March 25, 2009

IDF Chief snubbed in Washington - a message to Israel

The Israel Defense Forces chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, visited Washington, DC, last week to meet with senior American officials to discuss what Israel believes is the growing Iranian threat to his country. In light of President Obama's attempts to reach out to the mullahs in Tehran - the most recent a Nowruz (Persian new year) video message - the IDF chief brought new intelligence on Iran's nuclear and missile programs.

Both American and Israeli intelligence establishments believe that Iran is intent on developing nuclear weapons. The difference between the two assessments is how soon Iran will achieve that capability. The Israelis believe the Iranians are on the verge of developing a nuclear warhead for its ballistic missiles - missiles that can easily reach anywhere in Israel.

Press reports described Ashkenazi's reception in Washington as "extraordinarily cool" - he did not meet with any of the Obama Cabinet, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. He also was unable to schedule a meeting with his counterpart, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Add to that list Director of National Intelligence Admiral Dennis Blair.

This is almost unheard of. The United States and Israel have close military and intelligence ties. It is quite normal for the IDF chief to meet with defense and intelligence officers. Keep in mind that in Israel, the defense establishment is the senior intelligence authority, making Ashkenazi not only Admiral Mullen's counterpart, but Admiral Blair's as well. Meetings such as those that did not happen are commonplace, at least they were.

What has changed? Obviously, we have a new administration whose foreign policy is somewhat changed. The unavailability of virtually any senior official is telling. This administration appears to have determined that forging a new relationship with Iran may come at the expense of the close relationship with Israel that goes back decades.

The only meeting with a senior American official was with National Security Advisor General James Jones. However, the meeting was focused on U.S. demands that Israel lift some military restrictions on the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. Jones was not there to listen to anything about what Israeli leaders considers an "existential" threat to the Jewish state.

The IDF spokesman tried to soften the blow with this emailed explanation, "The schedule for the United States visit of the IDF Chief of the General Staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, was preplanned according to requests made by American officials. Any meetings that were canceled were substituted with telephone conference calls." An IDF internet site claimed that Ashkenazi returned to Israel to participate in talks revolving around the negotiations for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Conference calls? I'm not buying it. This treatment of General Ashkenazi is a not-so-subtle message to the Israelis: the situation has changed and you may be on your own in dealing with the Iranians.

How else can the Israelis interpret it? Obama has made several overtures to the Iranians - a terrorist country (unless you ask Janet Napolitano, then it is a "state sponsor of human-caused disasters") according to the State Department - all of which have been rebuffed. Obama advisors are urging the President to talk to not only the Taliban (a terrorist organization), but also Hizballah and Hamas (also terrorist organizations). As one analyst (that would be me) puts it, "We are trying to talk to the exact people we should be trying to kill."

Rather than dissuading the Israelis from a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, the Obama Administration's refusal to talk to senior Israeli military and intelligence officials may actually hasten the action they seek to stop. If Israel cannot get some assurance of support from the United States, it will feel compelled to act unilaterally.

Mr. President, you are talking to the wrong people.