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Several questions asked in the third presidential debate were never clearly answered. One of the most vital concerns Israel: What exactly is the U.S. commitment to that country? It’s a question that an American president may suddenly be confronted with, some chaotic night at three A.M.
The reporter moderating the debate attempted to get an answer.
BOB SCHIEFFER: “Red lines, Israel and Iran. Would either of you —Would either of you be willing to declare that an attack on Israel is an attack on the United States, which of course is the same promise that we give to our close allies like Japan?
And if you made such a declaration, would not that deter Iran? It’s certainly deterred the Soviet Union for a long, long time when we made that — when we made that promise to our allies.
Good question…a request to clarify what has been a very intimate but imprecise relationship–challenging an American president –or future president–to make a stark commitment to Israel on his own accord, without seeking the consent of the Senate or Congress. Which, who knows, one chaotic night at three in the morning, he might be called upon to do.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, first of all, Israel is a true friend. It is our greatest ally in the region. And if Israel is attacked, America will stand with Israel.
I’ve made that clear throughout my presidency. And —
Just a minute, he didn’t really answer…but the moderator was there:
MR. SCHIEFFER: So you’re saying we’ve already made that declaration?
Good Question, but dodged again:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: I will stand with Israel if they are attacked.
Unasked question: What does “stand by” mean, Mr. President? Cheer from the sidelines? Send emergency arms, dispatch rockets to shoot down incoming missiles, as was done in past crises by the U.S?
But Obama went on.
OBAMA: And this is the reason why, working with Israel, we have created the strongest military and intelligence cooperation between our two countries in history. In fact, this week we’ll be carrying out the largest military exercise with Israel in history, this very week.
Unasked Question: Does that mean, Mr. President, that American armed forces would become directly involved if Israel were attacked?…if say, its perimeter defenses were overwhelmed? If the Arabs or Iranians were marching on Tel Aviv?
If not, what is the point of carrying out the “largest military exercises in history” with Israel? Exercising for what?”
Next to a question about economic sanctions against Iran…
OBAMA: …the reason we did this is because a nuclear Iran is a threat to our national security and it’s threat to Israel’s national security. We cannot afford to have a nuclear arms race in the most volatile region of the world.
Unanswered question. Nuclear arms race? Hasn’t Israel had nuclear weapons for decades now, Mr. President?
And now to Romney on Israel:
MR. ROMNEY: Well, first of all, I — I want to underscore the — the same point the president made, which is that if I’m president of the United States, when I’m president of the United States, we will stand with Israel. And — and if Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily.
Unanswered Question: Uh, again, what does that mean, Governor? Would you commit boots on the ground? Cruise missiles? Destroyers? Under what circumstances?
Then, when the subject of Egypt’s shaky new government came up
OBAMA: They [the Egyptians] have to abide by their treaty with Israel. That is a red line for us, because not only is Israel’s security at stake, but our security is at stake if that unravels.
Mr. President, could you explain why America’s security is dependent on a treaty between Egypt and Israel?
If these question weren’t asked during the debate, did anyone hear them raised afterwards by any of the army of media pundits?
Barry M. Lando, a graduate of Harvard and Columbia University, spent 25 years as an award-winning investigative producer with 60 Minutes. His latest book is “Web of Deceit: The History of Western Complicity in Iraq, from Churchill to Kennedy to George W. Bush.” Lando is currently completing a novel, “The Watchman’s File”, concerning Israel’s most closely guarded secret (it’s not the bomb.) He can be reached through his blog.