As part of a trip announced a week ago, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates will meet today with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem to discuss how to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capability. (Actually, a meeting with Barak has already taken place.) “Both the U.S. and Israel agree it is preferable to solve the Iranian situation peacefully,” David Makovsky, co-author with Dennis Ross of the new Myths, Illusions & Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East, told us last week. “The differences are whether there is a Plan B if negotiations do not get off the ground.” The prospect of a potential last-ditch Israeli air strike will no doubt haunt the meetings: at a press conference this morning, Barak announced that “no options should be removed from the table.”
Before President George W. Bush tapped him to lead the Pentagon in late 2006, Gates had been CIA director under the first President Bush, and he is generally seen to share that earlier administration’s realist foreign-policy outlook. In the past, when not confined by the need to follow a particular administration’s line, Gates has advocated negotiating with Iran. In 2004, he co-chaired a task force that recommended that the U.S. “engage selectively,” and concluded that an Israeli bombing strike would be “extremely problematic” practically and “would adversely affect U.S. interests”. These more moderate sentiments, which were mostly out of fashion in the Bush administration (although Bush did oppose Israeli bombing), have largely been adopted by President Barack Obama. On the other hand, as Tablet Senior Editor Michael Weiss noted last week, the events of the past several weeks in Iran have made engagement a temporary non-starter. Moreover, though Gates’s preferred tactical strategy is more moderate than others’, he is nonetheless firm on the importance of resolving the Iranian situation: two weeks ago, he identified Iran’s nuclear ambitions as the biggest threat to global security.
So what happens today? The main goal appears less to be to conduct specific planning and more to achieve a general sense that the U.S. and Israel are on the same general page. According to Makovsky, Gates and Barak—the two countries’ civilian military heads—“hold each other in the highest professional regard.” Hopefully that will count for something even as the two countries disagree on the wisdom of engagement and as Israel continues to raise the specter of military action.