Robert Dreyfuss
The Nation
March 17, 2009 - 12:00am

There are very worrying signs about Israel and Iran, amid new threats from Israeli officials that they won't long tolerate Iran's nuclear program before they strike militarily. But, at the same time, there are reports that President Obama's national security team isn't buying the Israeli line that time is running out.

For instance, a top Israeli military official, in Washington, was not exactly given the red carpet treatment by Obama's top officials -- yet even so, he met Jim Jones, Obama's national security adviser, Hillary Clinton, and Dennis Ross.

The Israeli armed forces chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, met yesterday with top US officials in Washington, including General James Jones, the national security adviser, and Dennis Ross, the State Department's special adviser on "the Gulf and Southwest Asia," and he warned that Israel is preparing for a military strike on Iran. According to Haaretz, the Israeli daily:

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi on Monday said that while Israel was interested in exhausting diplomatic options against Iran's nuclear program, the army must nevertheless prepare itself for a military attack. ...

During a visit to Washington, D.C., Ashkenazi met with Dennis Ross, the designated U.S. envoy to the Persian Gulf, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to discuss the Iranian issue. The IDF chief told Ross that Israel would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. He said that a diplomatic approach to Iran's contentious nuclear program must be taken first, but said Israel must also prepare for other possibilities.

It's interesting that he met Ross, the hawkish former official of the pro-Israel thinktank, the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, who's taken over the Iran file at the State Department.

Meanwhile, the still-in-formation government of Bibi Netanyahu, Israel's uber-hawk, has made some important appointments that relate to Iran, too.

First, Netanyahu has reached an agreement with Avigdor Lieberman, the far-right, anti-Arab hardliner, who will become Israel's foreign minister. According to the Jerusalem Post, which obtained a copy of the Netanyahu-Lieberman agreement, Lieberman will be given a big stake in Israel's Iran policy:

The coalition agreement that the Likud signed with Israel Beiteinu at 1 a.m. on Monday not only makes party leader Avigdor Lieberman foreign minister, it also puts him in charge of Israel's strategic dialogue with the United States on issues such as Iran, according to a draft of the deal obtained by the Jerusalem Post.

The joint American-Israel strategic dialogue committee is where key decisions are made regarding both countries' policies toward the emerging nuclear threat, and on other key strategic issues in meetings twice a year.

The committee's work is so sensitive that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appointed Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of General Staff, to head Israel's delegation rather than Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, because she is a novice on military matters.

Notably, Lieberman was given the post of "minister of strategic affairs" in 2006 by Prime Minister Olmert, in which he had responsibility chiefly for the question of the Iranian threat to Israel. At the time, an official of the Labor Party, Ophir Paz-Pines, citing Lieberman's radical views on Iran, said: "A minister of strategic affairs is a joke. Lieberman is himself a strategic threat."

The second important appointment is that of Uzi Arad, who will become Netanyahu's national security adviser. Arad, a long-time member of the Mossad, Israel's spy agency, was also mixed up in the spy scandal that involved two former officials of the American Israel Public Affairs Committe, Steve Rosen and Keith Weissman, and a Pentagon official, Larry Franklin. (Rosen, who was charged with leaking classified information in the scandal, is the blogger who led the onslaught that killed the appointment of Chas Freeman to head the National Intelligence Council.) The center of that scandal involving Franklin's alleged passing of secret US plans about Iran to officials from AIPAC and the Israeli embassy.

According to the Washington Times, for the past two years the US government has barred Arad from entering the United States, citing the "espionage and sabotage" provisions of the immigration laws. Reports Eli Lake:

Uzi Arad, who is expected to serve as national security adviser in the next Israeli government, has been barred from entering the United States for nearly two years on the grounds that he is an intelligence risk.

Mr. Arad, a former member and director of intelligence for the Mossad, Israel's spy service, is mentioned in the indictment of Lawrence Franklin, a former Pentagon analyst who pleaded guilty in 2005 to providing classified information about Iran in a conversation with two employees of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). ...

Mr. Arad was a member of the Mossad spy service from 1975 to 1997. After retiring, he became Mr. Netanyahu's foreign policy adviser. While in the Mossad, Mr. Arad worked mainly on analysis, but he also served as a liaison for intelligence operations with allied services such as the CIA.

According to one report, visiting General Ashkenazi didn't exactly find the welcome mat rolled out for him:

Last year, Israeli Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi had no problem setting up meetings with top officials in the U.S. government.

On his current trip to Washington, Ashkenazi sought to meet the administration of President Barack Obama, but most officials were unavailable.

Diplomatic sources said Ashkenazi failed to obtain access to any Cabinet member, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates. The Israeli military chief, who sought to discuss the Iranian nuclear threat, won't even meet his counterpart, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The administration is sending a very clear message to Israel, and this is we want to talk about Palestine and not Iran," a diplomat who has been following U.S.-Israel relations said.

On March 12, Ashkenazi left for a five-day visit to the United States meant to lobby the Obama administration to abandon the planned U.S. dialogue with Iran. Ashkenazi, scheduled to meet with the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, was expected to have brought new Israeli intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons and missile programs. But the diplomatic sources said the administration made it clear that nobody in a policy-making position was available to sit with Ashkenazi. This included the president, Vice President Joseph Biden, Gates, National Intelligence director Dennis Blair or Mullen.

Ashkenazi has obtained a meeting with National Security Advisor James Jones. But the sources said the meeting would focus on U.S. demands for Israel to ease military restrictions in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. ...

The Israeli chief of staff has also scheduled a session with Dennis Ross, the special adviser on Iran to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. But the sources said Ross was not regarded as being in a policy-making role.

The diplomatic sources said the White House and the senior echelon of the Obama administration have refused a dialogue with Israel on the Iranian threat. They said Ms. Clinton, during her visit to Israel, was largely silent during briefings by Israeli intelligence on Iran's nuclear and missile programs.

The slap at Ross, in the above report, that he is "not regarded as being in a policy-making role." and the report that Clinton "was largely silent" while Israeli officials harangued her about Iran, is a good sign.

If this latter report is true, it means that, so far, Obama and his team are standing strong against Israel's attempts to elevate the Iran problem to the level of a crisis. The real crisis, of course, is not Iran but Israel's refusal to talk seriously about a deal with the Palestinians.


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