from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Panetta and Israel

October 5, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

More on:


United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions

U.S. Secretary of Defence Panetta speaks during a joint news conference with Israel's Defence Minister Barak in Tel Aviv (Courtesy REUTERS/Jack Guez/Pool).

En route to the Middle East this week, Defense Secretary Panetta delivered one of his first comments on the region--and blew it.

Here is part of what he said:

It’s pretty clear that this dramatic time in the Middle East, where there have been so many changes, that it is not a good situation for Israel to become increasingly isolated, and that’s what’s happening

Panetta also said :

is it enough to maintain an military edge if you are isolating yourself diplomatically?

What’s wrong with those statements? Two things. First, Panetta might have noted that Israel is not responsible for the changes in the region-from Syria to Turkey to Egypt, and beyond. His formulation suggests that Israel’s own conduct has isolated it. That would be in line with standard Obama Administration views, but would also be wrong and unfair.

Second, even if Panetta believes Israel is to blame, what is the point of saying what he said?

Think of it this way: you and a friend of yours are walking through a dangerous neighborhood. You are somewhat fretful but your friend is actually a very big, strong fellow. You turn a corner and see a dangerous gang of toughs facing you. Just then your big friend says, "hmmm, it seems to me you are increasingly isolated." Does that make you feel safer? Does it, more importantly, make you more or less safe? Is it more likely to make the gang of toughs attack, or back away?

If events in the Middle East are endangering Israel’s security situation, what is needed from the top U.S. officials are statements saying Israel is not isolated. The Obama Administration appears to understand clearly the need for very close U.S.-Israel military cooperation. What it does not understand is that statements like Panetta’s undercut that cooperation and suggest to Israel’s enemies that the country is indeed isolated and increasingly vulnerable.

Panetta’s comments on Iran were equally puzzling and unhelpful. An article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported:

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visited Israel Monday with a clear message from his boss in Washington: The United States opposes any Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. At a joint press conference with Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Panetta stressed that any steps against Iran’s nuclear program must be taken in coordination with the international community. The United States, he said, is "very concerned, and we will work together to do whatever is necessary" to keep Iran from posing "a threat to this region." But doing so "depends on the countries working together," he added. He repeated the word "together" several times in this context.

Now, if it is the goal of the Obama Administration to avoid an Israeli strike but to avoid an Iranian bomb as well, does it not make far more sense to caution Israel in private--while allowing the Israeli military threat to Iran to act as pressure on the ayatollahs? What is gained by making them more secure, and therefore less likely to negotiate seriously? Panetta’s approach simply makes no sense. Far more useful is the Sarkozy approach, making use of the Israeli military threat against Iran. President Sarkozy said last summer that Iran’s "military nuclear and ballistic ambitions constitute a growing threat that may lead to a preventive attack against Iranian sites that would provoke a major crisis that France wants to avoid at all costs."

Secretary Panetta is new in his current post but comes to it with very long experience. It is fair to expect that his public statements will be more carefully considered--and more likely to advance U.S. foreign policy goals.

More on:


United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions