Netanyahu’s third term has opened with a clearer understanding in Jerusalem of the limits of force, and both Hagel and Ya’alon are sending a clear message: Israel needs strategic cooperation.
It was hard to miss the thread connecting Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and his American counterpart Chuck Hagel at the press conference Monday morning, and the speech of Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz that evening at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University’s annual conference. Ya’alon and his guest Hagel, just like Gantz, sent a unified message: In light of the unstable situation in the region, Israel needs the strategic cooperation of its friends more than ever. At the top of this list of friends is the United States, but it also includes a collection of less committed allies including neighboring countries and even Turkey, after the reconciliation initiated by the Americans ripens.
This conclusion, which was stated explicitly, also leads to another insight: The military and diplomatic aid from the United States, which is slated to grow, will also require Jerusalem to coordinate fully with Washington in the most sensitive matter, the handling of the Iranian nuclear threat – in a manner that will limit Israel’s ability to act independently on this issue, despite the lip service paid by Hagel and U.S. President Barack Obama a month before him to Israel’s right to act independently to protect itself.
Hagel’s cold and sometimes critical treatment of Israel was at the center his confirmation process in the Senate two months ago, but he has made every effort to show his Israeli hosts that the Republican attacks on him were unwarranted. This may be one reason why the announcement of the new arms deal between the two nations was postponed to coincide with Hagel’s first state visit to Israel as Defense Secretary, despite the fact that most of the deal’s details were already agreed upon during the final days of Ehud Barak’s term as defense minister. The details were leaked to American media on the eve of the visit and Hagel announced it officially on Monday in a joint statement to the press with Ya’alon at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv.
At their first meeting, Chuck and Bogie (a combination of names that makes one think of an American B-grade movie, and somewhat amused the American guests) they made a great effort to present a united front in the face of the Iranian threat, a disintegrating Syria, and the wave of change running through the Arab world. Even if only in private defense officials say the package of gifts from Uncle Sam does not necessarily reflect the real needs Israel requires to face this challenge. (Refueling planes yes, V-22 Osprey not so much) They still will not say this in public though. The IDF is aware of the importance of the symbolism of the announcement made by Hagel on Monday that Israel will be the first country together with the United States to receive the V-22. The first of the planes may arrive as soon as the end of this year, on the road to establishing a squadron of eight such planes.
The basic Israeli approach in cases such as this is to act in accordance with the proverb “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” This is true even when it is clear that the American gift has two broader contexts: Compensation for Israel on the big arms deals planned slated to take place with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, based on the assumption that the gift will silence any Israeli criticism of these deals, as well as an expectation that the aid will reduce Israel’s appetite to take action independently in Iran. Hagel, who never said it directly of course, emphasized that the U.S. administration is committed not only to the IDF’s qualitative advantage over the other armies in the region, but also to broaden it further.
It seems that Netanyahu’s third term has opened with a clearer understanding in Jerusalem of the limits of force. It will be no great surprise, as it turns out after the fact that despite the frequent threats of an attack Obama and Netanyahu agreed during their private conversations during his visit to reduce the talk of an independent Israeli attack through the end of the year. It is hard to know what the two of them agreed to, but it gradually appears to be that the United States and Israel are more coordinated on the Iranian issue, at least for a while.
The closer coordination was also reflected in the joint tracking of Syrian chemical weapons. On Monday, Ya’alon explicitly threatened to attack attempts to transfer chemical weapons to extremist organizations and Gantz publicly supported the Israeli-Turkish reconciliation. The end of Gantz’s long speech stood out. He emphasized the importance of international cooperation as another layer of the Israeli security conception, alongside the early warning, deterrence and decisive victory – the three principles of Israeli security set by David Ben-Gurion.
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