Herzliya Conference, day three: They’ve all gone to look for America

Will the United States change its relationship with Israel? Will it stand by its commitment to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon? Will it disengage from the Middle East altogether?

Those were the questions that dominated the third day of the Herzliya Conference on Wednesday, from a couple of sessions on U.S. Middle East policy in the morning, to a panel on the so-called U.S. “Asian pivot,” to a plenary in the evening on the Iranian nuclear threat.

The upshot: The U.S.-Israel relationship probably will remain strong. America has made repeated public commitments to prevent an Iranian bomb – though some doubt whether President Obama will follow through. And though it’s unlikely that the U.S. will rush to get involved in another conflict here, events and U.S. interests will keep it from disengaging from the region.

One week before Obama was scheduled to arrive in Israel for a three-day trip, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro said that the visit’s purpose is “to reaffirm our commitments to Israel and connect to the people of Israel,” the administration’s oft-repeated message. He said that the president would discuss Iran, the Syrian civil war and Palestinian-Israeli negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As they have for weeks here, experts’ discussions of the president’s trip revolved around his improving a tense relationship with Netanyahu and the Israeli people. Dore Gold, who served as Netanyahu’s U.N. ambassador during his first term in the late 1990s, said that Obama’s relationship with Israelis is just beginning.

Gold said President Clinton, who visited Israel several times, “had an eight-year relationship with Israel and put on the table a difficult set of parameters he hoped the Israelis would take,” referring to Clinton’s plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace. “It almost had a kashrut certificate.”

The tensest points of discussing the U.S.-Israel relationship came, unsurprisingly, when the Iranian nuclear program came up.

Several people said that the U.S. and Israel had near-identical intelligence assessments and were cooperating closely. But former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Dov Zakheim said that aside from stopping the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons pursuit, the U.S.’s “number-one priority is stopping this country [Israel] from an attack” on Iran.

Most of the evening’s panelists, asked whether it was time to stop negotiating with Iran and attack, said that they believe Obama when he says that he’ll prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, not contain it.

But Mary Beth Long, also a former U.S. undersecretary of defense, doubted the truth of Obama’s public statements.

“The U.S. administration has made the decision that it is not prepared to strike Iran,” she said. “I don’t think the American people have been prepared for the ultimate decision of a U.S. strike.” She said the political pressure of the 2014 midterms and a desire not to get entangled in another conflict would deter Obama’s decision to strike.

Former Israeli National Security Advisor Uzi Arad countered that “the president and all his spokespeople expressed that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and that the U.S. is determined to prevent. That’s a position that has been expressed again and again, and credibility matters.”

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