Defense Secretary Robert Gates will be in Israel today for the first time since the middle of the last Bush administration, and his one-day talks, held with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, will center on Israel’s nervousness over Iran’s nuclear program. Specifically, The Daily Beast has learned, the Israelis will focus on a missile-defense shield test that was partially aborted just last Wednesday.
Gates is the one national-security hangover from the Bush years, a presidency that left Israel virtually unchecked during the past eight years, and is considered by the Israeli leadership to be their best Cabinet friend. “If Gates won’t listen to us,” an Israeli intelligence officer tells me, “that’s a problem.”
The test in question involved an Arrow II interceptor, jointly developed by Boeing and Israel Aerospace and a key component of Israeli defensive plans going forward. In 2007, the Arrow II passed two successful flights, and since then Israel has tested it nearly 20 times. Although, according to the Israeli intelligence source, it passed 90 percent of those firings, most did not have simulated missile interceptions. The Arrow II evidently demonstrated on Wednesday that it worked seamlessly with a cutting-edge U.S. defensive-ballistic-missile network, which was recently relocated to Hawaii as a counterweight to a possible North Korean missile launch. But the rest of the exercise—meant to intercept and destroy a missile fired in air by a C-17 aircraft—was scrapped due to a “systems glitch,” says the Israeli intelligence source, leaving the Israelis uncertain of its effectiveness.
“If Gates won’t listen to us,” an Israeli intelligence officer tells The Daily Beast, “that’s a problem.”
Since 1991, when Saddam Hussein’s SCUDs hit Israel at will during the first Gulf War, the Israelis have been preoccupied with missile defense. If the Obama administration won’t unleash the Israelis to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, will the U.S. at least guarantee it will provide the Jewish state with a “defensive umbrella?” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—the Israelis’ second-favorite Cabinet officer, largely because when she was a New York senator her voting record and public pronouncements on Israel were sterling—recently raised the idea of a regional missile defense. This could take the form of extra American subsidies for the Arrow II or more coordination from U.S. intelligence and the Pentagon in developing the Arrow into a potent defender.
The Israelis are openly impatient with President Obama’s end-of-year deadline for Iran to meet an amorphous standard of some progress, but realize that Gates will not veer from the administration’s no-attack policy. The U.S. Defense Department has made it clear that Gates will not give Israel a green light to launch a preemptive strike on Iran. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has pointedly said that an Israeli strike on Iran would destabilize the entire region. Earlier this month, when Vice President Joe Biden opened the door ever so slightly to preemptive Israeli action, by saying that the U.S. “cannot dictate” Israel’s military decisions, President Obama slammed the door shut firmly two days later when he told CNN that the U.S. would “absolutely not” give Israel permission for any strike.
The Israelis are pragmatists and the consensus appears to be that in light of the Obama administration’s desire to engage Iran and give Tehran time to show progress, even getting a firm commitment for significantly more military assistance from Gates might be near-impossible. But that doesn’t mean they won’t have a full court press on Monday. While their own intelligence reports confirm what other Western agencies have concluded—that Iran is at least a year away from having nukes—they will argue "time is of the essence." Whether Gates will carry that message back to Washington with any conviction is an open question.
Although Netanyahu, who understands U.S. politics as well as any Israeli leader, and his colleagues remain upset at what they consider Obama’s reneging on the Bush administration’s policy over Israel’s settlement program, they won’t waste any time with Gates arguing about that. On the settlements, they’ll wait for George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, who arrives later in the week. As for Gates, the message is simple: More help and leeway is needed in confronting Iran.
“We may not get Gates again,” says the Israeli, referring to the chance that Gates might either be replaced as Defense chief at some point, or even if he stayed on board, he might not return to the Middle East for a few more years. “We don’t want him going on to Jordan (Gates’ next stop after Israel) without getting some commitment that we are safer vis-à-vis Iran than before he arrived.”
Gerald Posner is The Daily Beast's chief investigative reporter. He's the award-winning author of 10 investigative nonfiction bestsellers, ranging from political assassinations, to Nazi war criminals, to 9/11, to terrorism. He lives in Miami Beach with his wife, the author Trisha Posner.