrorism. David worries that a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more aggressive in attacking the U.S., Israel and Arab states like Saudi Arabia, operating behind a nuclear shield. A nuclear Iran, David continues, would “threaten Israel’s very existence”.

This viewpoint reflects the feelings of much of the American Jewish community, which is unusually united in their perspectives on Iran. However, it would be a mistake to think this sense of urgency is driven only by Jews—it is one that many “NeoCons” have espoused and as well as mainstream national security experts such as SEN Lindsey Graham. And, it is important to note, the drumbeat for an attack is propelled just as much by Sunni-dominant Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE.

What are the professionals in the U.S. saying?

Does everyone believe that Tehran is hell-bent to develop and field a nuclear weapons arsenal? There is, actually, wide disagreement about Tehran’s objectives with respect to its nuclear programs. Many very senior officials in the IAEA and here in the U.S. have expressed doubts about the ultimate goal of the Iranian program. For example, General James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), and formerly Secretary Rumsfeld’s key intelligence officer, has testified that he is not certain that Tehran really intends to take its nuclear program to the point of actually producing nuclear weapons! Clapper, sitting alongside CIA Director GEN Dave Petraeus, commented, “We don’t believe they’ve actually made the decision to go ahead with a nuclear weapon”.

Others note that the Iranian program is still under the supervision of IAEA inspectors and Iran has not made any move toward “breaking out” toward the production of weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium. They added that Iran is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and has not violated its norms to date. By contrast, they add, Israel is not a signatory to the NPT and has refused to provide any access to its nuclear facilities to IAEA or any other agency officials. Israel probably has 200+ nuclear weapons, and three means to deliver them, and nothing is controlled by any international treaty. So if Iran does not have a bomb and it is uncertain that they will, and since Iran has never built, tested or weaponized a nuclear device, some ask, who is the “existential threat” to whom?

Regardless of what views one has on Tehran’s intentions, many experts believe that the economic and financial sanctions that have been imposed on Iran, as well as covert actions, have had a very significant impact and caused severe degradation to the Iranian economy. This has weakened the position of the Mullahs and led to internal strife within the government’s top leadership.

The sanctions regime has caused Iran’s currency to plunge, oil is piling up in storage tanks because it cannot find buyers, and there is growing dissension within the top leadership. Thus, some argue, given time, the sanctions will force the Iranians to negotiate or abandon any nuclear weapons programs they may have in mind. This is a viewpoint that many in Israel have also expressed—there is no unanimity that Minister Barak’s demands for a strike are the right course for Tel Aviv (in fact Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu has struck a middle course and encouraged debate on the topic, while seeming to lean closer to Ehud Barak’s position). The former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, has also joined the fray by denouncing the war hysteria that has emerged.

How successful would an Israeli strike likely to be? What would be the repercussions?

Despite these words of caution, many anticipate that an Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities will occur. And maybe this Spring. If so, how successful would such an attack be?

Most experts believe that any conceivable air campaign would at best only delay and damage the program. They point out that Iran has withered the attack by the Stuxnet virus, the assassinations of some of its nuclear scientists, and economic sanctions, and are now installing advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges.

The elements of the program—principally the centrifuges– are being placed deep underground, for example most recently inside a bunker near Qom, one that is too deep for any bunker busting bomb to penetrate.

On the attack scenarios, virtually all experts conclude that an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could do considerable damage, but not halt the program. The strikes would, at best, delay the program’s progress for months or a couple years.

An air campaign would stretch the Israeli air forces capabilities to the maximum. The key targets are located at the furthest range of its fighter-bombers. And the pilots would have to violate the airspace of at least Iraq, if not Jordan, Turley or Saudi Arabia. While it is not militarily a challenge now to fly over Iraq (Iraq does not have any air defense capability to speak of), it would, of course, further drive the Iraqi populace closer to a tighter relationship with Tehran.

American military experts have also pointed out that there is no such thing as a “surgical strike”, but warn that any conflict would involve extensive civilian casualties and be very messy. Former Vice-Chairman of the JCS James Cartwright testified before the Senate that any strike would also “solidify domestic support for the regime”. He also agreed that the only way to prevent Iran from securing a nuclear weapons program was “to occupy the country”.

What would the Iranian response be? Perhaps it would encourage the Hezbollah in Lebanon to launch some of the thousands of rockets it has in the inventory, and push its new partner, Hamas in Gaza, to conduct incursions against Israel. It may take actions to close the vital Hormuz straits, through which flow much of the world’s oil supplies. And sensing that the U.S. is complicit, Iran would certainly send out swarms of its Swift boats against the U.S. Navy presence in the Gulf and likely employ numerous mini-drones to hamper U.S. activities.

Such an attack would at a minimum disrupt global oil markets and lead to a rapid escalation of petroleum prices and a global economic downturn.

What is unknown is what the global repercussions will be? Will this further drive China, and possibly Russia, into greater support for Iran? Would such a strike please the Saudis, or will it cause anger in the Muslim world? These questions also must be addressed.

Will the U.S. Be involved in an Israeli Strike? Should it?

The U.S. may not have any option but to fully support Israel should it decide to strike Iran, especially in an election year.

The United States is “tied up in knots” over the issue, James Zogby points out, because no one wants to appear to be critical of Israel. President Obama and all GOP candidates would feel compelled to support the Israeli position.

The consensus American position would be to continue the sanctions regime and not undertake a military strike. If Iran, in fact, produced a nuclear weapon, the majority would probably advise simply, “OK, live with it”. We have dealt with far worse nuclear threats successfully and we can again since, to use the phrase the Chairman of the JCS, GEN Marty Dempsey, proffered this week, Iran is, at heart, “a rational actor”.

One observer, Fareed Zakaria, writes that America faced a similar situation when the Soviet Union developed its nuclear weapons program, one that was in the hands—from our perspective—of a regime that was “irrational, aggressive and utterly unconcerned with human life”. Zakaria points out that just as many Israelis are advocating for preemptive strikes against Iran, so did many in the U.S. call for launching a decapitating “first strike” against Moscow in the late 1940s. Wisely, he concludes, cooler and more sober heads prevailed, and in the end, “the global revolutionaries in Moscow, the mad autocrats in Pyongyang and the terrorist-supporting military in Pakistan have all been deterred by mutual fears of destruction”. Why, he asks, would be believe that an Iranian regime would launch such an irrational attack. For example, he points out that while there have been suicide bombers from virtually all countries in the Mideast, there have been none from Iran.

Defense analyst Thomas M.P. Barnett argues that if “Iran will get the bomb we would be better off accepting that”. But he concludes that Israeli pressure, sympathetic and powerful domestic groups in the U.S., and the course of the Presidential election means that war with Iran is inevitable and we’d better plan for it. America will be drawn in regardless of its preferred stance.

Barnett predicts that Iran will respond with asymmetrical warfare tactics, in addition to the steps listed above. Iran would step up its global terrorist attacks, this time against the U.S. as well as Israel. “Get ready for IEDs on I-95”, he warned.

In summary, the situation is highly volatile and I do believe that Ehud Barak’s viewpoint will be adopted in Israel. The U.S. will continue to attempt to downplay the threat Iran represents—even a nuclear Iran—but it is doubtful that such words of caution will deter the Israelis. And it is highly likely that the conflict will draw the United States in, reluctantly perhaps, but in.

Tyrus W. Cobb served as Special Assistant to President Reagan for national security affairs and is the CEO of the National Security Forum.


From Arab Spring to the Winter of Discontent

Colleagues: Our October 6 NSF Forum on the disintegration of the Arab Spring and the implications of that for Israeli security could not be more timely. Here are two articles from the New York Times this weekend that survey the deterioration of the rise of popular protests from democracy building to authoritarian and possibly Islamist regimes, the worsening situation from Tel Aviv’s perspective, and, at least in Tom Freidman’s view,

PM Netanyahu’s inability to devise a compromise strategy for coming to grips with the changes. Enjoy!


NYT, September 17, 2011

Tumult of Arab Spring Prompts Worries in Washington


WASHINGTON — While the popular uprisings of the Arab Spring created new opportunities for American diplomacy, the tumult has also presented the United States with challenges — and worst-case scenarios — that would have once been almost unimaginable.

What if the Palestinians’ quest for recognition of a state at the United Nations, despite American pleas otherwise, lands Israel in the International Criminal Court, fuels deeper resentment of the United States, or touches off a new convulsion of violence in the West Bank and Gaza?

Or if Egypt, emerging from decades of autocratic rule under President Hosni Mubarak, responds to anti-Israeli sentiments on the street and abrogates the Camp David peace treaty, a bulwark of Arab-Israeli stability for three decades?

“We’re facing an Arab awakening that nobody could have imagined and few predicted just a few years ago,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a recent interview with reporters and editors of The New York Times. “And it’s sweeping aside a lot of the old preconceptions.”

It may also sweep aside, or at least diminish, American influence in the region. The bold vow on Friday by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, to seek full membership at the United Nations amounted to a public rebuff of weeks of feverish American diplomacy. His vow came on top of a rapid and worrisome deterioration of relations between Egypt and Israel and between Israel and Turkey, the three countries that have been the strongest American allies in the region.

Diplomacy has never been easy in the Middle East, but the recent events have so roiled the region that the United States fears being forced to take sides in diplomatic or, worse, military disputes among its friends. Hypothetical outcomes seem chillingly present. What would happen if Turkey, a NATO ally that the United States is bound by treaty to defend, sent warships to escort ships to Gaza in defiance of Israel’s blockade, as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to do?

Crises like the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador in Turkey, the storming of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo and protests outside the one in Amman, Jordan, have compounded a sense of urgency and forced the Obama administration to reassess some of this country’s fundamental assumptions, and to do so on the fly.

“The region has come unglued,” said Robert Malley, a senior analyst in Washington for the International Crisis Group. “And all the tools the United States has marshaled in the past are no longer as effective.”

The United States, as a global power and permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, still has significant ability to shape events in the region. This was underscored by the flurry of telephone calls that President Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta made to their Egyptian and Israeli counterparts to diffuse tensions after the siege of Israeli Embassy in Cairo this month.

At the same time, the toppling of leaders who preserved a stable, if strained, status quo for decades — Mr. Mubarak, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia — has unleashed powerful and still unpredictable forces that the United States has only begun to grapple with and is likely to be doing so for years.

In the process, diplomats worry, the actions of the United States could even nudge the Arab Spring toward radicalism by angering newly enfranchised citizens of democratic nations.

In the case of Egypt, the administration has promised millions of dollars in aid to support a democratic transition, only to see the military council ruling the country object to how and where it is spent, according to two administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss diplomatic matters. The objection echoed similar ones that came from Mr. Mubarak’s government. The government and the political parties vying for support before new elections there have also intensified anti-American talk. The officials privately warned of the emergence of an outwardly hostile government, dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and remnants of Mr. Mubarak’s party.

The upheaval in Egypt has even raised the prospect that it might break its Camp David peace treaty with Israel, with Egypt’s prime minister, Essam Sharaf, telling a Turkish television channel last week that the deal was “not a sacred thing and is always open to discussion.”

The administration, especially Mrs. Clinton, also spent months trying to mediate between Turkey and Israel over the response to the Israeli military operation last year that killed nine passengers aboard a ship trying to deliver aid to Gaza despite an Israeli embargo — only to see both sides harden their views after a United Nations report on the episode became public.

Unflinching support for Israel has, of course, been a constant of American foreign policy for years, often at the cost of political and diplomatic support elsewhere in the region, but the Obama administration has also sought to improve ties with Turkey after the chill that followed the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Turkey, which aspires to broaden its own influence in the region, has been a crucial if imperfect partner, from the administration’s point of view, in the international response to the fighting in Libya and the diplomatic efforts to isolate Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

The administration deferred to Turkey’s request last month to delay new sanctions on Mr. Assad’s government to give diplomacy another chance.

This month, only days before expelling Israel’s ambassador, Turkey agreed to install an American radar system that is part of a new NATO missile defense system, underscoring its importance to a policy goal of the last two administrations.

Mrs. Clinton, in the interview, expressed hope that the United States would be able to support the democratic aspirations of the Arab uprisings. She also acknowledged the constraints that the administration faced at home, given the country’s budget crisis and Republican calls in Congress to cut foreign aid, especially to the Palestinians and others seen as hostile to Israel.

“It’s a great opportunity for the United States, but we are constrained by budget and to some extent constrained by political obstacles,” she said. “I’m determined that we’re going to do as much as we can within those constraints to deal with the opportunities that I see from Tunisia to Libya and Egypt and beyond.”

The administration has faced criticism from all quarters — that it has not done enough to support Israel or has done too much, that it has supported some Arab uprisings, while remaining silent on the repression in Bahrain. That in itself illustrates how tumultuous the region has become and how the United States has had to scramble to keep up with events that are still unfolding.

“Things are so fluid,” said Robert Danin, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re not driving the train. They’re reacting to the train, and no one knows where the train is going.”


NYT, September 17, 2011

Israel: Adrift at Sea Alone


I’VE never been more worried about Israel’s future. The crumbling of key pillars of Israel’s security — the peace with Egypt, the stability of Syria and the friendship of Turkey and Jordan — coupled with the most diplomatically inept and strategically incompetent government in Israel’s history have put Israel in a very dangerous situation.

This has also left the U.S. government fed up with Israel’s leadership but a hostage to its ineptitude, because the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the U.N., even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.

Israel is not responsible for the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt or for the uprising in Syria or for Turkey’s decision to seek regional leadership by cynically trashing Israel or for the fracturing of the Palestinian national movement between the West Bank and Gaza. What Israel’s prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, is responsible for is failing to put forth a strategy to respond to all of these in a way that protects Israel’s long-term interests.

O.K., Mr. Netanyahu has a strategy: Do nothing vis-à-vis the Palestinians or Turkey that will require him to go against his base, compromise his ideology or antagonize his key coalition partner, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, an extreme right-winger. Then, call on the U.S. to stop Iran’s nuclear program and help Israel out of every pickle, but make sure that President Obama can’t ask for anything in return — like halting Israeli settlements — by mobilizing Republicans in Congress to box in Obama and by encouraging Jewish leaders to suggest that Obama is hostile to Israel and is losing the Jewish vote. And meanwhile, get the Israel lobby to hammer anyone in the administration or Congress who says aloud that maybe Bibi has made some mistakes, not just Barack. There, who says Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t have a strategy?

“The years-long diplomatic effort to integrate Israel as an accepted neighbor in the Middle East collapsed this week, with the expulsion of the Israeli ambassadors from Ankara and Cairo, and the rushed evacuation of the embassy staff from Amman,” wrote Haaretz newspaper’s Aluf Benn. “The region is spewing out the Jewish state, which is increasingly shutting itself off behind fortified walls, under a leadership that refuses any change, movement or reform … Netanyahu demonstrated utter passivity in the face of the dramatic changes in the region, and allowed his rivals to seize the initiative and set the agenda.”

What could Israel have done? The Palestinian Authority, which has made concrete strides in the past five years at building the institutions and security forces of a state in the West Bank — making life there quieter than ever for Israel — finally said to itself: “Our state-building has not prompted Israel to halt settlements or engage in steps to separate, so all we’re doing is sustaining Israel’s occupation. Let’s go to the U.N., get recognized as a state within the 1967 borders and fight Israel that way.” Once this was clear, Israel should have either put out its own peace plan or tried to shape the U.N. diplomacy with its own resolution that reaffirmed the right of both the Palestinian and the Jewish people to a state in historic Palestine and reignited negotiations.

Mr. Netanyahu did neither. Now the U.S. is scrambling to defuse the crisis, so the U.S. does not have to cast a U.N. veto on a Palestinian state, which could be disastrous in an Arab world increasingly moving toward more popular self-rule.

On Turkey, the Obama team and Mr. Netanyahu’s lawyers worked tirelessly these last two months to resolve the crisis stemming from the killing by Israeli commandos of Turkish civilians in the May 2010 Turkish aid flotilla that recklessly tried to land in Gaza. Turkey was demanding an apology. According to an exhaustive article about the talks by the Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea of the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, the two sides agreed that Israel would apologize only for “operational mistakes” and the Turks would agree to not raise legal claims. Bibi then undercut his own lawyers and rejected the deal, out of national pride and fear that Mr. Lieberman would use it against him. So Turkey threw out the Israeli ambassador.

As for Egypt, stability has left the building there and any new Egyptian government is going to be subjected to more populist pressures on Israel. Some of this is unavoidable, but why not have a strategy to minimize it by Israel putting a real peace map on the table?

I have great sympathy for Israel’s strategic dilemma and no illusions about its enemies. But Israel today is giving its friends — and President Obama’s one of them — nothing to defend it with. Israel can fight with everyone or it can choose not to surrender but to blunt these trends with a peace overture that fair-minded people would recognize as serious, and thereby reduce its isolation.

Unfortunately, Israel today does not have a leader or a cabinet for such subtle diplomacy. One can only hope that the Israeli people will recognize this before this government plunges Israel into deeper global isolation and drags America along with it.

President Obama’s Speech and Strains in U.S.-Israeli Relations

Colleagues: President Obama’s speech Thursday ignited a firestorm when he suggested that the 1967 borders (pre 6-day war) should be the basis for negotiations that would lead to a Mid-east peace agreement. That remark came on the eve of PM Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to the White House, which was marked by very candid remarks by both leaders and increased tension between two allies whose relationship had already been strained.

That suggestion–on the 1967 borders–is not exactly new and has been in the mix for some time. However, deciding to insert that premise in this speech was controversial, as well as bold, and badly split the Administration. The leading foreign policy figures, such as Secretary Clinton and Special Envoy Mitchell, as well as many WH/NSC staffers, were strongly in favor of using this language. The opposition was led by veteran Mideast negotiator and current WH senior NSC official, Dennis Ross. Indeed, George Mitchell’s resignation was tied directly to the sense that the U.S. has too long favored Israel and has been too reticent in advocating policies more favorable to the Palestinians/Arabs.

Media reaction has been varied–some applauding the President’s words, some expressing the feeling that it is about time we stopped letting the Israelis lead us around by the nose, and others claiming that Israel “has been thrown under the bus” by this President.

Here are three articles–a comprehensive report and two op-eds forwarding widely differing viewpoints– on the tensions, the border issue, Israeli security and Palestinian statehood (all abridged and highlighted) for your review.. Ty

May 21, 2011, NYT

Obama’s Peace Tack Contrasts With Key Aide, Friend of Israel


WASHINGTON — Five days ago, during a closed-door meeting with a group of Middle East experts, administration officials, and journalists, King Abdullah II of Jordan gave his assessment of how Arabs view the debate within the Obama administration over how far to push Israel on concessions for peace with the Palestinians.

From the State Department, “we get good responses,” the Jordanian king said, according to several people who were in the room. And from the Pentagon, too. “But not from the White House, and we know the reason why is because of Dennis Ross” — President Obama’s chief Middle East adviser.

Mr. Ross, King Abdullah concluded, “is giving wrong advice to the White House.”

By almost all accounts, Dennis B. Ross — Middle East envoy to three presidents, well-known architect of incremental and painstaking diplomacy in the Middle East that eschews game-changing plays — is Israel’s friend in the Obama White House and one of the most influential behind-the-scenes figures in town.

His strategy sometimes contrasts sharply with that of a president who has bold instincts and a willingness to elevate the plight of the Palestinians to a status equal to that of the Israelis.

But now, as the president is embarking on a course that, once again, puts him at odds with Israel’s conservative prime minister, the question is how much of a split the president is willing to make not only with the Israeli leader, but with his own hand-picked Middle East adviser.

The White House would not say where Mr. Ross, 62, stood on the president’s announcement on Thursday that Israel’s pre-1967 borders — adjusted to account for Israeli security needs and Jewish settlements in the West Bank — should form the basis for a negotiated settlement. Mr. Ross did not respond to requests for comment for this article. His friends and associates say he has long believed that peace negotiations will succeed only if the United States closely coordinates its efforts with the Israelis.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel reacted sharply to the president’s proposal, the reality is that the course Mr. Obama outlined Thursday was much more modest than what some of his advisers initially advocated.

George J. Mitchell, who was Mr. Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, backed by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, argued in favor of a comprehensive American proposal that would include borders, security and the fate of Jerusalem and refugees. But Mr. Ross balked, administration officials said, arguing that it was unwise for the United States to look as if it were publicly breaking with Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu and Israel’s backers in the United States view Mr. Ross as a key to holding at bay what they see as pro-Palestinian sympathies expressed by Mr. Mitchell; Mr. Obama’s first national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones; and even the president himself.

Mr. Ross is the most senior member of a coterie of American diplomats who have advised presidents stretching back to Ronald Reagan. Unlike many of his colleagues, Mr. Ross has thrived in Republican and Democratic administrations.

Mr. Ross initially began his tenure in the Obama administration as a senior Iran policy maker at the State Department. But in the summer of 2009, just a few months into his job at State, Mr. Ross moved to the White House, where he kept his Iran portfolio and eventually assumed a broader role that has allowed him to take part in developing Mr. Obama’s response to the upheavals in the Arab world.

His move came as the White House and Mr. Netanyahu were in a standoff over settlement construction. Over time, administration officials say, Mr. Ross took more of a role over Arab-Israeli policy. In September 2009, Mr. Obama abandoned his insistence on a settlement freeze in the face of Israeli recalcitrance.

“If Dennis Ross was in the inner circle in the early days, this administration would not have made that colossal settlements error,” an Israeli sympathizer said. “He would have said, ‘Don’t go there.’ ”

Once at the White House, Mr. Ross became invaluable, administration officials said, because of his close relationship not only with Mr. Netanyahu, but with the Israeli prime minister’s top peace negotiator, Yitzhak Molcho.

Mr. Ross demonstrated his growing influence last October, when the administration was pressing Mr. Netanyahu to agree to a three-month extension of his moratorium on settlement construction. Mr. Netanyahu balked.

So Mr. Ross devised a generous package of incentives for Israel that included 20 American fighter jets, other security guarantees, and an American pledge to oppose United Nations resolutions on Palestinian statehood. Many Middle East analysts expressed surprise that the administration would offer so much to Israel in return for a one-time, 90-day extension of a freeze.

In the end, Mr. Obama abandoned the effort, concluding that even if Mr. Netanyahu persuaded his cabinet to go along with the extension, it was unlikely to produce the kind of progress in talks that the United States hoped for. Direct talks between Mr. Netanyahu and the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, soon petered out, and Mr. Abbas made plans to go to the United Nations in September for a vote on Palestinian statehood.

In April, Mr. Mitchell, who, one Arab official said, often held up the specter of Mr. Ross to the Palestinians as an example of whom they would end up with if he left, sent Mr. Obama a letter of resignation. By some accounts, one reason was his inability to see eye to eye with Mr. Ross.

But, Mr. Obama must now take into account the emerging realities in the Arab world, including a new populism brought by the democratic movement that may make even governments that were not hostile to Israel, like Egypt and Jordan, more insistent on pushing the case of the Palestinians.

“Experience can be helpful, but it can also be an impediment to viewing things in a new way,” one observer said.


May 20, 2011, NYT

Obama Draws the Line


LONDON — On the eve of an election year, with Jewish donors and fund-raisers already restive over his approach to Israel, President Obama made a brave speech telling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “the dream of a Jewish and democratic state cannot be fulfilled with permanent occupation” and urging him to accept Israeli borders at or close to the 1967 lines.

The president got 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Perhaps those words will cost him some of those votes — although sentiment toward Israel among American Jews is slowly shifting. But true friends are critical friends. And the American and Israeli national interest do not lie in the poisonous Israeli-Palestinian status quo.

Netanyahu, who will address the U.S. Congress next week, will certainly attempt in response to go over the president’s head to those restive donors and fund-raisers. He’s Israel’s leader, but knows that a core constituency lies in the United States. He will try to outlast Obama, noting that Republican hopefuls like Mitt Romney are already talking of the president throwing “Israel under the bus.” He will try to kick the can down the road. Process without end favors Israel.

Therein lurks the political fight of the next several months. The best Obama and Netanyahu will ever be able to do is position a fig-leaf of decorum over their differences. The worst poison is distrust. These two men have it aplenty for each other.

Obama, in a first for an American president, has now said the border between Israel and Palestine should be “based on the 1967 lines.” Yes, it should. Netanyahu still talks of “Judea and Samaria,” a lexicon that, true to his Likud party’s platform, does not acknowledge those lines but sees one land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Each leader believes Israel’s long-term security depends on his view prevailing.

A Republican-dominated Congress awaits Netanyahu with open arms. So does the powerful pro-Israel lobby, Aipac. Netanyahu is no less susceptible to adulation than the average man. These are not backdrops that encourage tough choices. But he must make them or watch Israel’s isolation and instability grow.

Does Netanyahu, with democratic change and movement coursing through the region, have it in him to move beyond short-term tactics to a strategy for his nation that ushers it from its siege mentality? I doubt it. I do know he will be judged a failure if he refuses, now, to make a good-faith effort to see if Israel’s security can be squared with Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza. That involves revealing Israel’s hand on borders with the same frankness the president has just shown.

As Obama noted, occupation is “humiliation.” It was humiliation as experienced by a young Tunisian fruit vendor that sparked the unfurling of the Arab Spring. There is no reason to believe this quest for dignity and self-governance will stop at Palestine’s door or that Israel’s quest for security can be sustained by walls alone.

Arabs by the tens of millions have been overcoming the paralysis of fear. It is past time for Israel to do the same. A specter — Iran, Hamas, delegitimization campaigns — can always be summoned to dismiss peace. These threats exist. But I believe the most corrosive is Israeli dominion over another people. That’s the low road.

Obama got it right. The essential trade-off is Israeli security for Palestinian sovereignty. Each side must convince the other that peace will provide it.

Israeli security begins with a reconciled Fatah and Hamas committing irrevocably to nonviolence, with Palestinian acquiescence to a nonmilitarized state, and with Palestinian acceptance that a two-state peace ends all territorial claims. Palestinian sovereignty begins with what Obama called “the full and phased withdrawal of Israeli security forces” — including from the Jordan River border area — and with the removal of all settlements not on land covered by “mutually agreed swaps.”

This is difficult but doable. The 1967 lines are not “indefensible,” as Netanyahu declared in his immediate response to Obama’s speech. What is “indefensible” over time for Israel is colonizing another people. That process has continued with settlements expanding in defiance of Obama’s urging. The president was therefore right to pull back from President George W. Bush’s acceptance of “already existing major Israeli population centers” beyond the 1967 lines.

Palestinians have been making ominous wrong moves. The unilateralist temptation embodied in the quest for recognition of statehood at the United Nations in September must be resisted: It represents a return to useless symbolism and the narrative of victimhood. Such recognition — and of course the United States would not give it — would not change a single fact on the ground or improve the lot of Palestinians.

What has improved their lot is the patient institution-building of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on the West Bank, his embrace of nonviolence, and his refusal to allow the grievances of the past to halt the building of a future. To all of this Netanyahu has offered only the old refrain: Israel has no partner with which to build peace.

It does — if it would only see and reinforce that partner. Beyond siege lies someone.

You can follow Roger Cohen on Twitter at .


Obama Throws Israel to the Dogs

Posted By Robert Spencer On May 20, 2011 @ 12:50 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 147 Comments

America is on the verge of abandoning its most reliable ally in the Middle East, thanks to Barack Hussein Obama.

He began his betrayal with lip service to Israel’s concerns about defending itself from the relentless jihad that has been waged against it throughout the sixty-three years of its lifetime as a sovereign state: “For the Palestinians, efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure. Symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won’t create an independent state. Palestinian leaders will not achieve peace or prosperity if Hamas insists on a path of terror and rejection. And Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist.”

Yet after saying that “Palestinians will never realize their independence by denying the right of Israel to exist,” Obama called for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Yet neither Hamas nor Fatah have acknowledged Israel’s right to exist, and Obama did not make that acknowledgment a condition of the establishment of a Palestinian state. He was merely making an observation, akin to something like: “You’ll never get a good job by sleeping in the sun all day” – more on the order of a polite request, a mild nag, rather than a firm condition.

Obama also called for “two states,” explaining that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”

It was widely reported Thursday evening that Obama was calling for a return to the 1967 borders, but this is not the case. He actually called for the creation of a “sovereign and contiguous state” for the Palestinian Arabs, and said that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines.” Thus he wasn’t calling for a return to the 1967 lines, but new borders “based on the 1967 lines.”

There were, however, no 1967 lines in which Palestinian Arab territory was contiguous. For the territory of Palestine to be contiguous, that of Israel will have to be substantially reduced. Israel’s 1967 borders were indefensible, and Obama is calling for Israel to be reduced even further so that a contiguous Palestinian state can be established.

What’s more, Obama specified that the new Palestinian state should have “borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt,” while Israel should have “borders with Palestine.” The implication was that Israel, in Obama’s vision, will border on neither Jordan nor Egypt — only on “Palestine.” Yet currently Israel has substantial borders with both Jordan and Egypt. Obama was implying that his contiguous Palestine would comprise not just Gaza and Judea and Samaria, but large expanses of Israeli territory bordering on those two states.

That would leave a truncated, reduced Israeli rump state, reminiscent of the reduced and defenseless Czechoslovakia that remained after Neville Chamberlain fed the Nazi beast at Munich. And if Obama did not mean that the diminished Israel he envisioned would have no territory bordering on Jordan or Egypt, the establishment of a contiguous Palestinian state including Gaza and the West Bank would cut Israel in two: Palestine’s contiguous territory would come at the expense of Israel’s.

NSF: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict — A Pox on Both Your Houses

Colleagues: I tend to avoid the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in these commentaries, feeling that there isn’t anything new that hasn’t been said before and that both/all sides are so set in their positions that true progress is a chimera.  

In that vein, I think Tom Friedman today in the NYT captures the standoff well and says, in effect, a pox on both your houses.  


NYT, December 11, 2010

Reality Check


The failed attempt by the U.S. to bribe Israel with a $3 billion security assistance package, diplomatic cover and advanced F-35 fighter aircraft — if Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu would simply agree to a 90-day settlements freeze to resume talks with the Palestinians — has been enormously clarifying. It demonstrates just how disconnected from reality both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships have become.

Oil is to Saudi Arabia what unconditional American aid and affection are to Israel — and what unconditional Arab and European aid and affection are to the Palestinians: a hallucinogenic drug that enables them each to think they can defy the laws of history, geography and demography. It is long past time that we stop being their crack dealers. At a time of nearly 10 percent unemployment in America, we have the Israelis and the Palestinians sitting over there with their arms folded, waiting for more U.S. assurances or money to persuade them to do what is manifestly in their own interest: negotiate a two-state deal. Shame on them, and shame us. You can’t want peace more than the parties themselves, and that is exactly where America is today. The people running Israel and Palestine have other priorities. It is time we left them alone to pursue them — and to live with the consequences.

They just don’t get it: we’re not their grandfather’s America anymore. We have bigger problems. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators should take a minute and put the following five words into Google: “budget cuts and fire departments.” Here’s what they’ll find: American city after city — Phoenix, Cincinnati, Austin, Washington, Jacksonville, Sacramento, Philadelphia — all having to cut their fire departments. Then put in these four words: “schools and budget cuts.” One of the top stories listed is from The Christian Science Monitor: “As state and local governments slash spending and federal stimulus dries up, school budget cuts for the next academic year could be the worst in a generation.”

I guarantee you, if someone came to these cities and said, “We have $3 billion we’d like to give to your schools and fire departments if you’ll just do what is manifestly in your own interest,” their only answer would be: “Where do we sign?” And so it should have been with Israel.

Israel, when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not “How much?” It is: “Yes, whatever you want, because you’re our only true friend in the world.”

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, what are you thinking? Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, offered you a great two-state deal, including East Jerusalem — and you let it fritter away. Now, instead of chasing after Obama and telling him you’ll show up for negotiations anywhere under any conditions that the president asks, you’re also setting your own terms. Here’s some free advice: When America goes weak, if you think the Chinese will deliver Israel for you, you’re wrong. I know China well. It will sell you out for a boatload of Israeli software, drones and microchips so fast that your head will spin.

I understand the problem: Israeli and Palestinian leaders cannot end the conflict between each other without having a civil war within their respective communities. Netanyahu would have to take on the settlers and Abbas would have to take on Hamas and the Fatah radicals. Both men have silent majorities that would back them if they did, but neither man feels so uncomfortable with his present situation to risk that civil war inside to make peace outside. There are no Abe Lincolns out there.

What this means, argues the Hebrew University philosopher Moshe Halbertal, is that the window for a two-state solution is rapidly closing. Israel will end up permanently occupying the West Bank with its 2.5 million Palestinians. We will have a one-state solution. Israel will have inside its belly 2.5 million Palestinians without the rights of citizenship, along with 1.5 million Israeli Arabs. “Then the only question will be what will be the nature of this one state — it will either be apartheid or Lebanon,” said Halbertal. “We will be confronted by two horrors.”

The most valuable thing that President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could do now is just get out of the picture — so both leaders and both peoples have an unimpeded view of their horrible future together in one state, if they can’t separate. We must not give them any more excuses, like: “Here comes the secretary of state again. Be patient. Something is happening. We’re working on a deal. We’re close. If only the Americans weren’t so naïve, we were just about to compromise. … Be patient.”

It’s all a fraud. America must get out of the way so Israelis and Palestinians can see clearly, without any obstructions, what reckless choices their leaders are making. Make no mistake, I am for the most active U.S. mediation effort possible to promote peace, but the initiative has to come from them. The Middle East only puts a smile on your face when it starts with them.

Questions on Israel and Iran and thoughtful responses

Colleagues I thought that (COL) Mike Haas developed some excellent questions regarding Iran and the potential for an Israeli strike on Iran, and sent them to (COL/Dr) Dick Hobbs. Dick is the author of “World War IV and Beyond”, a particularly hard hitting treatise on “Islama-fascism” and the threat represented by militant/Jihadist Islam. However, he has been know to be equally hard on Israel and the powerful Israeli lobby. With Mike and Dick’s permission I am sharing these questions and responses with you. Save the date–on October 5 the NSF will welcome the Israeli Consul-General in LA, Mr. Dayan, to our NSF. Ty


Having read your book World War IV and Beyond (noting in particular the exhaustive research supporting the content), I believe it safe to say your credentials on the subject of Iran-Israel relations are beyond dispute.  And thus after reading the alarming article (theme:  an Israeli attack on Iran is inevitable) you shared with us this morning, I’d like to submit to you (AND TO YOU ONLY) a few questions.  I hope you’ll share your answers with the Forum readership but that’s your call to make.  Just for fun I’ll put them in a TRUE/FALSE format to help pin you down:-)

1.  The Obama Administration is resigned to the prospect of Iran possessing a nuclear weapon capability, quite likely while Obama is still in his first term.  TRUE/FALSE

Assume that is true because there really is very little they can do about it.  The sad truth is that there is really very little that any country can do about it.  The technology is widely known and available and any country that is willing to spend the time and money can build nuclear weapons.  They can be delayed by various means (threats, sanctions, espionage, attacks), but if they are willing to persist, they will.

2.  The U.S. has no credible military option to engage Iran–given its current military commitments elsewhere–thus will strive to the extreme to avoid a confrontation in any situation short of a direct Iranian attack on U.S. interests in the Gulf region. TRUE/FALSE

True.  We can bomb them (Victory through Airpower!!), but, first that is aggression (a violation of international law) and second, unless we can totally remove the regime, it would only delay any program and have the disadvantage of uniting the country (and perhaps the entire Muslim world) behind their “sovereign right” to have nukes.  There are enough crazy war hawks who would support a “surgical” strike on Iran, but it is very doubtful any US government would want to take on the opprobrium of destroying much of the infrastructure of Iran with the enormous civilian casualties it would entail.  We do not have the ground troops to do anything useful in Iran.

3.  The use of conventional weapons (by either the U.S. or Israel) in an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities is not a credible option as the damage done would not effectively halt the program for more than the short-term, maybe a couple of years.  TRUE/FALSE

True.  Also true for nuclear weapons unless we destroy the country (see 2).  The Iranians learned from the Israeli attack on Osirak and they have their facilities widely separated (hundreds of miles) and deep underground.  Facilities might be destroyed or damaged, but most of the scientists and technicians would probably survive.

4.  Any attack on Iran by the U.S. and/or Israel would be followed shortly by a full-scale Hezbollah assault on Israel.  TRUE/FALSE

Quite likely true, but that would only be one of many possible responses by Iran.  HezbAllah is present in other places as well, such as Iraq and South America.  There are many American targets – both individuals and installations – worldwide they could hit.  The most critical target is the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran might try to close which would immediately affect the world economy.  US Navy ships in the Persian Gulf would be vulnerable because the Iranians have developed their “swarming tactics” by which their small fast craft can attack our ships.  They have Silkworm missiles secreted in many locations along the Gulf.  US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan would be vulnerable to attacks.  They have told the Arab leaders on the Gulf that if they are attacked, they will strike their oil installations. However, the oil weapon is a two-edged sword for them because they also need to sell their oil.  Rather than attack Arabs, they could call on the entire Muslim world to join them in a Grand Jihad against Israel and the Great Satan.

5.  Israel has the political will for a pre-emptive attack on Iran, even without active U.S. support.  TRUE/FALSE

True, but I would call it the political stupidity rather than political will.  They know that if they attack, the US will be forced to come to their aid.  The US Congress and the media will scream for the US to aid our “ally.

6.  Ahmadinejad’s widely reported threat to ‘wipe Israel off the map’ was in fact misinterpreted by the media, i.e., what he actually said was that time alone would remove Israel in its current form from the map. [Something akin to Reagan’s famous remark that the communism would be consigned ‘to the dustbin of history].  TRUE/FALSE


7.  Even in the event of war with Iran, no U.S. president would/could re-establish the military draft.  TRUE/FALSE

Not sure about this one.  If Iran is attacked, I think we will be in a world war and the nation will have to return to a draft.

8.  UN sanctions to date are significantly altering the behavior of Iran’s ruling mullahs.  TRUE/FALSE

False.  Sanctions are a politician’s way of trying to show the public he is doing something about a problem he has no idea of how to resolve.  There are too many diverse players in this game.  The interests of Russia and China do not coincide with ours.  China needs oil and is not making enemies.  Russia is the major oil country and benefits from anything that disrupts the oil flow and raises the price of oil.

9.  The State of Israel in its current political form would likely survive world condemnation for the economic havoc wrought by a pre-emptive Israeli strike on Iran.  TRUE/FALSE

Probably true.  But if the attack resulted in a very serious weakening of the US, the future of Israel would be dim.  Israel’s future is not good.  If they do not make some serious decisions on Palestine soon, the likelihood of the continuation of the Jewish state will erode quickly.  Demographics will overcome them and force them to choose between being Jewish or being democratic.

10.  A pre-emptive Israeli attack on Iran would send the U.S. economy into a Depression.  TRUE/FALSE

Probably true.  Any attack on Iran will almost absolutely cause a leap in oil prices, which would place severe strain on an already reeling world economy.  The US is not yet out of the current mess and a new blow would likely turn this recession into a depression.


There are some other points to consider.  Iran does not really need nuclear weapons.  They are strictly the trappings of a major power which Iran is and wants to be so recognized by the rest of the world.  They are mainly good for deterrence (against Israel) but of little value for actual war.  They have thoroughly developed their proxy war capability by their years of experience in Lebanon and Iraq and with the Kurds.  They do not envision normal style conventional war; Lebanon taught them that you can defeat a conventional army (Israel) by sophisticated guerrilla warfare.  They developed effective and accurate long and short range missiles, secure communications (fiber optics – no radios that can be monitored), cracked the Israeli codes, evasion by moving in small groups and hiding in the populace (negating reconnaissance by aircraft, drones and satellites), use of car and truck bombs, developed IEDS and later EFPs (explosively formed penetrators that took out Abrams tanks), etc.

Sunni leadership and the Pan Arab movement have failed and Iran sees the opportunity to seize the leadership of the Muslim world.  They have been pragmatic in dealing with Sunnis such as the Kurds in the PKK against Turkey.  Iran is now less theocratic and ideological and more calculating and pragmatic pursuing its foreign policy interests.  This is probably the most important point in that Iran should now be dealt with as another power and should be seen as a player in power politics.

One last point is that much can be accomplished via espionage and special agents.  The Israelis basically killed the Egyptian nuclear and missile program by killing German scientists.  They also killed off many who were working on various programs in Iraq.  Iran has killed off its own internal opponents overseas including Paris.  Probably as much or longer delays could be attained in Iran with similar targeted programs against scientists and technicians and some facilities.  There has evidently been some of this already.  The advantage is deniability and the preclusion of reprisals that overt attacks almost surely would invoke.

Sorry for the long answers, but it is a touchy subject because of the power of the Israel lobby and media in this country and the feeling that Israel is our great “ally” and we must stand beside this small rogue country.  That is why I think Ty should have another NSF session on Iran.