Hagel hugs Barak. But deep divisions are real and serious. So what did the two discuss?

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, embraces Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak as he arrives at the Pentagon, March 5, 2013. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo (Official DOD photo)

U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, right, embraces Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak as he arrives at the Pentagon, March 5, 2013. DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

Another day, another hug.

On Monday, Vice President Joe Biden gave Ehud Barak a bear hug on stage at the AIPAC conference. Today, newly-installed U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with outgoing Israeli Defense Minister at the Pentagon and also gave him a bear hug. This was Hagel’s first meeting with a foreign counterpart. The symbolism of meeting with an Israeli was important given Hagel’s troubling approach towards the Jewish state, and the President’s.

For despite all the hugging and the smiles, the painful truth is this: there is a deep divide between U.S. and Israeli policy on how to handle the big two issues of the moment — the Iranian nuclear threat and the implosion of Syria.

It is such serious divisions between an American administration and an Israeli government over how to handle Iran and Syria that lie at the heart of my new novel, Damascus Countdown. What if an American President and his national security team miscalculate ? What if Iran actually gets a small arsenal of nuclear warheads? What if an Israeli Prime Minister launches a massive preemptive strike against Iran despite intense pressure from the White House not to do so? What if Iran and her allies — including Syria — launch an all out war of annihilation against Israel, and the U.S. is not there to back up Israel? How would such a scenario play out? What are some of the worst case scenarios?

These tensions, however, are not fiction. They are all too real. President Obama says repeatedly that “all options are on the table” when it comes to preventing Iran from getting The Bomb. But he appointed a SecDef who is adamantly opposed to using military force against Iran. That hardly makes for a “credible” military threat. At the same time, the President continues to apply pressure in numerous ways against Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu to refrain from military action. He is not entirely dissimilar to the fictional President in my novel.

Barak, on the other hand, has worked for years with Netanyahu to come up with a serious, solid, operational military plan to neutralize the Iranian threat. Barak and Netanyahu have been arch political rivals for years. But they have worked together closely and well for the last four years because the existential threat posed by Iran is so real. Barak will be stepping down as soon as Netanyahu forms a new government. But this week it fell to Barak to attempt to persuade Hagel to take the mullahs in Tehran and their nuclear weapons ambitions far more seriously than he has so far, and to back Israel if Netanyahu feels he has no other choice and has to order airstrikes. It also fell to Barak to try to persuade Hagel to realize just how dangerous it will be if Assad uses chemical and biological weapons against his own people in Syria, or if those weapons of mass destruction fall into the hands of Iran, Hezbollah, al Qaeda or other Radical groups operating inside the no man’s land that is now modern day Syria.

What exactly was said behind closed doors? Was Barak successful? It’s too soon to say. We will likely know more soon as the media report leaks. We’ll learn more still in a few weeks when the President travels to Israel and the Middle East and is more public about his views. Is Obama going to “re-set” U.S.-Israel relations in a more positive way? Or is he going to apply even stronger pressure on Netanyahu to make dangerous, unwise concessions?

In related news, a panel discussion at the AIPAC conference on Monday “hinted at wide gaps between Israel and the US on how to coordinate the two countries’ strategies on Iran,” reports the Times of Israel.

“’We all share the same data, the same intelligence. We are also on the same page on the strategic goal to prevent Iran from being nuclear,’ the former head of IDF Military Intelligence Amos Yadlin told some 13,000 participants at the AIPAC policy conference. ‘But between the floor and the ceiling of the problem, there are doors and windows where we’re not in the same place. We should be much closer on how to prevent Iran to go nuclear.'”

According to the Times, Senator John McCain, a fellow panelist at the conference, responded, “It’s vitally important that in Tehran they understand that there’s no space between the US and Israel. They believe right now that there is space between the two countries.”

“Yadlin, who today heads the INSS think tank at Tel Aviv University, hinted that the Iranian regime’s sense of the gap between Israel and the US may be justified. ‘The time is running out in 2013,’ he said. The difference between the United States and Israel on the question could be summed up by Three T’s,’ Yadlin said, ‘a different trauma, a different trigger, and maybe not enough trust.’….We, the Israelis, come [to the issue] with the Holocaust. We are six million Israeli Jews listening to [Iran’s President] Ahmadinejad calling for Israel’s destruction. You come with a different trauma, Iraq. You don’t want another war, understandably.'”

But, Yadlin added, “This is not a war, this is a one-night operation, and we should speak about it.”

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