Israel will use President Obama’s visit on Wednesday to try to persuade the US to carry out air strikes on Syrian missiles if there is evidence that they are being to handed over to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or at least to give full support to Israeli military action to stop the transfer.
On this week’s trip to Israel and the West Bank, Obama will also come under Israeli pressure to lower the US threshold for military action against Iran, while the US president will try to extract greater Israeli commitment to a peace process with the Palestinians. Neither side is likely to be successful, leaving Syria as the most promising arena for US-Israeli agreement.
The Obama administration has made clear that it would intervene militarily to stop the Assad regime using its chemical or biological weapons or transferring them to extremist groups, but Israeli officials say they feel they have been left alone to deal with the threat of the spread of Syria’s arsenal of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.
Israeli warplanes destroyed a Syrian convoy at the end of January that Israeli officials say was taking sophisticated Russian-made ground-to-air missiles to Hezbollah. The government of Binyamin Netanyahu has made clear that it would strike again in similar circumstances. A senior official said: “Maybe it would be better if Israel doesn’t do it, but who is going to deal with it?”
“These missiles are not just a problem for Israel,” the official added. “They include [anti-ship] missiles, and who has the biggest navy in the Mediterranean?” – a reference to the US. Israeli military and government officials concede that it is unlikely that they will be able to persuade Washington to take such military action in Syria unless chemical weapons are involved. But they want to use Obama’s scheduled five hours of talks with Netanyahu on Wednesday evening to secure a guarantee of US support for further Israeli pre-emptive strikes, even if they risk sparking a new cross-border conflict with Hezbollah.
“What I hear over and over again from Israeli generals is that another war with Hezbollah is inevitable,” a western diplomat said, pointing to estimates that the Shia militia has as many as 60,000 missiles hidden in southern Lebanese villages. He said neither side had anything to gain from a new conflict now, but he added: “It is easy to envisage peace breaking down along the border, almost by accident, along the lines of the first world war.”
Netanyahu’s office concedes that it is likely to have more success in securing US support over Syrian missiles than in persuading Obama to share the Iraeli prime minister’s position on Iran.
There have been intensive exchanges between the Israeli and US government in the run-up to the Obama visit in an attempt to narrow the divide between their Iran policies. Obama has pledged not to allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon, and US officials say they will know when the Tehran regime takes the decision to make a bomb, and starts to assemble one.
Israeli officials say it is impossible to be so certain, and want the US and Israel to draw a joint red line that prevents Iran having even the capacity to build a warhead. Last September, Netanyahu used an address to the UN General Assembly to laid down one such red line, literally drawing on a cartoon bomb. Israeli officials later explained it corresponded to Iran accumulating about 240kg of medium-enriched uranium, enough to make one warhead if further enriched to weapons-grade.
Iran’s stockpile is currently about 170kg. It continues to make more, but at the same time it is converting some of it to powdered reactor fuel, which is less of a proliferation concern, and Iranian officials have signalled that conversion process may be stepped up, further reducing the controversial stockpile.
“The sense we get is that Iran will not go over that red line because they know the Israelis will act,” a western diplomat said. But the Netanyahu government now wants the US to sign on to a more complex set of red lines to limit Iranian bomb-making capacity, which would trigger action in the event of substantial progress towards making plutonium, or an expansion of the uranium-enriching capacity to the point where Iran could make enough weapons-grade material for a warhead so quickly that it could be done between UN inspections.
The Americans have so far made it clear they would not * commit to trigger points for military action, other than repeating their insistence that Iran would not be permitted to make a weapon.
Obama last week told an Israel interviewer it would take Iran a year to make a bomb, much longer than the Israeli government estimates, and Daniel Shapiro, the US ambassador to Israel, said the issue looked less urgent from Washington than it did from Tel Aviv.
“We have a different perspective on the time available. Israel is small and has certain capabiities. The United States is big, far away and has other capabilities,” Shapiro told the Herzliya Conference, a gathering of Israeli security officials and analysts. But he added: “We are going to stay coordinated. I don’t think there are massively different principles. There has been a rigorous exchange by experts on this issue.”
Dov Zakheim, a former US under-secretary of defence, gave blunter expression to US irritation at Israeli pressure to take military action. “Our timetable and the Israel timetable aren’t entirely congruent, but the the United States does not want to have to react to Israeli military action. We don’t want the tail wagging the dog, and with all due respect to Israel, we’re still the dog,” Zakheim told the same conference.
A senior Israeli official conceded that Netanyahu might not manage to bring Obama around to the Israeli point of view.
“Ideally we will come out of this on the same page, but we are aware that might not happen. But maybe we can come out of this with assessments that are closer to each other,” the official said.
With an itinerary that is long on sightseeing and with an address to students at a Jerusalem convention hall at its centerpiece, Obama is expected to use the trip to reassure the Israeli public of his commitment to their security in the hope of persuading them to be more patient over Iran and to support bolder steps to restart the comatose peace process with the Palestinians.
The White House insists Obama is not coming to the region with a peace plan in his pocket, but he and his secretary of state, John Kerry, will explore the possibility of mutual confidence-building measures that could pave the way to resume serious talks aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state.
Such measures could include a partial freeze on Israeli settlement-building and some prisoner releases, in return perhaps for Palestinian guarantees not to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for human rights violations.
Although the president has been reluctant to invest political diplomatic capital in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Kerry is pushing for an new US-backed initiative, and Americans officials say that he has been promised limited presidential backing.
“The Palestian issue is a second-term presidential issue,” Zakheim said. “Quite frankly, you have a president who doesn’t have to run for office again and an Israeli prime minister who is not as strong as he was before. That gives the president a lot of leverage. If Obama does succumb to the temptation of a second-term president, the constellation of forces is quite good.”