Israeli-American relations after AIPAC Summit: Opportunities in 2013 and Iran by Emrah Usta

US President Obama greets board members as he departs after giving a speech at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference (Photo: Reuters)

April 15, 2012, Sunday/ 18:34:00

The annual summit held by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of the most influential lobbying institutions in the US, has attracted attention because of speeches delivered by US President Barak Obama, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In his speech, Netanyahu who addressed the Jewish community in the US said Israel has taken measure of the Iranian nuclear threat, and cannot remain indifferent about its security concerns; his remark calling Iran a “nuclear duck” is interesting.

In addition to strong statements by Netanyahu, various arguments were raised in the summit. One of the arguments stressed that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, it would encourage other countries in the region including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey to develop their own nuclear arsenal, and in case of nuclear proliferation in the region, the world’s most fragile area would turn into a nuclear bomb ready to be detonated. On the other hand, remarks by Netanyahu saying that he would not risk the security of the Israeli state revealed Israel’s true stance on Iran.

But why does Israel send messages indicating an impending war to Iran? Is Israeli security in the region at risk? These are questions that need to be answered. The recent upheaval in the Middle East, popularly known as the Arab Spring, which destroyed the “Camp David” order in the region, has further impacts upon the relations between the states. Israel and Iran are two leading regional powers, which need to redefine their security identities in consideration of their new roles in the region. Remarks made by Obama at the AIPAC Summit meeting such as, “the US will be supporting Israel when it comes to security of the Israelis” did not address all of the Israeli concerns. Even though the US and Israel have a common approach regarding Iranian nuclear ambitions they pursue different policies. The Obama administration, which realizes that Israel is insistent on addressing the Iranian issue through military means, tends to adopt a diplomatic approach due to some realistic reasons. Withdrawal from Iraq and the announced schedule for complete withdrawal from Afghanistan by Obama sends the message that he does not want another war before the presidential elections in Nov. 2012. Obama’s approach has given domestic voters a sense of relief, and it has sent a signal to American allies. Panetta’s statement that Washington prefers diplomatic means to address the Iranian nuclear crisis confirms this.

Panetta, who stressed that pressure on Iran should be increased, added that US military aid to Israel has increased from $2.5 billion in 2009 to $3.1 billion in 2012, and he also recalled that the US pledged to allocate $30 billion in the form of military aid to the Israeli state in a decade. Despite these statements, Israel does not seem to be pleased. Calls for a war by hawkish politicians in both Washington and Tel Aviv force all relevant actors including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the White House to think about this issue. A column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post noted that Panetta said Israel might attack Iran in May or June; this statement has raised tension between the US and Israel. The column, which also noted that Obama warned Israel not to consider such a strike, argued Panetta underlined that Tel Aviv would undertake a military operation in order to prevent Iran from making a nuclear bomb. CNN news has verified the contents of Ignatius’ column with the US authorities. The subsequent developments are pretty interesting. Particularly the statements by Israeli authorities regarding the Iranian nuclear issue raise serious concerns. Yoram Cohen, chief of Israel Security Service, (Shin-Bet), announced that Iran would begin attacking Israeli targets around the world, and in addition, the Iranian religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, in his Friday sermon, strongly criticized US and Israel, which further deteriorated relations between the relevant parties.

Khamanei who recalled that going to war with Iran would be detrimental to American interests also said: “The Zionist Israeli regime is a cancer cell and it must be removed. God willing, it will be indeed. We will be supportive of all who are against the Zionist regime.” This statement raised tensions. On the other hand, remarks by Aaron David Miller in a piece, “Six big lies about how Jerusalem runs Washington,” that appeared in Foreign Policy Magazine could have serious impacts upon the bilateral relations between the US and Israel. In his analysis on the current state of bilateral relations between the US and Israel, Miller makes the following points:

1- The American-Israeli relations are based on mutually agreed values and principles.

2- Obama holds full control over whether a war is necessary against Iran in the election year.

3- Obama is not completely supportive of Israel; like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Obama is just a pro-Israeli president. This analysis means that those who are spending efforts to draft policies in support of Tel Aviv should not raise their expectations.

Will Israel really attack Iran?

Even though the Middle East, where the “Camp David” order has been destroyed by the Arab Spring, is experiencing some difficulties, it appears that Islamic groups are becoming more influential in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. Israeli decision-makers who are concerned about the strong re-emergence of Islamic parties in these countries are attempting to develop political arguments that would seek to preserve the current state of affairs in other countries in the region including Iran.

However, Iran’s insistence to continue its work on its nuclear program despite international sanctions is pushing Israel to the edge. The race between the Republicans and Democrats in the US is being influenced by lobbying groups. In response to AIPAC, which asks for a more hawkish stance from the US, the J Street movement (a pro-Israel group that supports a two state solution) offers an alternative discourse. The Obama administration, on the eve of the upcoming presidential elections, may take action to ensure that this movement becomes more influential. The J Street Group which favors more peaceful policies in the Palestinian-Israeli issue is one of the groups that the Obama administration could rely on to advance diplomatic solutions in respect to the Iranian issue. It is not possible for the Obama administration to be successful in the upcoming elections if it wavers between the two groups. It is also likely that relations between the US and Israel will become more tense after 2013.

In 2013, the US, which is reluctant to take action for a military operation against Iran in 2012, will have to address the stronger Israeli stance and policies. It is certain that Israel, which sees the nuclear capacity of Iran as a threat to its security and national integrity is not satisfied that Washington’s policies see diplomatic negotiations as a necessity.

Israel’s basic concern at this point is that Iran’s existing nuclear policy could advance. For Iran, which will likely become successful in its nuclear program, the Israeli weapons and missile systems will not be harmful to its nuclear arsenal. In addition to the probable repercussions of the Arab Spring, the Israeli predicament is further affected by the democratization efforts and demands in the region. This is one of the reasons why Israel, after losing its allies and friends in the region after the Arab Spring, views Iran as the only enemy.

A probable Israeli-Iran conflict in 2013 can become a turning point for the current policies of the US vis-à-vis Israel. This could dramatically affect Israeli-American relations in the aftermath of 2013. However, the probable attitude of Turkey as a rising star that assumes lead roles in NATO, in a potential Israeli-Iranian conflict is not reviewed or evaluated in the 2013 American policies. Turkey’s growing role is shown by the fact that a possible Israeli attack against Iran in 2013 is as tied to the NATO Anti-missile Sheild System in Kürecik as it is to American elections.

*Emrah Usta is a US foreign policy analyst and a fellow at the Center for American Studies at Süleyman Sah University in İstanbul. He can be followed on Twitter @StrategcAnalyst