A Dangerous Postponement in Israel-U.S. Defense Drill

By Jeffrey Goldberg

The U.S. and Israel, for reasons not entirely clear, have postponed a massive joint missile-defense exercise that was meant to convey messages to three different parties: The first, to Iran, was that a missile attack on Israel, presumably in response to an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites, would be semi-futile; the second, to Israel's leaders, was that America would fulfill its promise to help Israel protect itself against Iran, and that Prime Minister Netanyahu should be confident that America was his strategic ally; the third message was to American voters, Jewish and otherwise, who are concerned that President Obama's promise to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is empty of meaning.

According to Israeli sources, Washington told Jerusalem that it was postponing the drill in order to avoid provoking Iran. This was, of course, a defensive drill, but it is plausible to believe that the Iranians would see in this exercise a hardening of Israeli targets immediately inĀ  advance of a strike (possibly, from the Iranian perspective, a joint strike -- the Iranian leadership believing, as it does, that there is no daylight at all between the U.S. and Israel on the question of attacking Iran). The Iranians are already agitated -- apparently trying, through their proxy, Hezbollah, to kill Jews in Thailand; threatening Arabs for even contemplating pumping more oil; supplying their only Middle East ally, Syria, with weapons to kill its own citizens; promising to menace shipping in the Gulf -- the whole menu of Iranian regime offenses. I can see why the Obama Administration might think that postponing this exercise might calm Iranian nerves. But I'm afraid this postponement might also convince the Iranian regime that the U.S. has become spooked by its many threats. (Here is Elliott Abrams on the subject, for those interested.)

One way to dissuade the Iranians from engaging in provocations against the U.S. Navy (or against civilian tankers) in the Gulf would be to appear resolute, especially in the matter of an exercise designed to help an ally protect itself. I've been convinced for a while that the Israelis will relax their posture if they believed that Iran was ringed with effective anti-missile defenses. Shimon Peres, Israel's president, is convinced of that, too. Here is what he told me for my cover story, Point of No Return, on Israel's plans to attack Iran:

One of the few people I spoke with in Israel who seemed to be at least somewhat phlegmatic about Iran's nuclear threat was the country's president, Shimon Peres, the last member of Israel's founding generation still in government. Peres sees the Iranian nuclear program as potentially catastrophic, to be sure. But he advocates the imposition of "moral sanctions" followed by economic sanctions, and then the creation of "an envelope around Iran of anti-missile systems so the missiles of Iran will not be able to fly." When I asked if he believed in a military option, he said, "Why should I declare something like that?" He indicated he was uncomfortable with the idea of unilateral Israeli action and suggested that Israel can afford to recognize its limitations, because he believes, unlike many Israelis, that President Obama will, one way or another, counter the threat of Iran, not on behalf of Israel (though he said he believes Obama would come to Israel's defense if necessary), but because he understands that on the challenge of Iran, the interests of America and Israel (and the West, and Western-allied Arab states) naturally align.

I'm opposed to a strike on Iran, but I'm certainly not opposed to strengthening the anti-missile defenses of America's allies in the Middle East. Faster, please.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/01/a-dangerous-postponement-in-israel-us-defense-drill/251477/