Turkey’s consent to effectively revive its strategic cooperation with Israel represents a major breakthrough for Binyamin Netanyahu. As he runs for reelection on Jan. 22, he is constantly accused by opposition leaders of bringing Israel into deep international isolation. Turkey and NATO have undercut that charge
President Barack Obama has strived hard to restore Turkish ties with Israel – and not only on Israel’s behalf, but as a prop for his burgeoning Sunni Muslim Middle East bloc, headed by Egypt, and a step on the path toward resuscitating the Israel-Palestinian peace process.
The two scenarios are part of a four-point understanding which President Obama and Netanyahu quietly concluded last fall when the US president was campaigning for reelection and which were made known to America’s European allies, as well as Moscow, Tehran and Ramallah.
DEBKAfile outlines those four points:
1. The Israeli Prime Minister promised last fall not to rock the boat of Obama’s reelection campaign by a unilateral attack on Iran’s nuclear program until his inauguration for a second term on Jan. 21, 2013 – the day before the Israeli general election. Netanyahu also agreed to let the direct US-Iranian negotiating track launched in Switzerland on Dec. 1, take its course for three months up to March 1.
2. President Obama counter-pledged that if at the end of those three months, Iran’s ruler Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had not delivered on the seven stipulations for curtailing on Iran’s nuclear program, which administration officials put before Iranian representatives in those secret talks, the military option would move to the top of America’s agenda for Iran.
This was not to say that America would go to war forthwith. However, if Iran approached break-out capacity in 2013, as predicted, the US would find it hard to avoid a preemptive operation.
DEBKAfile’s sources report that the direct US-Iran negotiations launched on Dec. 1 quickly deadlocked.
Obama rewards Netanyahu
3. During Netanyahu’s critical three-month election campaign, Obama promised him a reprieve from outside pressures - on the understanding that Israel and the Palestinians would get together in March to resume peace negotiations under joint US-Muslim sponsorship.
4. The Moslem side of this sponsorship was projected to consist of Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Jordan. i.e. the Sunni Muslim-led axis which the Obama administration has been working on with Israel ever since its anti-terrorist operation in the Gaza Strip in November.
Sunday, Dec. 23, it was revealed that Turkey had assumed its role in the new pro-US axis by dropping its two-year boycott of military cooperation with Israel within the framework of NATO. Ankara initially cut off ties of cooperation over the IDF raid of the Turkish Mavi Marmara ship which was on a mission to break Israel’s naval blockade of the Gaza Strip.
In recent months, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and the Turkish MIT intelligence director Fidan Hakan maintained back-channel interchanges and laid the groundwork for the two governments to start working together. December saw the start of a process for healing relations between Ankara and Jerusalem, urged on both sides by the Obama administration. Israel’s input was deemed necessary for US efforts to extinguish the flames in Syria together with its Middle East allies, chiefly Egypt, and other ventures.
Sunday, Dec. 23, Netanyahu said that “far-reaching changes in the Syrian regime are close at hand with implications for the sensitive weaponry [chemical weapons] present there.”
He had obviously been authoritatively briefed on the state of play in the Syrian crisis.
The changing Washington landscape
Obama’s new regional grouping was given its first spurt in mid-November as a product of Israel’s Pillar of Defense operation in the Gaza Strip. DEBKAfile tracked this process from its outset. (See DEBKAfile Special Video of Nov. 28: Less a War than an anti-Iran coup).
It has evolved into the mainspring of the US president’s Middle East policy for his second term.
Netanyahu has taken the four understandings he reached with Obama as the guidelines for his current and post-election policy. However, this week, certain changing circumstances evolving in Washington suggested that the new administration may again be veering away from US military action to curb Iran’s drive for a nuclear weapon.
One such circumstance was Senator John Kerry’s nomination as Hillary Clinton’s successor in the State Department; another, informed speculation that Chuck Hagel is the frontrunner for defense in place of Leon Panetta.
Hagel’s views on war against Iran - and Israel per se - approximate those of Panetta’s predecessor, Robert Gates. Both these appointments would indicate that the US president may be stepping back from - rather than forward to - a military operation against Iran.
Thursday, Dec. 12, two letters addressed to the White House were released in Washington by a group organized by Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the State Department’s No. 3, of former high-ranking US diplomats and generals. One of those letters strongly recommended Hagel’s appointment to defense, while the other just as strongly opposed an American attack on Iran - or even the stiffening of sanctions:
“US military action [against Iran] would have grave consequences for the US and the region and, short of a full-scale occupation, would not stop Iran’s nuclear program,” said that missive.
Is the Obama-Netanyahu accord in jeopardy?
Although there are still more than three months to go before the understandings he reached with Obama on Iran are due to go into effect, Netanyahu is nonetheless getting the feeling that the factions in Washington most adamantly opposed to Jerusalem’s policies and an Israeli role in Obama’s plans are working hard to pull them apart.
Another party keen to sabotage those understandings is Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). He set out, with the encouragement of some European governments, Western media and Russia, on a campaign for turning up the heat around the Palestinian question. After the UN General Assembly approved his unilateral application for nonstate observer status, he threw out threats to prosecute Israel’s leaders and IDF officers as “war criminals,” gave free rein to Palestinian hotheads acting to destabilize West Bank security, and encouraged rumors that a “third intifada” was impending.
Abu Mazen took those steps to ramp up Palestinian leverage ahead of peace negotiations and give vent to his wounded pride at the decision by Washington, Jerusalem, Cairo and Ankara to exclude him from partnership in the rising Sunni-led bloc.
Netanyahu responded by expanding Jerusalem and settlement expansion. He was visibly unconcerned by the international outcry and by the Palestinian leader’s steps..
Three major issues remain to be settled before the new axis can take off:
1. The Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi is by no means sure to weather the turmoil against his rule and be in a position to meet President Obama’s high expectations – even on the quiet. The US president had hoped Morsi would identify with his Middle East goals and take the lead in such pursuits as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
2. The Syrian conflict has an endless capacity for growing more savage. The approach of chemical and biological warfare on both sides – the government and the insurgents – may confront the US and Israel with the imperative need for strong intervention.
3. Al Qaeda and its affiliates are building up their assets in Syria, Jordan and Sinai with the solid support of local Muslim Brotherhood branches. Those assets are linking up into a ring of terror, which is coiled to strike at Jordan and Israel and resort to the usual al Qaeda atrocities for thwarting Obama’s designs.