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What Israelis Hear When Obama Officials Talk About Iran

Over the weekend I had the privilege of sitting in on the 8th annual Saban Forum, a high-level, Brookings-sponsored dialogue between Israeli and American officials (current and former) along with journalists, intellectuals, and representatives from other countries in the Middle East. The participants discussed many significant topics, including the Arab Spring and its aftermath, the prospects for renewed peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and the state of the relationship between the United States and Israel.

By far the gravest issue, though, was how to proceed in the face of a looming Iranian nuclear threat. I came away from the two days with a dark and disturbing conclusion: There is a gulf between Israel and the United States that could have momentous consequences in 2012. When American officials declare that all options are on the table, most Israelis do not believe them. They have concluded, rather, that when the crunch comes (and everyone thinks it will), the United States will shy away from military force and reconfigure its policy to live with a nuclear-armed Iran. This is an outcome that no Israeli government can tolerate. For Israel, the Palestinian issue is an identity question: What kind of country will Israel be and what kind of life will Israelis lead? But the Iranian issue is an existential question: Will Israel and Israelis survive?

Most of the Forum was conducted under “Chatham House rules,” which prohibit naming or identifying participants. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s opening address was on the record, however. Much of the press coverage has focused on peace talks and on Panetta’s characteristically salty advice: “Just get to the damn table.” But from the Israeli perspective, the real news lay elsewhere.  

In his opening remarks, the Secretary of Defense restated President Obama’s declared position on Iran’s nuclear ambitions that “we have not taken any option off the table.” During the question period, however, he offered a long list of reservations against the military option: Some of the targets are very difficult to get at, and even a successful attack would set back the Iranian program by no more than two years. The Iranian regime, now approaching pariah status, would be able to mobilize renewed support at home and abroad. U.S. interests in the Middle East would be subject to retaliation. The fragile economies of the United States and Europe would be gravely disrupted. And worst of all, the ensuing conflagration could “consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret.” Whatever Panetta’s intention, Israelis heard those remarks as a declaration of his opposition to the use of force against Iran, even if that country was on the verge of producing nuclear weapons. (The administration’s reluctance to go along with sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran—a matter Israelis raised repeatedly during the meeting—only adds to its credibility problem.)

During a break, I button-holed a knowledgeable, highly respected former Israeli official and asked whether he thought that the military option was still on the table for the United States. No, he replied, the United States had shifted to a containment strategy two years ago. Another former official, equally knowledgeable and respected, shook his head in dissent. No, he said, it was one year ago. While I didn’t meet all the Israelis in attendance, I talked with quite a few and didn’t encounter a differing view. And it was not a hard-line group: Supporters of Prime Minister Netanyahu were in a distinct minority in the Israeli delegation, a fact that occasioned humor on both the Israeli and American sides.

Secretary Panetta’s speech was far from the only source of Israeli concern. Just last week, General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave a remarkably frank interview. He said that the United States was convinced that sanctions and diplomatic pressure was the right path to take on Iran, along with “the stated intent not to take any options off the table.” But, he continued, “I’m not sure the Israelis share our assessment of that. And because they don’t and because to them this is an existential threat … it’s fair to say that our expectations are different right now.”

In December of 2009, Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy organized a day-long crisis simulation of an Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear program. (Full disclosure: I was part of the U.S. government team.) At the outset, some participants protested against what they saw as an improbable hypothesis underlying the exercise—namely, that the Israelis would proceed without informing the United States in advance. On the basis of what I heard this weekend, they should consider changing their minds. The more Israel believes that giving the United States advance warning of a strike would trigger American demands to call it off, the less likely it is to provide that warning. When General Dempsey was asked whether he thought Israel would notify the United States in advance of a strike on Iran, he bluntly responded, “I don’t know.”

Of course, Israel’s beliefs about American intentions toward Iran may well be mistaken.  But it is a fact that they hold those beliefs and will continue to do so unless the Obama administration can persuade them that the use of military force remains a live option. 

On November 22 at Brookings, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon delivered a speech designed in part to do just that. Toward the end of a comprehensive assessment of multilateral efforts to impede Iran’s nuclear program, Donilon declared that “Even as the door to diplomacy remains open, we’ll take no option off the table.” And he continued, “Our focus and purpose are clear: Pressure is a means, not an end, and our policy is firm.  We are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and all that flows from that.” 

I asked an Israeli journalist what he made of Donilon’s speech. “Very clear,” he replied, “but not convincing.” As far as I can tell, his judgment echoed the vast majority of Israel’s governing class. I do not claim to understand the intricacies of the relationship between the United States and Israel, and I know nothing about the ongoing private conversations between their senior officials. But one thing is clear: There is a chasm between the message U.S. officials say they’re sending and the message Israeli officials say they’re receiving. And if the two countries continue not to understand each other, the results could be catastrophic.

William Galston is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor at The New Republic.