The Israeli left-of-center newspaper Haaretz is reporting that the Obama administration will offer Israel a “nuclear umbrella” which will consist of a strategic agreement whereby Washington will carry out a devastating nuclear attack on Iran if the Mullahs use a nuclear weapon to attack Israel. Haartez has unusually good sources within the Obama transition team, so the story should be taken seriously. It is also somewhat similar to the Hillary Clinton pledge to “obliterate” Iran, made during the Democratic primaries, so it clearly reflects the thinking of the soon-to-be Secretary of State. Martin Indyk, Clinton-era ambassador to Israel and a frontrunner to become Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, has also supported such an arrangement.
If the story is accurate, it raises a number of questions, some of which are being raised by the Israelis themselves. First, the description of the proposed agreement makes it appear that Washington will be responsible for retaliating for an Iranian attack. Given the size of Israel, an Iranian attack, if successful, would virtually destroy the country, meaning that the American pledge would not achieve the objective of protecting Israel. Second, Iran does not have a nuclear weapon now and it is far from clear that it will ever have one. Nevertheless, the guarantee suggests that the Obama Administration accepts that Iran will some day have such a weapon and it appears to concede that there is no way to stop such a development. If the Obama team believes that it is possible to stop the weapons program, there would be no need for the guarantee. Third, what would be the American response under the guarantee if Israel were to attack Iran first, triggering the response from Tehran? The situation would be analogous to allowing Georgia to enter NATO so it can attack Russia. If there are no restraints on Israeli behavior, the United States could be drawn willy-nilly into a nuclear war due to the action of a tiny client state. And finally fourth, what is the quid pro quo? If the United States is willing to guarantee Israel’s security, it should be able to demand something from Israel, like the evacuation of the West Bank and the creation of a Palestinian State.
If providing some form of security guarantees to Israel as part of a larger game that would lead to a viable Palestinian state on one hand and would restrain Israel’s aggressive behavior on the other, it might actually be something worth considering. General James Jones, who will be Obama’s National Security Adviser, has floated the idea of placing NATO troops as a peacekeeping force on the West Bank. The idea has been attacked because it would mean that the soldiers would likely be assailed by both sides, but it would also protect the Palestinians, stop the growth of settlements, and provide some breathing space for a modus vivendi to be worked out.