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President Barack Obama refused to let Israel strike Iran last year despite the Israeli prime minister’s willingness to sign off on such an attack, according to statements made by a former top Israeli military leader earlier this week.
Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser to the Israeli government and a retired Major General in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), told the Israeli press that Obama “vetoed” the strike, which was planned to take place at the height of the 2012 election cycle.
“Israel has the capability to destroy the Iranian nuclear program” and was prepared to do so, Eiland was quoted as saying in a private meeting earlier this month, according to the Israeli paper Mida.
However, top White House officials “pressured” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cancel the attack on Iranian nuclear sites, according to Eiland.
“There are many areas where Israel is free to act independently: building in Jerusalem, striking in Gaza, and other areas in our region, where we do not need an approval from the U.S.—even when they do not like it,” Eiland told the Israeli paper, confirming that Netanyahu “was about to give a go-ahead” before being told by the United States to stand down.
“But when it comes to issues that affect the broader American interests, we cannot act contrary to their considerations,” Eiland was quoted as saying.
News of the aborted strike comes as the Obama administration pushes for military action in Syria, where embattled President Bashar al-Assad stands accused of using chemical weapons.
Eiland and other insiders said that U.S. hesitance to strike Syria is a sign that an Iran strike is even less likely to take place.
“The lack of enthusiasm in the U.S. regarding the strike in Syria signals that this is not a realistic expectation,” Eiland told the paper, adding that it would be best for the United States to take the lead against Iran should it come down to that.
American Jewish leaders agreed with this assessment.
“Eiland is a very serious and well informed guy,” said Morris Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the nation’s leading pro-Israel group.
“Also, I know that the Israeli military believes it can significantly delay any Iranian nuclear weapons capability and has some surprising tactics which have not, to my knowledge been disseminated,” Amitay said.
“What else gives credence to [Obama’s] warnings against an attack fits well with his overall reluctance to use military force,” Amitay said, referring to reports that Obama “delayed the raid on” al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Netanyahu was eager to launch a preemptive strike on Iran last year because he believed that the regime had reached a nuclear tipping point, according to Eiland.
“At that time the prime minister thought that we were at the crossroads with regard to the Iranian nuclear program”, Eiland was quoted as saying in the Aug. 19 meeting in Israel.
“Israel does not require U.S. approval for its military actions—unless the US unequivocally demands that we refrain from a particular action,” Eiland reportedly said.
However, U.S. officials “made it clear” at the time “that the planned strike was out of the question—and the strike was aborted as a result,” Mida reported.
Iran has only progressed in its nuclear know-how since last year, according to nuclear watchdog groups.
Iran is on pace to test around 1,000 new advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) most recent report.
“As time passed, we are again finding ourselves at the same crossroads—only with less time, and between a rock and a hard place”, Eiland was quoted as saying. “A lack of decision is a dramatic decision in and of itself.”
Middle East expert Jonathan Schanzer said that while Israel and the United States have been closely coordinating on Iran, it is unlikely that Netanyahu ordered a strike without first consulting the White House.
“The U.S. and Israel have been coordinating and communicating for the last several year,” said Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). “This is by far the top issue on the table for both countries. The idea Israel would have scrambled jets and then have that shot down by the U.S. military seems unlikely.”
However, it remains true that “the Israelis have a different timetable than the U.S.” when it comes to striking Iran.
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.