Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dispatched his defense chief, Moshe “Bogie” Ya’alon, to Washington, to help smooth the way for his own visit next week, which will be his first since President Barack Obama defeated his counterproductive campaign to sink the Iran nuclear agreement.
Those who follow Israeli politics, and who have tracked the downs (no substantial ups have been visible lately) in the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, know that tasking the almost comically un-smooth Ya’alon, an ex-commando and dairy farmer, with a delicate diplomatic mission was a risky proposition. Last year, Ya’alon infuriated the White House by stating publicly that “the only thing that can save us is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace.” Ya’alon, a former Israeli army chief of staff, is a one-time supporter of the Oslo peace process who now argues against the creation of a Palestinian state, and who also believes, like his prime minister, that the Iran nuclear deal contains the seeds of disaster for his country.
Ya’alon, on his preparatory visit, somehow managed to dodge the usual minefields, and he mainly held his tongue. “The Iran deal is a given,” he said last Wednesday. “Our disputes are over. And now we have to look to the future.”
Credit for managing Ya’alon, and for stabilizing the Israel-U.S. relationship, should be assigned to U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, who hosted Ya’alon and who appears to have been directed by a White House exhausted and frustrated by Netanyahu to oversee large parts of the Israeli portfolio during Obama’s remaining time in office.
Next Monday’s Oval Office meeting between Obama and Netanyahu—a meeting neither man, it can be assumed, is anticipating with joy—will probably be devoid of fireworks. Obama may find it hard to forgive Netanyahu for aligning with congressional Republicans and lobbying against the Iran deal in a singularly ostentatious way, and Netanyahu may find it hard to forgive Obama for what he sees as his hopeless naïveté. But it is in the best interests of both men to make a public show of unity (Netanyahu because Israel is in many ways, and sometimes to his chagrin, a U.S. dependency; Obama because Hillary Clinton needs at least several months of sustained quiet on the Israeli front), and then say goodbye with at least a facsimile of warmth. At which point, custodianship of the Israel portfolio will once again revert to Carter.
Secretaries of defense have consistently played important roles in managing relations with Israel—the defense relationship between the two countries has been of paramount, even existential, importance to Israel for more than 40 years. But the Iran-inspired breakdown in relations between Obama and Netanyahu, and the collapse of the Kerry-directed peace negotiations, has meant that Carter is now point man on maintaining equanimity in the relationship. It is a lucky thing for Israel that Carter seems to like Ya’alon, and seems to have an enthusiastic commitment to maintaining Israel’s qualitative military edge over its neighbors. He also appears to have a comprehensive understanding of Israeli security anxieties, which are not few.
Moments after Ya’alon departed the Pentagon for home, I met with a tired but pleased Carter in his office to discuss the U.S.-Israel relationship, and also the broader challenges facing the United States in Israel’s neighborhood. “State collapse in the Middle East is the phenomenon of our time,” he said. (In a follow-up to this post, I’ll write about Carter’s views on the Gulf states, their defense needs—and their shortcomings.)
I had mentioned to Carter something I heard Henry Kissinger say a couple of nights earlier, at a memorial for the assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, concerning the difficulty and danger of creating a new state—Palestine—in a region currently experiencing state disintegration. Many Israeli strategic thinkers, not only those associated with the hawkish Netanyahu government, argue that the Americans, the Europeans, and the UN have an incomplete and somewhat callous understanding of the challenges facing Israel as it confronts extremist violence in a chaotic region.
Carter suggested, in a manner that was somewhat unusual for an official of an administration that lacks affection for Netanyahu’s government, that Israeli officials are not being unreasonable to occasionally feel put upon by American criticism. He specifically mentioned criticism concerning the Israeli response to the recent wave of stabbings by Palestinians.
“There is a sense of bitterness at American criticism of Israel’s conduct in what [Israel] regards as very difficult circumstances,” Carter said. “That doesn’t mean that some of [the criticism] isn’t warranted, but sometimes they feel that this criticism is uttered without adequate care for the actual dilemmas in which they find themselves. There is no question that Bogie finds it hurtful to hear Americans speak that way about his conduct, no question about it.”
I asked Carter if his specific assignment from Obama was to bring predictability to a sometimes-riotous relationship with Israel. Obama has been openly critical at times of Netanyahu’s policies, but he has also upheld his longstanding promise to protect the defense relationship despite the tumult.
“It is a reasonable expectation that the defense relationship will be one of stability and endurance,” Carter said. “It’s not about me. It’s been this way through time.” Carter said that Ya’alon’s visit, and a visit he made to Israel this past July, were meant to place the Iran disagreement in a broader context. “My being there was to basically say, ‘Look, you see this differently from us—we think it’s a good deal and you have said it’s a bad deal and I understand your reasoning there—but there is still a lot that we agree on and can work together on. We have to move on to the business we have in common and that means, specifically with respect to Iran, working together to counter their other malign activities in the region, which are just as worrying to us as they are to Israel, and to monitor the implementation of the agreement.’”
Carter, in our conversation, spoke only semi-elliptically about the Pentagon’s role in keeping Iran away from a nuclear weapon. “I’m under instructions to maintain the insurance policy,” he said, referring to military options to keep Iran south of the nuclear threshold. “The Israelis inquire about that, they ask if we’re serious,” he said. The answer he gives them is “yes,” he said, noting that, as undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics in the early years of the Obama administration, he was the father, in essence, of the MOP, the massive ordnance penetrator, a 30,000-pound bomb designed to destroy underground Iranian nuclear facilities. (Some of Israel’s friends in Washington want Israel to get its own MOP, though the Israeli Air Force hasn’t seemed particularly interested and isn’t currently capable of delivering such a bomb, in any case.)
“The MOP was a directive from on high,” Carter said, referring to the White House, “and I’m still under instructions to refine it, improve it, and we’ll just keep doing that.”
Carter went out of his way to suggest that it was not just the Pentagon, but the Israeli Ministry of Defense as well, that wanted to expand the parameters of the dialogue beyond the Iran deal. He told me that when he visited Israel in July, he was pleased to see that the defense establishment was interested in discussing cyberwarfare and the conventional rocket threat from Hezbollah, as well as the Iran nuclear deal. “Only the next day did I see the prime minister, with all that as the backdrop.”
Officials in Jerusalem and Washington tell me that Netanyahu gets along with Carter better than most anyone in the Obama administration, with the possible exception of Vice President Joe Biden. Carter described their relationship as relatively easy: “It turned out that he and I went to rival high schools outside of Philadelphia, and we went back and forth on sports teams and the like.” Netanyahu, he said, made his views on Iran “abundantly clear,” but he also “came to understand, if he didn’t understand it from the beginning, that I was a longtime friend of Israel and of Israelis and of the IDF [Israel Defense Force].”
Carter was generous in praising Israeli military innovation, and crediting Israel with aiding in America’s defense. “It’s a two-way relationship,” he said. “There’s no question that it’s not symmetric, but it is two-way—we really do get things from the Israelis in technology. I hesitate to make invidious comparisons, but if you’re making comparisons to, say, the European legacy arms [industry], the guys who have made the tanks and planes and ships in Europe, they’ve been very slow to come out of the industrial age. The Israelis you will find to be more clever and more innovative.” He cited as an example the work he did to counter the devastating impact of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). “The Israelis were really quite ingenious in this area and we got a lot from them. There’s no question that lives were saved as a consequence of their [help]. They’re not good in everything across the board, but they’re as good as us in some areas. They’re in a league that has very few members.”
A perennial topic of discussion between Israeli and U.S. defense officials is the maintenance and strengthening of Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME), the program—mandated by Congress—requiring the Pentagon to guarantee that Israel is sold more sophisticated weapons systems than those sold to what Carter refers to as “the sum of all Sunnis.” The main issue, Carter said, is not that Israel’s leaders believe that the Saudis and other Arab states will use sophisticated U.S.-made weapons against them—Israel and the Gulf states, in particular, share a common enemy in Iran. “They worry about a spectrum of things,” he said. “They worry about rogue officers taking off in a one-off thing, right up to regime change, or whatever you want to call it, in Saudi Arabia, and having an entirely new show there. They say we have to pay attention to capabilities, not just current intentions.”
One of his reassuring messages to the Israelis in advance of Netanyahu’s visit, Carter said, was that he believes there is “no question that we can or will maintain QME.”
I asked Carter if he believed Iran posed a greater threat to Israel than the constellation of Sunni extremist groups operating in Syria, Iraq, and elsewhere.
“This gets to intentions and capabilities,” he said. “If Iran were a neighbor of Israel, and it had a military of substantial size, even though nothing like the sophistication of Israel’s, and a long border that would have to be defended, and it were running around calling Israel the little Satan, son of the great Satan, then I would say that that’s a serious problem akin to what Israel had with Jordan, Syria, and Egypt in the old days.”
He went on, “It just so happens that Iran is not a neighbor, and therefore the way that Iran attacks is more indirect. Of course, it doesn’t feel that way if a rocket is coming in from Hezbollah in the north, but you know what I mean.”
Though Carter, in our conversation, was eager to minimize differences between the United States and Israel on defense strategy, I sense that he was looping back to an argument the Obama administration has tried to make, unsuccessfully, to Israeli leaders for many months—that Iran is diminished as a threat to Israel precisely because of the nuclear deal Netanyahu loathes. “The only exception to what I’ve said concerns Iranian long-range missiles,” he noted. “But if they have high explosives on them, they’re not materially more damaging than missiles coming from elsewhere. Not to minimize their importance, but what really would have made the apocalyptic rhetoric of Iran fearsome to Israel would have been nuclear weapons [on long-range missiles], and I think that’s why we’re pretty satisfied to have that danger taken off the table—not forever, but in a much more satisfactory way than letting it just keep on keeping on.”
If Netanyahu and Obama decide to have this particular argument again, they will have a very long and very unsatisfying meeting on Monday.