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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he didn’t believe Israel had “made a decision as to whether or not they will go in and attack Iran at this time” and added: “With regards to the issue of where we’re at from a diplomatic point of view, the reality is that we still think there is room to continue to negotiate.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials, for their part, have been saying the negotiations with Iran have failed and demanding that Washington announce an end to them.
With Panetta at the same Pentagon briefing, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cast doubt on the efficacy of an Israeli strike on Iran, saying: “I may not know about all of their capabilities but I think that it’s a fair characterization to say that they could delay but not destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.”
Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., responded: “Diplomacy hasn’t succeeded. We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions do have to be made.”
As for Dempsey’s statement that an Israeli strike could only delay Iran, Oren said: “That, on the basis of our previous experience, is not an argument against [a strike]. In the past, we have operated on the assumption that we can only gain a delay.”
And he added: “An Iranian nuclear weapon is an existential threat to Israel. We don’t just say it. They say it as well. They confirm it.”
Indeed, “they” have been saying it more than ever lately. On Wednesday an Iranian defense official said that “there is no other way but to stand firm and resist until Israel is destroyed.” On Thursday Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Israel “will disappear” from the map.
All this at a time when Israel’s domestic discourse has been abuzz with talk of a possible strike on Iran, with citizens lining up to upgrade or replace gas masks and rushing to renovate air-raid shelters.
To understand better how things came to such a pass, it will help to go back.
Last February 14, European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton received a proposal to hold talks from Iran’s nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili. She sat on it; as far as is known, she made no reply.
On March 5, Netanyahu met with President Barack Obama at the White House; by all accounts, their talk focused heavily on the Iranian issue. The next day, in his speech to AIPAC, Netanyahu again put great emphasis on the need to stop Iran from going nuclear.
That same day, March 6, the New York Times trumpeted: “World Powers Agree to Resume Nuclear Talks With Iran.” The Times quoted Ashton saying: “I have offered to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear issue” and noted: “Ms. Ashton’s positive response to an Iranian offer made last month to resume the talks…came one day after…Obama urged…Netanyahu…to give diplomacy and economic sanctions a chance to work before taking military action.”
It was hard, in other words, not to infer that Obama, worried about a sense of urgency and resolve that he heard from Netanyahu, called up the EU foreign policy chief in a last-ditch move to box Israel in by quickly setting up talks with Iran, after all.
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