Exactly Why Did Ehud Barak Postpone a Joint U.S.-Israeli Military Exercise?

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Cross-posted from Mondoweiss.

Yahoo News’s Laura Rozen has reported an important story: tips from anonymous US sources, as well as information leaked to Israel Radio, suggest that it was Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak who actually postponed a US-Israeli missile defense exercise, which would have seen 5,000 US personnel and advanced American missile defense systems deployed to Israel.

Multiple analysts have suggested that the postponement demonstrates the Israeli government’s contempt for Obama and an ongoing effort to back the president into a corner in an election year over Iran. Two theories stand out.

The first view is that the postponement is supposed to send Obama a message that he had better be more assertive against Iran if he wants Israel to stand down. The hawkish, pro-Netanyahu Israeli site DEBKAfile reports that the cancellation was approved at the top by Bibi himself and that critical statements made by hardliners in the government around this time were made to call the President out over his “flagging resolve”:

It was perceived as a mark of Israel’s disapproval for the administration’s apparent hesitancy in going through with the only tough sanctions with any chance of working against Iran’s nuclear weapon program: penalizing its central bank and blocking payments for its petroleum exports.

This was the first time Israel had ever postponed a joint military exercise; it generated a seismic moment in relations between the US and Israel at a time when Iran has never been so close to producing a nuclear weapon.

This week, Netanyahu further orchestrated a series of uncharacteristically critical statements by senior ministers: Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon called the Obama administration “hesitant” (Jan. 15), after which Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman urged the Americans to “move from words to deeds” (Jan 16).

Given DEBKAfile’s right-wing bent, it is safe to say that the aforementioned narrative is how the warhawks in the Israeli government wish their actions to be perceived in the US.

The second theory is that the postponement of the exercise stems from decisions by the IDF on how and when it will attack Iran. Ehud Barak told Israel Army Radio that there are no immediate plans for Israel to attack Iran, seemingly distancing himself from his earlier statements that Israel’s bombing window would close by the end 2012 (Israeli intelligence reported that, like the U.S. intelligence community, it cannot discern Iran’s nuclear intentions). Rozen suggests one possible Israeli rationale for such maneuvering:

The United States did not seek the delay–and American sources privately voiced concern that the Israeli request for a postponement of the exercise could be read as a potential warning sign that Israel is leaving its options open to conduct a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities in the spring. Thus, the concern went, it may not want 5,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Israel in April and May, as had been scheduled for the exercise.

This is a sensible course of action (if you believe, as Ehud Barak does, that Israel has only a year-long window to act in). But Haaretz’s Amos Harel suggests a different military calculus– the delay is not a way of getting the US out of Israel’s way, but of forcing Washington’s hand if an attack materializes this year:

. . . [by] putting off the joint exercises until the second half of the year actually fits into a scenario that has Israel attacking Iran in that time framework. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said on a number of recent occasions, including in a November interview to CNN, that the window during which an effective strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities is possible will close in about one year. A massive U.S. military presence in Israel, especially advanced antimissile air defenses, would be very useful in protecting Israel in the event of an Iranian counterattack.

Harel’s thinking makes sense too. This is more or less how NATO worked during the Cold War: the USSR was deterred from attacking NATO military formations in West Germany because an attack on any NATO member would have been treated as an attack on all of them. The Warsaw Pact copied this deterrence mechanism on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Such binding agreements forced all parties to either limit their autonomy in the name of the alliance, or give up their multinational security umbrella and go it alone. The Israeli logic would work the same way: force Iran to soak up losses inflicted by the IAF without responding, or risk the US military mission’s wrath.

But would the White House be cooperating with Tel Aviv — as it would in the event of any attack on a NATO member — or be taken by surprise by Israeli preemption? I imagine the former is the most likely option, as the U.S. would still have some advance warning of Israeli mobilization. In any event, Obama would not disengage these troops and ships to try and avoid being associated with Israel’s actions. Amos Harel puts it best: Washington “is asking Israel’s boat not to enter the path charted by its aircraft carrier.” But if and when the chips are down, the President will not cut and run, prior warning or not.

There are all kinds of contingencies that might escalate the conflict. Iran’s own military calculus, for instance. What would the Gulf states, who are most vulnerable to Iran’s armed forces, think of the timing and placement of American forces in Israel? It would be challenging to manage diplomacy and military coordination with the Gulf states against Iran in such an event, even though we’d be attacking a non-Arab country that the GCC governments fear. They fear Iran, but they also fear public opinion in their own countries (and Iranian retaliation). How would Islamist organizations sympathetic to Iran such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah react to an Israeli strike? Would events spiral out of control on the border with Gaza, Syria or Lebanon? It’s easy to suggest that Iran and its proxies would temper their actions because of “redlines,” but no plan survives contact with the enemy.

Barak has seemingly stepped back from his countdown to infinite crisis this week. But as Marsha Cohen writes at LobeLog, “the Obama administration is now trapped in a lose-lose situation, with Israeli politicians doing everything possible to sabotage Obama’s re-election bid while undercutting any movement he might be tempted to make to ease tensions with Iran.”