- The Washington Times - Friday, February 17, 2012

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Crunch time is coming in Iran, but President Obama and his men act as if they’re at the senior prom, trying to dance the minuet without anyone to dance with.

The White House is trying desperately to rewrite Leon Panetta’s interview with David Ignatius of The Washington Post, where he was said to believe Israel is likely to bomb the Iranian nuclear-weapon works “in April, May or June,” before Israel enters a “zone of immunity.” This is girlie-man language for “before it’s too late.”

“Very soon,” the columnist wrote from his notes of the interview, “the Israelis fear the Iranians will have stored enough enriched uranium in deep underground facilities to make a weapon — and [then] only the United States could stop them militarily.”

This could sound like a warning to the Iranians to straighten up and do right unless they want a lesson in the perils of not getting along with your neighbors. But this was not a warning to Tehran, but to Jerusalem. President Obama and the secretary of defense have told Israel they oppose any bombing of Iran, risking a “zone of immunity” or not, because the sanctions are really working and they must not say upsetting things to Iran. And if sanctions ultimately don’t work, someone at the White House will write a strong letter to the editor urging everyone to be nice.

The Panetta interview, published Feb. 2, made a lot of people’s teeth itch in Washington, particularly after Mr. Panetta passed up several opportunities to confirm his remarks, deny them or at least say his remarks were taken out of context. The miniature tape recorder that every reporter and columnist carries with his pen and paper has made life difficult for politicians and diplomats. Telling a diplomatic whopper ain’t what it used to be.

But the White House was clearly unhappy, if not with Mr. Panetta, who may have thought he was warning Israel to back away and shut up, then with the reporters and columnists for taking the Panetta remarks as a warning to Iran.

This week, a fortnight after the Ignatius interview, Mr. Panetta got another opportunity to say what he makes of what his remarks wrought. He appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and was pressed by Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, a Republican, to tell the senators who said what to whom.

“I usually don’t comment on columnists’ ideas about what I’m thinking,” he replied with a chuckle. “It’s usually - it’s a dangerous game to get into.” Then he retreated into argle-bargle about how the “international community” should act as one to deter Iran from making nuclear war. (If Russia, China, Upper Volta, Lower Slobbovia and the peace-loving nations work together with the West, the world will be safe for bunnies, begonias and all living things.)

The senator persisted. Does Mr. Panetta believe there’s a strong likelihood Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June? Was he misquoted or “mischaracterized” by the columnist? “I think, as the president has suggested, I think, ah, we do not think that Israel has made that decision,” he replied. Did he actually have a conversation with Mr. Ignatius? “As I said, the comments that are included in a column about what I am thinking or what I’m, you know, possibly worried about …” But did he talk to Mr. Panetta? “We talked, but we talked about a lot of things, frankly.” Was the administration trying to send a signal, either to Iran or Israel? “No.” And does he have a view of whether it’s likely that Israel will attack Iran this spring? “No, I do not.”

If people are confused in Washington and Tehran, most people are not confused in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The Israelis don’t have the luxury of endless talk-talk. Winston Churchill famously said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, but that’s only if there’s a willing and working jaw on both sides. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu only yesterday said sanctions are not working, an unpopular view in certain salons, but one widely held in private by soft-talking girlie men.

In Israel there’s a melancholy view of reality, where life is every day proved unfair. “We shall almost certainly see a war here,” said Sever Plocker, a prominent Israeli pundit, writing in Jerusalem’s YNetNews with a heavy heart. “Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear military sites earlier than predicted, while enjoying Western and Arab assistance and backing. The sirens will wake us up early in the morning. The Home Front Command’s spokesman will instruct us to enter our sealed rooms without panicking. And the rest will be history.”

Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.