US expected to resist Israeli pressure to attack Iran, while Tel Aviv unlikely to yield on Palestine, leaving Syria a common goal.
Israel will use President Obama’s visit on Wednesday to try to persuade the US to carry out air strikes on Syria if there is evidence that Syrian missiles are to be handed over to Hezbollah in Lebanon, or at least to give full support to Israeli military action to prevent the transfer.
On this week’s trip to Israel and the West Bank, Obama will also come under Israeli pressure to lower the US threshold for military action against Iran, while the US president will try for an Israeli commitment to a peace process with the Palestinians. Neither side is likely to be successful, leaving Syria as the most promising arena for agreement.
The Obama administration has made clear that it would intervene militarily only to stop the Assad regime using its chemical or biological weapons or transferring them to extremist groups. Israeli officials say they feel they have been left alone to deal with the spread of Syria’s arsenal of anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles.
Israeli warplanes destroyed a Syrian convoy at the end of January which Israeli officials say was taking Russian-made ground-to-air missiles to Hezbollah. Binyamin Netanyahu‘s government has made clear that it would strike again in similar circumstances. A senior official said: “Maybe it would be better if Israel doesn’t do it, but who is going to deal with it?
“These missiles are not just a problem for Israel,” the official added. “They include [anti-ship] missiles, and who has the biggest navy in the Mediterranean?” – a reference to the US. Israeli military and government officials concede that it is unlikely that they will be able to persuade Washington to take military action in Syria unless chemical weapons are involved.
But they want to use Obama’s scheduled five hours of talks with Netanyahu on Wednesday evening to secure a guarantee of US support for more pre-emptive Israeli strikes, even if they risk provoking a cross-border conflict with Hezbollah. “What I hear over and over again from Israeli generals is that another war with Hezbollah is inevitable,” a western diplomat said, pointing to estimates that the Shia militia has up to 60,000 missiles hidden in southern Lebanese villages. He said neither side had anything to gain from a new conflict now.
Netanyahu’s office concedes that it is more likely to succeed in securing US support over Syrian missiles than to persuade Obama to share the Israeli prime minister’s position on Iran. There have been many exchanges between the Israeli and US governments in the run-up to the Obama visit attempting to narrow the gap between their Iran policies. Obama has pledged not to allow Iran to build a nuclear weapon and US officials say they will know when the Tehran regime takes the decision to make a bomb and begins to assemble it.
Israeli officials say it is impossible to be so certain about the course of events, and would like the US and Israel jointly to draw a notional “red line” that in practical terms would prevent Iran having even the capacity to build a warhead. Last September, Netanyahu used an address to the UN general assembly to describe one such red line, literally drawing on a cartoon bomb. Israeli officials later explained that it corresponded to Iran accumulating about 240kg of medium-enriched uranium, enough to make one warhead if enriched it to weapons-grade.
Iran’s stockpile is currently about 170kg. It continues to make more, but at the same time it is converting some to powdered reactor fuel, which is less of a proliferation concern, and Iranian officials have signalled that the conversion process may be stepped up, further reducing the controversial stockpile.
“The sense we get is that Iran will not go over that red line because they know the Israelis will act,” a western diplomat said.
But the Netanyahu government wants the US to agree to “red lines” to limit Iranian bomb-making capacity, which would trigger action in the event of progress towards making plutonium, or an expansion of Iran’s uranium-enriching capacity to the point at which it could make a warhead between UN inspections.
The Americans have said they will not commit to triggers for military action, other than repeating that Iran will not be permitted to make a weapon.
Obama told an Israeli interviewer last week that it would take Iran a year to make a bomb: much longer than the Israeli government estimates.
Dov Zakheim, a former US under-secretary of defence, told the Herzliya conference, a gathering of Israeli security officials and analysts: “TheUnited States does not want to have to react to Israeli military action. We don’t want the tail wagging the dog and with all due respect to Israel, we’re still the dog.”
A senior Israeli official conceded that Netanyahu might not manage to bring Obama around to the Israeli point of view. “Ideally we will come out of this on the same page but we are aware that might not happen. But maybe we can come out of this with assessments that are closer to each other,” the official said.
With an itinerary that is long on sightseeing and with an address to students at a Jerusalem convention hall as its centerpiece, Obama is expected to use the trip to reassure the Israeli public of his commitment to their security in the hope of persuading them to be more patient over Iran and to support bolder steps to restart the comatose peace process with the Palestinians.
The White House insists Obama is not coming to the region with a peace plan in his pocket, but he and his secretary of state, John Kerry, will explore the possibility of confidence-building measures to pave the way to serious talks aimed at the creation of a Palestinian state.
Such measures could include a partial freeze on Israeli settlement-building and some prisoner releases, in return perhaps for Palestinian guarantees not to take Israel to the International Criminal Court for human rights violations.
Although the president has been reluctant to invest political diplomatic capital in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, Kerry is pushing for a new US-backed initiative and Americans officials say that he has been promised limited presidential backing.
“The Palestian issue is a second-term presidential issue,” Zakheim said. “Quite frankly, you have a president who doesn’t have to run for office again and an Israeli prime minister who is not as strong as he was before. That gives the president a lot of leverage. If Obama does succumb to the temptation of a second-term president, the constellation of forces is quite good.”