Amir Oren
Haaretz (Analysis)
February 22, 2010 - 1:00am

Toward the end of the visit to Israel last week by the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, a senior officer in his delegation asked an Israeli counterpart to "protect" Mullen's friend. No translator was necessary. The reference was to the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi. The Americans count on him. Not that he would prevent a war over Iran. Rather, he would prevent the start of such a war. For the time being.

This is a busy period in relations between Washington and Jerusalem, and between Washington and Tel Aviv (that is, the defense establishment). Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Ashkenazi are storming Washington and New York in wave after wave. Following trips to Israel by U.S. National Security Advisor James Jones and CIA chief Leon Panetta, and between visits by special envoy George Mitchell (because of whose incompetence will from now on be reinforced by Quartet envoy Tony Blair), Vice President Joe Biden will be coming. Special significance has been ascribed to Mullen's visit, reflecting an American discovery: The United States has discovered the IDF.

Mullen was actually here on two separate missions, one professional and the other involving public diplomacy, with little connection between the two. Behind closed doors, military and intelligence discussions took place over exchanging information and a description of the lessons learned by the IDF. Officials talked about the IDF's outlook and plans to enhance its power amid the kind of threats the Americans are also encountering. Outside, facing the press and further afield the Israeli public, Mullen recited a page full of messages from President Barack Obama and his administration. The Iranian threat is a tough case but not a cause for despair - urgent but not desperately so, serious but not fatal. It's something that must be headed off but not through an attack. And so on and so on.
Mullen distilled his doctrine down to a few lines in his Twitter messages: "Arrived in Israel today for meetings with military leaders. [I am] committed to this relationship and to Israel's security." Against the backdrop of Netanyahu's frightened haste and the low stature of his foreign and defense ministers - one due to criminal allegations and the other due to political weakness - Ashkenazi appears to the White House and Pentagon as an Israeli anchor of moderation and stability.

Despite Hamas' constant provocations, Ashkenazi was in office for almost two years before he launched a military operation of moderate scope in Gaza. Although a different operation in another theater would be complex and fraught with even further risks, it can be assumed that Ashkenazi would not recoil from those challenges either if he believes in the operation's necessity and if other alternatives are worse. He won't sign on such an operation just so Netanyahu can practice in front of a mirror shattered by fragments of Iranian missiles, imitating speeches by Churchill.

Usually in Washington they exalt the supremacy of the civilian leadership informed by broad-based considerations and the pretense of representing the people. The military is suspected of hotheadedness and narrow perspectives. Give them a nuclear bomb and they'll drop it on the enemy. So it is, for example, in Pakistan, or when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warns of Iran's slide to military dictatorship due to the strengthening of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. When it comes to Israel, however, they portray the military command, plagued by commissions of inquiry, as a force of restraint.

The weekly arrival of high-level delegations at Ben-Gurion International Airport also has a practical purpose. Who would be so foolish as to approve a military operation on the eve of an important diplomatic visit or during or immediately after such an event? It would give the appearance that the guest of the prime minister, defense minister or chief of staff coordinated the attack with Israel. And if the attack caught the guest by surprise, he would look like a stooge. A routine like that can be pulled off with Egypt or Turkey, but they are more cautious with the Americans, at least the IDF is, if not Israeli politicians.


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