The postponement of a massive joint United States-Israeli military exercise appears to be the culmination of a series of events that has impelled the Barack Obama administration to put more distance between the United States and aggressive Israeli policies toward Iran.
The exercise, called "Austere Challenge 12" and originally scheduled for April, was to have been a simulation of a joint US-Israeli effort to identify, track and intercept incoming missiles by integrating sophisticated US radar systems with the Israeli Arrow, Patriot and Iron Dome anti-missile defense systems.
United States participation in such an exercise, obviously geared to a scenario involving an Iranian retaliation against an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities, would have made the US out to be a partner of Israel in any war that would follow an Israeli attack on Iran.
Obama and US military leaders apparently decided that the US could not participate in such an exercise so long as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to give the administration any assurance that he would not attack Iran without prior approval from Washington.
The official explanation from both Israeli and US officials about the delay was that both sides agreed on it. Both Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Mark Regev, spokesman for Netanyahu, suggested that it was delayed to avoid further exacerbation of tensions in the Gulf.
The spokesman for the US European Command, Captain John Ross, and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told Laura Rozen of Yahoo News on Sunday that the two sides had decided on the postponement to the second half of 2012 without offering any specific reason for it.
However, Rozen reported on Monday that "several current and former American officials" had told her on Sunday that the delay had been requested last month by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. One official suggested privately that there was concern that the alleged Barak request could be aimed at keeping Israel's options open for a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities in the spring.
But it would make little sense for Netanyahu and Barak to commit Israel to war with Iran before the shape of the US presidential election campaign had become clear. And Barak would want to have knowledge gained from the joint exercise in tracking and intercepting Iranian missiles with the US military before planning such a strike.
Moreover, the Israeli Air Force was still touting the planned maneuvers as recently as Thursday and, according to Israeli media, was taken by surprise by Sunday's announcement.
The idea that the Israelis wanted the postponement appears to be a cover story to mask the political blow it represents to the Netanyahu government and to shield Obama from Republican charges that he is not sufficiently supportive of Israel. Nevertheless, the signal sent by the delay to Netanyahu and Barak, reportedly the most aggressive advocates of a strike against Iran in Israel's right-wing government, could hardly be lost on the two leaders.
Obama may have conveyed the decision to Netanyahu during what is said to have been a lengthy telephone discussion between the two leaders on Thursday night. Iran policy was one of the subjects Obama discussed with him, according to the White House press release on the conversation.
The decision to postpone the exercise may have been timed to provide a strong signal to Netanyahu in advance of this week's visit to Israel by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. Dempsey reportedly expressed grave concern at a meeting with Obama last autumn about the possibility that Israel intended to carry out a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities without consulting with Washington in advance.
Obama has been quoted as responding that he had "no say" in Israel's policy, much to Dempsey's dismay.
The coincidence of the announced delay with Dempsey's mission thus suggests that the new military chief may inform his Israeli counterpart that any US participation in a joint exercise like "Austere Challenge 12" was contingent on Israel ending its implicit threat to launch an attack on Iran at a time of its own choosing.
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