Netanyahu to Panetta: Time Running Out on Iran

Putting it in the starkest terms yet.

“Will Israel attack Iran’s nuclear program?” is a parlor game played by numerous people who don’t have enough information to know the answer. It may be that there still is no definite answer; on Tuesday night Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu openly told a national TV audience that he still hadn’t reached a decision on the matter.

Recent events, though, seem to warrant a conjecture that something is afoot.

U.S. defense secretary Leon Panetta was in Israel on Wednesday, meeting first with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and then with Netanyahu. His visit came hard on the heels of visits by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton two weeks ago and by National Security Adviser Tom Donilon just a few days before that (along with, from the other side of the aisle, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s visit at the start of this week).

And that string of visits by Donilon, Clinton, and Panetta is only part of an ongoing succession of top-level U.S. visitors in Israel over the past several months. David Horovitz, editor of The Times of Israel, notes that “according to one count” today’s meeting between Panetta and Barak was no less thantheir ninth this year.

The inescapable conclusion is that someone, at least—Washington—relates seriously to Israel’s warnings that it may take action against Iran, and is particularly anxious to reassure Jerusalem that the sanctions-and-diplomacy approach is working and deserves more time.

Barak, though, told Panetta on Wednesday that he saw an “extremely low” probability that sanctions would ever—on any timeline—get Tehran to give up its nuclear program, and that meanwhile Israel’s window to act is closing as Iran keeps brazenly on its course.

Netanyahu, in a joint press conference with Panetta after their meeting, was even more straightforward, telling the defense secretary point-blank:

Neither sanctions nor diplomacy have yet had any impact on Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

…You yourself said a few months ago that when all else fails, America will act. But these declarations have also not yet convinced the Iranians to stop their program.

…Right now the Iranian regime believes that the international community does not have the will to stop its nuclear program. This must change and it must change quickly, because time to resolve this issue peacefully is running out.

On Tuesday night Netanyahu had given interviews to Israeli TV whose immediate purpose was to deflect leftist and populist flak over recent tax hikes and budget cuts. But the follow-up issue on the agenda was Iran, and Netanyahu addressed claims—which are heard from Israel itself to the pages of theNew York Times—that the Israeli defense establishment is opposed to a strike, saying:

In Israeli democracy, just like in any democracy, the political echelon makes the decisions and the professional echelon carries them out.

…I hear [the security chiefs’] evaluations behind closed doors The media debate…on the matter is irresponsible and is detrimental to state security. Appropriate discussions on such sensitive matters are held in private and there are many aspects that don’t even reach [the public]; the external debate is extremely inappropriate and very superficial.

Netanyahu then pointed out that in 1981 some security chiefs opposed Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s decision to bomb Iraq’s nuclear reactor—a step now widely admired and appreciated. On Iran, too, Netanyahu said,

[t]he decision that will be made, whatever it is, belongs to the political echelon. I will not allow a nuclear-armed Iran. The regime of the ayatollah is making bombs to destroy us! To the extent that it’s up to me, I won’t let it happen.

Two points are worth making here. First, it’s often claimed, both within and outside of Israel, that Netanyahu and Barak have been bluffing—talking tough about Iran as a way to goad the West to get serious about the sanctions. But, for one thing, it no longer sounds that way if it ever did. And for another, with Barak saying explicitly that he doubts that sanctions will ever work, such bluffing wouldn’t be logical in any case.

Second, Netanyahu and Barak are familiar with the Middle East and know that endlessly making threats without acting on them is not the way to thrive and survive in it. If they don’t really mean what they say, then their statements are detrimental to Israel by eroding its deterrence and projecting it as a paper tiger. In adducing the Begin-Iraq analogy and openly telling the U.S. defense secretary that time is running out, Netanyahu is putting a good deal on the line.