Former Israel Defense Force Chief of Staff Dan Halutz is being shepherded around the United States to talk about the international crisis with Iran. The anti-Netanyahu group J Street is promoting Halutz as critical of Israeli policy and supportive of their position of opposing military action.
But at the first two talks given by Halutz, one of which was attended by a Jewish Press reporter and the other of which can be can be viewed online, it appears that Halutz’s positions are far more complex and nuanced than J Street and their fellow promoters understand.
What is Halutz saying?
On negotiations: “negotiations have failed”; on diplomacy: “enough Viennese coffee without results”; on sanctions: without the participation of China, Russia and India – all of which have been given exemptions by the US government – the sanctions will take too long to work; and on the issue of “red lines,” the problem isn’t that they are too bellicose, it is that they give the enemy an advantage you don’t want it to have.
On Tuesday, September 11th, Halutz spoke at the Saban Center For Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. On Wednesday evening he spoke at a large suburban Philadelphia Conservative synagogue. Thursday night the former IDF Chief of Staff spoke at a synagogue in West Chester County, New York, and he is scheduled to speak sometime soon to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the coordinating body for local Jewish community relations organizations.
Lt. Gen. Halutz is actually making the argument, in an admittedly very circumspect manner, that it is the international community – that is, everyone besides Israel – which is to blame for the current cataclysm precisely because the actions taken thus far are inadequate and it is that failure which may result in Israel, alone, having to take military action against Iran. And that is a situation no one wants.
According to Halutz, the international response to Iran’s nuclear activity has been inadequate on just about all fronts. With respect to sanctions, there aren’t enough countries participating and there aren’t enough products on the banned list. In particular, without China, Russia and India’s full participation in sanctions – all of which received exemptions from the United States — the impact on the Iranian economy has been too small to encourage the regime to cease its path to nuclear weapons.
Halutz told the Brookings audience that despite some reports to the contrary, the sanctions are not really having an impact on the Iranian economy. “It was just reported,” he said, “that the Iranian currency dropped by 8 percent compared to the dollar.” The Iranians are “not yet convinced that there is a real cost imposed upon them because their leadership has chosen to move forward on a project which is unacceptable to the world.” Unless they are forced to do that, to choose between “bread or nuclear weapons,” the sanctions will not work.
An additional reason sanctions are not working is because not enough products are involved. Halutz explained that there need to be many more products, “thousands of them” placed on the sanctions list. He offered two examples. The Iranian airlines and the Iranian shipping lines are still operating in the world and, if they weren’t, the Iranians would be seriously impacted. Right now they aren’t.
In other words, sanctions only work if they cause sharp pain. Right now there’s barely a mild caress.
Halutz believes that diplomatic efforts must continue, but he is contemptuous of the public versions taking place. “Enough Viennese coffees,” he said, referring to the rounds of talks that have already taken place, after each one of which the Iranians have refused to cease their nuclear activities.
However, he was quite supportive of one diplomatic effort that he believes, if only more countries would join in, could be fruitful. The bold shuttering of the Iranian Embassy in Canada by President Stephen Harper is exactly the kind of diplomatic effort that needs to be undertaken, but “others must follow.” Again, as with sanctions, unless many countries – diplomatically important countries – join in, weak diplomatic energy will bear no fruit.
Publicly, J Street repeatedly states that Halutz is against the drawing of “red lines,” that is, the line in the sand beyond which military action against Iran must be taken. This is significant because President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have engaged in a public spat over the US refusal to set red lines. The Israeli government is claiming that without them, it cannot rely on the United States and Israel will have to take action on its own. There are commentators who crow that Halutz’s opposition to red lines reveals a reluctance to use force against Iran, and that it is an explicit criticism of the Israeli prime minister.
It is true that Halutz is definitely against “red lines.” It is not, however, because he thinks it will interfere with continued diplomacy and will make a war with Iran more likely, as J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami, who attended the Wednesday night event, wrote.
Instead, Halutz doesn’t like red lines because he thinks they interfere with effective military strategies. He said, “you want to keep some uncertainty to confuse the other side.” In addition, red lines, if not strictly observed, can signal weakness. When Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000 and from Gaza in 2005, red lines were announced: not one shot across the border. Well, many shots were fired, Israel did not respond, and that failure hurt Israel’s military credibility. In addition, red lines are not helpful because circumstances change, and international crises are fluid situations. Creating artificial and immovable lines only hamper military decision-making.
The clearest illustration of Halutz’s opposition to red lines is what he said near the end of his talk at Brookings, when he quoted Clint Eastwood, whom he referred to as “the famous actor at the Republican National Convention, when you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk. Do not say it, do it.”
In other words, if you have red lines, there is no need to announce it, just take the planned action when those lines are crossed.
Timing of Military Action
A major point of contention for those engaged in the discussion about Iran is the timing of when military action must be taken in order to prevent Iran from acquiring the means to create nuclear weapons. While few suggest that military action should be taken before all other strategies have been attempted, there is still a cavernous gap in understanding when such action should be taken.
Most people agree that Israel’s military action clock is ticking at a faster pace than is the US administration’s military action clock. That is understandable, as Halutz explained, “the risk Israel is taking is higher, Israel is directly threatened.”
What’s more, Halutz offered what could be described as a gun-shy tendency on the part of the US. “I assume, as a human being, that once an organization gave information that led to an operation and the information was found not to be the most accurate, it creates a kind of hesitation for the next time.”
In other words, Halutz suggested that the Obama administration is leery of getting the kind of historic black eye the Bush administration received. “In the US, you have the memory of Saddam with the unconventional weapon, so I assume that they will come and say, there is a green light, the only way the will be sure, is 100 percent, but there is no such thing as 100 percent.” “And in Israel, 100 percent is not needed.”
Military Force as Last, last, last, last option
Still, Halutz has repeatedly stated that “military force is the last, last, last option.” But what does that mean? And can one ever know that something was the last option until one is already past that point?
The tweet sent out from the speech Wednesday night by J Street Local’s national advisory chair and Philadelphia resident Steve Masters, was “Israeli General Danny Halutz: there is still time to confront Iran’s nuclear development – there is no rush.”
But his full statement, which came in response to a question asked at the suburban Philadelphia synagogue was: “I think there is no rush to do it tomorrow, but we are taking a risk, we know what we know, but we don’t know what we don’t know.” He later was more specific: “There is time, it shouldn’t be tomorrow, not next week, maybe not in the next coming months,” but when asked about the announced Iranian elections in June, his response indicated that waiting until that point was not realistic.
So what does Halutz mean when he says that taking military action must be the last option?
That question was put to Halutz by Ken Pollack, Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution. Halutz explained: “Last, last, last has nothing to do with a timetable.” He continued, “it represents the efforts made in each area.” “If, within a week, we finish all the diplomacy efforts successfully, then the sanctions are effective but nothing is achieved, maybe in two weeks we’ll come to the decision.”
But doubling back to how the different strategies interrelate, Halutz explained that there are subparts to the use of force. A useful way to psychologically exercise the use of force option that doesn’t actually require military action against the opponent is through what he called “force projection.”
That is important, and one way to utilize force projection is through joint military exercises. Such joint efforts show the enemy – including the enemy’s allies and the general population – that one side has not only impressive military equipment, but also impressive and intimidating allies backing each other. It shows, he said, “that we mean business, because you can’t convince the Iranians only through diplomacy to come to the table, to negotiate, and agree.”
But misteps also have consequences.
Halutz pointed out that “reducing the volume or size of exercise between the Israeli forces and the American forces is an indication in the wrong direction.” That was a clear reference to a “massive” reduction of US troops sent for a joint exercise with Israel, reported at the end of last month.
Another point J Street pushed is that Prime Minister Netanyahu is very foolish for picking a fight with President Obama over the Iran issue. In fact, in J Street’s view, apparently, Netanyahu is more damaging to Israel than what some perceive of as Obama’s poor treatment of Israel.
Wednesday night a J Street official tweeted, “Dani Halutz: current political fight over Iran policy threatening most impt rel. Israel has – with US.” Halutz did say that Israel’s relationship with the United States is the most important one it has, and, further, that, “we [Israel] need the US more than they need us.”
But when pushed on Tuesday by James Kitfield from National Journal Magazine and Michael Adler of the Wilson Center to comment on the apparent high level of discord between the Israeli and American heads of state, Halutz refused to take the bait.
“The importance of the good relations between the American people and the American Administration to the Israeli people and Israeli Administration is of the highest importance to Israel. Period.” But he refused to place all the blame on the Israeli prime minister. In fact, he said “both sides took part in climbing too high.”
He suggested that “in some areas the relations are excellent, and in some areas, mainly the political level, it suffers from declaration and counter-declaration that are made here and there, some of them are serving the internal politics of each country, some of them are serving the case itself.”
Halutz tried valiantly to make the argument we have all been hearing from Israeli leadership for years. That is, that a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a problem for Israel, it is a problem for the entire Middle East, and for all of western civilization. He emphasized that if Iran achieves its goal it will lead to a race to acquire nuclear weapons for countries throughout the Middle East, starting with Turkey, and Egypt and Saudi Arabia. “No one will leave [Iran] to be a nuclear super power in this region.” That regional instability would have global repercussions.
But the truth is, as Halutz reluctantly admitted, it may be that Israel will have to “go it alone.” Ironically, what may be forcing that result more than any perceived military eagerness on the part of Israel is the international reluctance to take tough intermediate steps now. The unwillingness to impose firm, wide and globally-imposed sanctions, the sugared coffee instead of real teeth diplomacy, and the reduced ability to present a “force projection” may combine to cause exactly what no one wants, and that is the need to move – sooner rather than later – to the “last, last, last, last” option.
If that is the case, Halutz made clear at each talk, “no one should ever underestimate Israel’s capability.”
Lori Lowenthal Marcus
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the U.S. correspondent for The Jewish Press. A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: Lori@JewishPressOnline.com
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