US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel brought presents for his first trip to Israel, where his nomination earlier this year stirred concern that he would be too soft on Iran and leave Israel vulnerable before its most feared enemy.
A deal finalized yesterday in Tel Aviv will provide Israel with advanced radar systems, missiles designed to take out an enemy’s anti-aircraft defenses, and V-22 Osprey aircraft, which combines the agility of a helicopter with the speed of a plane and has never before been sold outside the US. The deal is tangible proof of the commitment to Israel’s security that President Obama avowed on his trip here last month.
But this is more than a sop to America’s closest ally in the Middle East. It is part of a broader $10 billion regional arms package designed to bolster jittery allies and deter Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons, says Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute’s Military and Security Studies Program.
“Overall, this is an important deal in terms of reassuring our allies, but the most important thing to be done – more than arms sales – is the president establishing good working relationships with all these countries,” says Mr. Eisenstadt, whose career has included stints in Iraq, Israel, and the West Bank. “Because there’s no substitute for the confidence that comes from a good personal relationship … especially in the Middle East.”
In Obama’s first term, Arab allies were unnerved by his abandoning of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after more than three decades of steady US support. Israel, too, was skeptical of Obama’s commitment to its security, especially vis-à-vis Iran. It was no secret that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was rooting for Mitt Romney to defeat Obama.
Last summer, as the US presidential race entered the homestretch, Mr. Netanyahu repeatedly threatened to launch a strike on Iran with or without US help, putting Obama in a difficult position.
To an extent it may have been posturing; many prominent Israelis were opposed to a unilateral attack, sparking an unusually public debate about national security.
However, there are real Israeli fears that Iran’s nuclear program will soon progress beyond the point where Israel has the military capability to stop – or at least stall – suspected weapons development. Israel has not been entirely willing to forgo its opportunity for a strike and put its security wholly in the hands of the US vis-à-vis the threat from Iran, which some Israeli leaders have described as “existential.” The US, with greater military capabilities, can afford to wait longer and see if sanctions succeed at reining in the Islamic Republic.
In the past six months, as both the US and Israel faced national elections, disagreements over if and when to attack Iran have faded from public view. President Obama and Hagel's visits to Israel seem aimed in part at reassuring America's closest ally that the US is committed to its security. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who replaced Ehud Barak in March, is seen as more cautious about launching a unilateral strike on Iran than both his predecessor and his new boss, Netanyahu.
The deal announced this week may bolster Israel’s capabilities to launch an attack against Iran and could also give it a longer time frame for doing so. Better, or at least more, refueling planes will increase its capacity for long-distance missions, and anti-radiation missiles would preserve Israel’s ability to launch an air strike even if Iran obtained more advanced anti-aircraft defense systems.
And the Ospreys could help with missions to Libya and Sudan, which have emerged as origins or stopover points for Iranian shipments of arms to Gaza. Likewise, if the Assad regime were to fall in Syria and Iran had to find new land routes for weapons shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Ospreys would provide additional options for Israel to target such shipments, says Eisenstadt.
Strengthening Israel’s ability to interdict such arms transfers reduces Iran’s ability to use militant groups to launch proxy attacks on Israel, including retaliatory strikes in the event of an Israeli strike on Iran.
The US-Israel deal is not seen as a green light to attack Iran on its own, however. Quite the contrary.
“I think [Hagel] arrived here … to emphasize that the US is expecting Israel not to attack by itself,” says Reuven Pedhazur, an analyst of Israeli security affairs. The message is, “Don’t do anything by yourself.”
But Israel’s mercury is likely to rise if no concrete diplomatic progress is made with Iran. The United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), just announced a fresh round of talks for May 21 in Vienna. But it’s the 10th round in less than 18 months, and the IAEA has yet to secure full access to Iran’s nuclear sites.