The Capability Gap

Listening to President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu at the AIPAC Policy Conference, it seems fairly clear that there are areas of agreement between the Israeli government and the Obama Administration concerning Iran, along with some tensions. One major area of agreement is very significant and should not be ignored.

Containment is Not an Option

President Obama said:

Iran’s leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

It is not an acceptable option for Iran to become like North Korea, allowed to acquire nuclear weapons and then isolated. Iran is already supporting terrorism against Israel, America, and its allies in locations around the world. Its training, funding, and equipping of insurgents in Iraq alone have resulted in thousands of American casualties and Iran supports Hizballah and Hamas as well as the murderous dictatorship in Syria. Iran is already the leading exporter of anti-Israel, anti-America, anti-West, terrorism in the world–without nuclear weapons. Imagine what it would do with the cover of a nuclear weapon? Imagine a nuclear armed Iran blockading the Persian Gulf! Beyond this, there would be a nuclear arms race in the Middle East with other nations seeking to acquire their own as rapidly as possible. A nuclear arms race in the most volatile region in the world, a region full of anti-American and anti-Israeli hostility, is not a good thing for either America or Israel. Containment is not a reasonable option.

The tensions that are most evident concern the timeline for stopping Iran from crossing the nuclear weapons threshold.

Prime Minister Netanyahu  said:

Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue.  We’ve waited for diplomacy to work.  We’ve waited for sanctions to work.  None of us can afford to wait much longer. As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live in the shadow of annihilation.

This tension about the timeline no doubt makes it appear to some, if not many, that Obama and Netanyahu are not on the same page. This is not a new issue, and it one that President Obama has addressed in the past for the very same reason that it must be addressed again today.

President Obama provided Israel with bunker buster bombs shortly after taking office. Iran was hardening and burying its nuclear sites. Israel could not wait longer while still maintaining the ability to destroy them. Those bunker buster bombs extended Israel’s capability to destroy some of hardened targets and allowed it to wait several years that it could not have waited otherwise. The President bought time for sanctions to work. The problem is that the extra time, three years, has now run out. Iran is closer to achieving the capability to create a weapon and it is closer to burying and hardening its nuclear sites beyond Israel’s reach.

The Capability Gap

Israel is capable of doing real damage to Iran’s nuclear program now. It will be capable of doing significant damage to that program for a few months longer–but not for long beyond that point. Iran will have hardened and buried the targets beyond Israel’s reach. 

For a time after that, those targets will still be within America’s reach. America has the power to wait longer to see if sanctions and diplomatic efforts will work. This is The Capability Gap.

The Capability Gap is the reason that on Monday night, Prime Minister Netanyahu read the American response to the request to bomb the train tracks leading to Auschwitz. America could have. The Jews could not have. America did not act. PM Netanyahu noted that America today is not America of 1944, but also that the Jews of today are not the Jews of 1944.

It is not for the sake of American voters alone, but for Israelis as well, if not primarily, that President Obama, after noting what his administration has done to support Israel, said:

There should not be a shred of doubt by now — when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.

The President would like to assure Israelis that should they choose to wait longer to see if sanctions and diplomacy could work, that he and America will “have their back.” It must have been frustrating for the President to hear Prime Minister Netanyahu’s response the next day:

  • The purpose of the Jewish state is to defend Jewish lives and to secure the Jewish future.
  • Never again will we not be masters of the fate of our very survival. Never again.
  • That is why Israel must always have the ability to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.
  • We deeply appreciate the great alliance between our two countries.
  • But when it comes to Israel’s survival, we must always remain the masters of our fate.

By allowing its capability deadline to pass, Israel would be yielding its ability to defend itself to the United States.

In recognition of that fact, however, the President said this:

Iran’s leaders should have no doubt about the resolve of the United States — just as they should not doubt Israel’s sovereign right to make its own decisions about what is required to meet its security needs.

This would appear to be a green light from President Obama for Israel to act militarily should it decide to do so on its own.

It would seem that the opportunity to avoid military action is closing, but that through security cooperation it may be extended for a bit longer. Sen. McConnell in his speech to AIPAC may well have offered the best solution to closing The Capability Gap with his proposal that:

If at any time the intelligence community presents the Congress with an assessment that Iran has begun to enrich uranium to weapons grade levels, or has taken a decision to develop a nuclear weapon — consistent with protecting classified sources and methods — I will consult with the President and joint congressional leadership and introduce before the Senate an authorization for the use of military force.
This authorization, if enacted, will ensure the nation and the world that our leaders are united in confronting Iran, and will undermine the perception that the U.S. is wounded or retreating from global responsibilities.

I believe that short of concrete assurances that America will act militarily after the point that Israel cannot, Israel may not be able to wait much longer.

About the Author
Rabbi David Kaufman is the Rabbi of Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, Iowa, a congregation affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism. He is also the President and Co-Founder of We Are For Israel, the home of "Centrist Advocates for Realistic Peace" and created the news site about the crisis in the Nuba Mountains, Rabbi Kaufman maintains an informational blog on which he posts sermons and other materials related to Jewish practice and belief at