TEL AVIV — Sometime in 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak met with their top five cabinet ministers for a routine yet secret meeting to discuss pressing security and foreign-policy issues. The group, which has no legal status and does not have the authority to make decisions, is known as the "Secret Seven,” inspired by the “Secret Seven" series of adventure novels for children by the British author Enid Blyton.
Also present at that meeting (the date of which Israeli censors do not allow to be specified) were Israel's security chiefs, including then-Mossad director Meir Dagan, Chief of the General Staff Major-General Gabi Ashkenazi and a few others.
Minutes before that meeting ended, Netanyahu turned to the chief of staff, General Ashkenazi, and told him to “set the systems for P-plus,” a term meaning to swiftly increase the preparedness of the military in case of a war with Iran. The measures to be taken in such a situation could include moving military units, strengthening intelligence capabilities and preparing the home front for a war.
The 2010 incident was reported earlier this week in the opening of a new season of "Uvda" (“fact” in Hebrew), a flagship program of Channel 2, Israel's largest commercial and privately owned TV station.
The story hit Israeli headlines and reverberated in major Middle Eastern and Western media outlets. The prime minister's words two years ago are now interpreted by the Israeli and international media as an order for the military to begin the countdown to an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities.
But the truth of what happened, which went farther than that particular meeting involving Netanyahu, Barak and their top military and security echelon, is much more complex and intriguing than the way it was broadcast and understood.
The truth is that Netanyahu and Barak did not order the military to plan a direct, all-out attack on Iran. Their true intention was to trigger a chain of events which would create tension and provoke Iran, and eventually could have led to a war that might drag in the United States.
At that meeting and on other occasions, General Ashkenazi warned Netanyahu and Barak that such an order could "create uncontrollable facts on the ground" which could ignite an undesired regional war. "If you open and press an accordion, the instrument starts playing music" was the picturesque description from the chief of staff, who retired more than a year ago.
Ashkenazi’s concerns were echoed at the time by Mossad director Dagan, who at present is fighting for his life at an Israeli hospital after a liver transplant four weeks ago.
Before his illness, Dagan, who retired from his office nearly two years ago, talked in private on numerous occasionns about Netanyahu and Barak's intentions against Iran. He revealed that he witnessed several incidents in which Netanyahu, who became prime minister in 2009 and is seeking reelection in January 2013, conspired with Barak to take measures which could have led to miscalculations by Iran.
One such scary scenario was the possibility that Iranian intelligence could have noticed the Israeli military preparations and decided to stage a pre-emptive strike against Israel or US targets in the region. Israel, in such a situation, would have claimed that it was a victim of Iranian aggression and retaliated. America, too, could have found itself caught up in an unpredictable circle of violence.
Sources who were privy to the secret deliberations told me that Ashkenazi and Dagan eventually managed to convince the security cabinet and then the full cabinet, which are the only authorized bodies to decide on war and other vital issues, that Netanyahu and Barak were playing with fire and may not only ignite a regional war in the Middle East, but also ruin decades of close, intimate strategic cooperation with the US.
Since then, bad blood has overtaken the relations between Netanyahu and Barak on one hand and Ashkenazi, Dagan and Yuval Diskin, the former chief of the domestic security service Shin Bet, on the other. A few months ago, Diskin described Netanyahu and Barak as being "motivated" by a "messianic" drive. Barak in return accused his critics of attempting a military "putsch" — the disobedience of generals of legitimate elected officials — and hinted that they deliberately did not prepare the military for the mission.
For the time being, the danger of war with Iran has diminished. Israel is preoccupied with its national election on January 22. The Iranian issue is no longer high on the Israeli political agenda. Opinion polls indicate that Barak, who is leading a small party, may not be reelected. Netanyahu himself, in his speech last September in the UN General Assembly, set spring, or at the latest, summer 2013, as a new deadline to deal with Iran's nuclear program.
The results of the US elections will also have a tremendous effect on the future Israeli deliberations and decision regarding Iran.
If Netanyahu is re-elected — and he has a fairly good chance, though it's premature to predict — he will get right back to beating the war drums. He is obsessed with Iran's nuclear program. He has time and again likened Iran’s policies to German Nazi hatred of the Jews. He seems to feel certain that if Iran produces nuclear weapons, they will be used to destroy Israel and the Jewish people.
Netanyahu reiterated this week in interviews that if he is re-elected, he will not allow Iran to have nuclear weapons. He refused to be more specific about how he would achieve that. But with the re-election of President Obama, and the likely re-election of Netanyahu, what to do about Iran, and the consequences of such action, will be at the very top of the national-security agendas of both Israel and the United States in 2013.
Yossi Melman is an Israeli commentator on security and intelligence affairs and the co-author with CBS News Correspondent Dan Raviv of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel's Secret Wars. They blog at IsraelSpy.com.