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Tensions High as U.S. Tells Israel to Defer Attacks on Iran Over Nuclear Program

September 11, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
The U.S. has urged Israel to hold off on a preemptive strike on Iran, yet Israel has not been given any alternative plans should Iran develop nuclear weapons. Margaret Warner talks to Ronen Bergman, reporter for Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, about the implications of tension between two longstanding allies, Israel and the U.S.
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MARGARET WARNER: For more on this, I’m joined by Ronen Bergman an investigative reporter and military and political analyst for Yedioth Ahronoth, a daily newspaper in Israel.

And, Ronen, thanks for joining us.

Washington and Tel Aviv have been at odds for some time now about what to do about Iran and the timetable for it. What prompted Netanyahu to go public like this today?

RONEN BERGMAN, Yedioth Ahronoth: Well, Margaret, I believe that Benjamin Netanyahu is quite frustrated from his point of view for not bridging the gap with the American administration on what to do on Iran.

There is a consensus on the interpretation of the intelligence received from Iran, where the Iranian nuclear project stands, but there is this huge gap and a debate on what to do with the intelligence.

The American administration has been asking, almost demanding, Israel not to launch a preemptive strike on Iran.

But on the other hand, Israel also demanded the administration to give some sort of promise, to draw some sort of red line, to assure Israel what the administration is going to do if Iran doesn’t oblige with the international demand to disassemble the nuclear project.

On that sense, Israel has not received the assurances it was looking for from the administration that the United States take military action if other diplomatic effort fails.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when the Israelis talk about a red line, what is it exactly they want? What do they want President Obama to say or do?

RONEN BERGMAN: I’m not sure that the Israelis are seeking for an overt public promise.

I’m quite certain that Israel would satisfy itself if president secretly would assure Israel that if diplomatic efforts and connection with Iran in the next, I would say, six months to nine months fail, then Iran does not agree to stop the enrichment and disassemble the site, the nuclear site in Fordow, then the administration would go for other options, including the military strike.

These red lines that the secretary of state, as we heard, refused to make secretly and publicly are the ones that would relax Israel, satisfy it.

And as long as the administration intentionally is very vague on that and doesn’t want to promise any sort of military action in the coming future, I think that we are going to see an ongoing tension increasingly between the two administrations.

MARGARET WARNER: What has the Obama administration done up until now to try to keep Israel on board, to have Israel feel comfortable that it can wait before striking either on its own or, of course, wanting the U.S. to join?

RONEN BERGMAN: OK.

The Obama administration has done much more on the Iranian issue than the Bush administration.

It has opened a very intimate, close, I would say unprecedented intelligence cooperation with Israel. The two sides join in operations in Iran, in sharing every bit of intelligence.

The Obama administration has issued much more financial support to the Israeli defense, different projects.

And also just recently, in a few visits of American officials and military officers in Israel have shared the military plans on Iran.

The administration wanted to show Israel that there are contingency plans, in case the president gives the order, that the United States is ready to launch a strike.

Of course, the Israeli counter question was, OK, when would that happen? If Iran doesn’t submit to any of the international demands, will you strike? And at that point, the American administration in all the talks, high-ranking officials have declined on giving any sort of specific promise.

 

MARGARET WARNER: How does the U.S. election calendar play into Prime Minister Netanyahu’s calculations here?

RONEN BERGMAN: Well, I think it plays quite heavily. Prime Minister Netanyahu would never admit that. But we see a line of increasing tension, some of it deliberately, between the Israeli government and the American administration as close as we get to the elections.

It is clear that the White House asked Israel and put quite a lot pressure not to launch a preemptive strike, at least not before the elections, in order not to create an oil crisis that would damage the Obama campaign.

On the other hand, we know of course of quite close ties between the Republican Mitt Romney and Prime Minister Netanyahu.

And I think that Netanyahu, as close as we get to the elections, is harshening its criticism towards the administration. And we see some sort of at least — some sort of coordination between the Mitt Romney campaign and what Netanyahu is doing in Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally today, there was this, I don’t know, little eruption about whether or not President Obama would meet with the prime minister when he’s here for the U.N. meetings.

What are the Israelis making of this? Is their nose out of joint about the fact that the White House is saying right now there isn’t time?

RONEN BERGMAN: The Israelis are sure that President Obama would find time to meet Prime Minister Netanyahu if he wanted, but that this is a revenge for the latest criticism of the prime minister against the secretary of state.

And this is the very, I would say, according to the Israeli point of view, almost a brutal approach from the White House in order to say, Mr. Prime Minister, we see you align with Mitt Romney and, therefore, we don’t have the time to see you.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Ronen Bergman, thank you so much.