Monday, July 27, 2009

Secretary Gates meets with Ehud Barak in Jerusalem, once again gets distracted by Iran

By Shane McCarthy, CNI Staff Writer

The disparity between American and Israeli interests was once again illuminated in a recent meeting between Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem. In a joint news conference at the King David Hotel, Mr. Barak stated that he did not approve of America’s willingness to begin dialogue with Iran but also acknowledged that he was in no position to dictate to the United States. Additionally, Mr. Barak maintained Israel’s hardline stance by stating that all options were still on the table in terms of dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat, alluding to a possible military strike.

Although Ehud Barak has made clear that political efforts and economic sanctions should continue to be the preferred course of action, it is clear that Israeli patience with the diplomatic process is wearing thin. Recently, the Israeli military conducted a number of military exercises which suggest a preparation for the type of strike on Iran that they have been threatening.

President Obama, who from the onset of his presidency has sought out diplomatic dialogue with Iran, is hoping for a formal response from the Islamic Republic by the time that the United Nations General Assembly meets in late September. In early June, the White House received back-channel contact from Ayatollah Khamenei indicating a willingness to hold talks. However, the recent election turmoil and continuing human rights abuse allegations against Iran have made the possibility of a formal discussion more and more tedious.

Israel and the United States are aware of the possibility that Iran is simply trying to buy time to further develop its nuclear program. However, it also seems very likely that Israel is also trying to buy time. It was made apparent that in Secretary Gates’ meeting with Minister Barak (and subsequent meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu) that the majority of the conversation focused on the Iranian threat. Once again, Israel has demonstrated its uncanny ability to use the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran to distract the conversation away from other contentious issues, namely settlement construction and their own human rights violations.

President Obama is planning to send several more envoys to Jerusalem over the next few weeks, including NSC staffer Dennis Ross and special envoy George Mitchell. If any progress is to be made at all in the peace process, it is going to be necessary to take control of the conversation. Iran must be firmly dealt with, but much to the chagrin of Ehud Barak it is not the only issue on the table.