Obama administration officials often seem to be walking on eggshells when they talk about issues involving Israel. So it was interesting Friday night to hear Defense Secretary Leon Panetta forcefully caution a U.S.-Israeli audience about the dangers of bombing Iran and tell Israel to “just get to the damn table” in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
Panetta was speaking to a gathering of the Saban Forum, an annual U.S.-Israeli dialogue about issues affecting the two countries. He made the comments in a unrehearsed question-and-answer session following what was a fairly cautious and predictable speech. He liked the “just get to the damn table” line so much that he repeated it, for good measure.
The most revealing answer came when Panetta was asked how long an Israel bombing attack on Iran would retard that country’s nuclear program. He argued that because targets are dispersed and hard to destroy, such an attack would likely delay Iran’s ability to make a nuclear weapon by only one to two years.
Against that meager potential gain, Panetta counterposed the danger of “unanticipated consequences,” including rallying support for a regime that is now isolated; the likelihood that the U.S. would be blamed and might be included in any retaliatory response; and the possibility of “escalation” that could broaden into a larger war in the region. For these reasons, he said, military action against Iran should be a “last resort.”
The audience included senior Israeli officials attending the forum. They gave Panetta a standing ovation at the end of his remarks, as they had at the beginning. He may also have earned an award for “chutzpah,” in voicing comments that are widely shared by U.S. officials but rarely expressed so bluntly in public.