Defense and Disarray
By Amir Oren
American Administrations are usually well co-ordinated in their international moves, which of course is no guarantee for success in the endeavour itself. The White House, State Department and Pentagon at least make an effort to be on the same page.
So when the Department of Defense announced Thursday that Secretary Lloyd Austin III will travel to Israel on Sunday, as part of a trip which includes no other stop in the Midde East (if Austin wishes to visit his troops in Iraq, there will be no prior announcement, mostly for security reasons), turning back westward and heading to Germany, Belgium and Britain, a balancing act was to be expected.
Austin, a former Commanding General of Centcom, under whose wide wings Israel was admitted by one of the Trump Administration’s last acts, said through his spokesperson that while
In Israel, Hr “will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benjamin Gantz, to continue close consultations on shared priorities, and reaffirm the enduring U.S. commitment to the U.S.-Israel strategic partnership and Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge.” No need to employ a search engine to look for Iran. It is not there (well, now it is).
At the same time, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a brief read-out of his call to Jordan’s King Abdullah II. Through his own spokesperson, Blinken said that he
“reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to its strategic partnership with Jordan and commended King Abdullah II for Jordan’s steadfast leadership promoting peace and stability in the Middle East. The United States deeply values the strong bilateral cooperation and longtime friendship between our two countries.” The message was of course a signal that Washington sides with the King in his recent spat with his half-brother, Prince Hamza.
Blinken is yet to schedule his first visit to the region, sure to include Jerusalem and Amman, with Cairo and Riyadh optional, depending on policy both bi-lateral and regional, which awaits decisions and personnel issues, including the fate of Austin’s Policy Undersecretary-designate, Colin Kahl, whose confirmation in the Senate is in trouble. So phone calls, to Jordan’s Monarch or earlier to Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, serve as interim substitutes in both substance and symbolism.
The day before Austin and Blinken released their statements, Netanyahu had one of his own. He warned the parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action that whatever iteration of this 2015 agreement is now negotiated, Israel will not be bound by it and prevent Tehran’s efforts to acquire a Nuclear arsenal.
Taken at face value, there was nothing to write home about this portion of Netanyahu’s speech. Israel has never been a party to these Vienna talks, whether during the Obama Administration or this month. It is neither bound by it – though a UN Security Council resolution supporting such an understanding could be construed as applying to all member states, regardless of their involvement in the bargaining – nor oblivious to the position of its American protector and benefactor.
But Netanyahu spoke against a certain background, a convergence of external and internal vectors. Israel is more visibly involved in an exchange of blows with the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force in the maritime domain, with vessels being hit though up to now without casualties or major damage. Further escalation can be expected if ships or overland convoys insist on delivering significant weapons to Hezbollah and Israel persists in intercepting or disrupting them. Meanwhile, Netanyahu is desperately trying to cobble a new government, an improbable task if one is to believe politicians’ pronouncements, but perhaps more achievable if a sudden security crisis were to befall Israel. Such is Netanyahu’s standing while he is being tried on corruption charges that if almost out of the blue – sky or sea – hostilities erupt, many will suspect an ulterior motive.
Austin’s visit will serve to lessen tensions even before a single word is spoken. It is the sort of a diplomatic intervention Israeli leaders must consider when they weigh strikes against targets of opportunity. When a foreign dignitary comes calling, it is rude to strike on visit’s eve, unthinkable to do it during the visit and problematic to forgo a decent interval when it is over, lest the guest be accused of either collusion with or being duped by the Israelis. Austin’s trip will thus delete from the calendar a week’s worth of friction, as it ends just prior to Israel’s Memorial Day and Independece Day events, highlights in the nation’s annual schedule.
By mentioning his planned seperate meetings with the two Benjamins, Austin finds himself in the unique position of talking with the two most senior members of the government when they are hardly on speaking terms with each other, rarely able to agree on anything, including the cabinet’s agenda and appointing senior security officials. If Austin were more politically inclined, as were some of his predecessors who earlier served in Congress, he could have mediated between the adverserial Prime Minister and Defense Minister. He is not, but rather a retired soldier, at most used to conduct military diplomacy between regimes or headquarters in various Centcom countries, staying out of domestic politics there.
On the purely military side, IDF Chief of General Staff Aviv Kochavi will have a chance to exchange views with administration officials when he visits Washington later this month, though his host and counterpart General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is a holdover from the Trump era.
Kochavi, too, represents continuity in defense while Israel’s governmental institutions are in disarray, two-odd years into a political crisis with no apparent end at hand.
Austin, much like Blinken who called Abdullah to be heard – publicly – more than to hear, will not expect his hosts in the interim government to have definitive answers for him.
In a few weeks time there may or may not be new chiefs in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, with a new make-up of the decision-making security cabinet and new faces at all three intelligence agencies, the Foreign Ministry, the National Security Council and the Washington Embassy. It is not Austin’s fault, or Blinken, but Israel has some tough problems, indeed.