During the run-up to the confirmations of Secretary of State Kerry and Secretary of Defense Hagel, we and others forcefully challenged the latter over statements he had made about Iran and Israel, and were more favorably inclined toward the former.
How perceptions have changed. To be sure, both are agents of and take direction from President Obama. But because there is always some wiggle room at that level of government, what both gentlemen had to say this past week really turned heads.
Mr. Hagel arrived in Israel on Sunday and from the start was effusive about the importance of solidarity between the United States and Israel. He described a massive U.S. arms deal with Middle East states directly threatened by a nuclear Iran – Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – which Hagel said was “another very clear signal to Iran” that the U.S. is determined to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions. He declared that as a sovereign nation, “Israel will make the decision that Israel must make [about the threat posed by Iran] to protect itself, to defend itself.”
He also said Israel would get the kind of modern weaponry that would allow it to easily maintain its qualitative military edge against enemies in the region: “We are committed to providing Israel with whatever support is necessary for Israel to maintain military superiority over any state or coalition of states and non-state actors.”
But while Israel will be getting the KC-135 military refueling plane – something the Bush administration refused to provide – which would permit Israeli aircraft to reach targets far from its airbases, and missiles that can disable an enemy’s air defense system, both key weapons if Israel were to decide on a unilateral attack on Iran, Israel’s request for so-called bunker buster bombs that could penetrate reinforced concrete and reach deeply buried Iranian nuclear sites was denied.
That would seem to be a clear indicator that the Obama administration still has deep misgivings about Israel possibly going it alone on Iran. And despite Mr. Hagel’s comment that there is no light between the U.S. and Israel over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Dore Gold, a veteran Israeli diplomat and a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s inner circle of advisers, says there is, and it is significant:
It’s about timetable. If you say the goal is to halt Iran in the enrichment [i.e., of bomb-grade uranium] phase, you don’t have much time. If you are waiting for Iran to weaponize [the Obama administration’s position] maybe you can give it another year or more.
Differences over Iran aside, Mr. Hagel’s words to reporters as he made his way to the Middle East were quite a departure from the usual diplomatic jargon:
I’m going to Israel first because it is a nation that has had a very special relationship with the United States. And it is a nation today in a very dangerous, combustible region in the world, that in many ways finds itself isolated. And it’s very important for the people of Israel to know that the United States is committed to their security and that special relationship.
This straightforward and clear “lean” toward Israel cannot but signal Israel’s adversaries that the United States is not about to pressure Israel into making concessions it does not want to make.
But compare Mr. Hagel’s declarations with some of the things Secretary of State Kerry has been saying of late.
For one thing, though he’s been pressing Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan to speed up compliance with the rapprochement between Turkey and Israel brokered by President Obama, he seems so far to have succeeded only in convincing Mr. Erdogan by such frenetic importuning that Turkey has a good degree of leverage respecting Israel’s position on Gaza and Hamas.
Last week Mr. Kerry also offered to pull back U.S. missile defenses in East Asia as a sop to North Korea, saying, “We’re prepared to reach out, but we need the appropriate moment, appropriate circumstances.” Telling the Pyongyang regime that, in effect, its nuclear blackmail is working is hardly a message designed to encourage Iran to restrain its efforts at achieving nuclear capacity.
And Mr. Kerry decided as well to dust off an old Arab League proposal for Middle East peace. It will be recalled that eleven years ago the league floated the idea that Israel should largely meet the Palestinians’ demands and in return Israel essentially would be granted recognition by the Arab world. We would have thought that sensible people were beyond this Alice-in-Wonderland nonsense, but here is an American secretary of state touting unilateralism as a solution and drawing attention away from the real issues of borders, Jerusalem and Jewish population centers in the West Bank.