TEL AVIV — Ehud Barak is playing with fire, and we may all get burned. Based on the Israeli defense minister’s declarations in recent weeks, on and off the record, it seems that he stands solidly with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the issue of Iran’s nuclear program. They are clearly preparing the groundwork for a fateful vote by the Israeli cabinet on whether to bomb Iran.
Their target date seems to be sometime in October, after the Jewish high holidays next month — in part before bad weather may make the skies over Iran impenetrable to Israel’s air force, but also because they feel less certain of support by the United States after America’s election day on November 6.
They both are ready to gamble on a decision that could light a fire throughout the Middle East — unless Israel is extraordinarily lucky, and everything goes as well as it did when the nation’s air force destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and a reactor that was under construction in Syria in 2007.
Netanyahu and Barak seem to differ only in style. The prime minister tries to touch the hearts and fears of his countrymen by speaking of a second Holocaust. He likens Islamic Iran to Nazi Germany, a menace to the very existence of the Jewish people, yet most of the world ignores the threats.
Barak, on the other hand, tries to present all the arguments for and against a strike on Iran, as though analyzing rationally. Can Israel’s air force significantly damage Iran’s nuclear plants? How many Israelis might die if Iran and its allies strike back with thousands of missiles? What will be the true impact on USA-Israeli relations? Yet, taking a step back, it seems that he is also calculating his own best chances for a political comeback.
How can one take seriously a man who, just five years ago, opposed dispatching Israeli planes to destroy Syria’s nuclear facility? Barak’s stand, in cabinet meetings only recently revealed, smells of political interests: Better to wait, in his view, for then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to lose power so that Barak could rush forward and be elected the country’s new leader.
In addition, Israelis who spoke with Barak three years ago about Iran’s nuclear program did not hear him breathe a word about an “existential threat” to Israel — one of his favorite tropes today. Even then he was reading the Israeli intelligence analyses, which have not essentially changed in their prediction that Iran will be able to create a nuclear warhead and deliver it atop a missile no sooner than 2014 or 2015.
All that has really changed is Barak’s position on all this. Now he acts more like a gambler. At age 70, his political career is probably near an end. He no longer leads the Labor Party, and his new faction in the Knesset is little more than his own chair in the parliamentary chamber. Yet it seems that Barak seeks one more chance to grab glory.
Toward that end, he and Netanyahu are willing to let the Israeli people take huge risks to their welfare and to their very lives.
Even before one bomb is dropped, their inflammatory, bellicose rhetoric has already caused damage not only to the US-Israeli strategic alliance but also here in Israel. The fear of war can be heard on every street corner. Many Israelis are getting nervous, speaking of moving to other areas or foreign countries they deem safer. The Tel Aviv Stock Exchange has been jittery. Investments from abroad could dry up.
Why Barak and Netanyahu keep beating the war drum so loudly, I was asked by a former senior Mossad operative who thirty-one years ago was deeply involved in the decision-making process which led to the attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor.
"We deliberated in closed doors, maintained secrecy and avoided spreading panic," he said. One possible answer to his puzzlement is that Netanyahu and Barak have no real intention of attacking Iran but are trying to provoke the Iranian leadership to lose its nerve and stage a pre-emptive strike: to attack Israel and not wait for the “aggressive and odious Zionists” to hit first.
Even more Machiavellian is the possibility that Netanyahu and Barak are hoping to draw the United States into war, at a time that could be most inconvenient for Washington.
Why the rush? Why do they act like it's now or never? The defense minister says that Iran is amassing enriched uranium and moving it to underground locations that Israeli bombs will soon be unable to reach and penetrate. Yet if Israel attacks soon and triggers a crisis before America’s election, Barack Obama may well be very annoyed — or worse. A president seeking re-election does not need such situations, and the Israeli premier and defense minister certainly could wait a few weeks more.
The Israelis must remember that though a nuclear Iran will pose a threat to the existence of Israel, there is an even bigger existential danger: risking the long and intimate strategic alliance with the US and eventually losing the support of its best ally and its guarantee of surviving in the hostile and rough neighborhood of the Middle East. The Israeli leaders had better listen to the US and believe the president and his top administration officials when they promise that America cannot and will not tolerate a nuclear Iran.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli commentator on security matters and co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars, recently published by Levant Books.