Does Barak Really Want to Attack Iran?

Israeli politicians and high level army officers have been publicly arguing about whether Israel should attack Iran's nuclear plants again, writes Ben Caspit. The Americans are convinced that Defense Minister Barak is pushing the buttons behind this battle, but he may just be playing with fire for political means. 

al-monitor Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak.  Photo by REUTERS/Baz Ratner.

Topics covered

syria, nuclear, iran, idf, harpaz affair, harpaz, clinton, chief of staff gantz, camp david, bramble bush, barak, arafat

Aug 2, 2012

For quite some time now, the Americans have been on edge, their taut nerves continuously frayed over the question of  whether Israel would dare set out on the Iranian adventure all by its own before the upcoming presidential election in the United States. As the time passes by and the moment of decision is approaching, the Americans become ever more nervous. August, September, October. This is the time interval left. And with every passing day, they breathe another little sigh of relief in Washington. However, the countdown is still far from over; in fact, its best part is still ahead of us. [United States Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton left here last week and for a moment, for just a brief moment, the Americans were under the impression that they could breathe easy, but then, as usual, everything has turned upside down and following a series of statements (naturally, led by Defense Minister Ehud Barak) plus what the Americans deem "tell-tale signs," the situation is back to square one.

It is rumored that senior [Israeli] officials who are taking part in the deliberations [over the Iranian issue] describe the goings-on around the table as "a gigantic struggle." So far, no decision has been made. Ehud Barak is portrayed in this context as the source of energy, the small nuclear reactor that is driving the entire operation, promoting the move, exerting pressure, holding briefings and endeavoring to drag Israel into a confrontation that virtually all heads of Israel's defense establishment (those currently in office as well as their predecessors) oppose. They warn him of the potential outcome of such a move, explain to him the implications to be expected, present him with figures and data that show that Israel cannot, all by its own, prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capability and that, in its efforts to do so, may inadvertently [even] accelerate Iran's race for the nuke, but to no avail; he is standing his ground.

I personally believe that it is all really a propaganda show on the part of Barak, that it's all make believe, that he is riding the Iranian wave, attempting to leverage it as far as possible [to his own political benefit], that he is trying to take charge of the issue and lead it so as to gain control over the niche of "Mr. defense" that was denied him in the days of former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi [in office]. After all, the Iranian issue did not seem to bother Barak too much under former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and it was, in fact, impossible to induce him to hold deliberations on the matter at the time. And then came Bibi  [PM Benjamin Nethayhu]. When the Prime Minister became aware of the [Iranian] threat, his eyes lit up and he was seized with excitement. Barak identified it in real time and promptly assumed the role of "Mr. Iran". He spotted Netanyahu's obsession [with the Iranian threat] and his perception of himself as the knight in shining armor who was coming to our [Israel’s] rescue and saving us from a second Holocaust, thereby assuring his place in history (a perception labeled "messianic" by [former Israel's domestic security chief] Yuval Diskin) and used it to maliciously take over the Prime Minister's soul and later on, perhaps even the government itself.

Barak is an expert in matters like this. It’s guerrilla warfare; it's his own territory. Thus, for instance , he managed in a lightning move, without raising anyone's suspicion, to bring aboutthe amendment of the State Comptroller Law, just because of a single [State Comptroller] report naming him as one of the prime figures criticized. On the Iranian issue, Barak invests his best efforts and so far, it should be admitted, he is successful. His performance is brilliant. He deserves to be named "the best actor of the year" in the performing arts. If you think about it, you will realize that Barak is the type that advocates and promotes operations that stand no chance of materializing in reality (Bramble Bush [an Israeli plan to assassinate Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 1992, conceived by then-IDF Chief of Staff Ehud Barak, which was called off following a fatal training accident]). At the same time, you can count on him to foil, halt or try to torpedo operations of importance before they are launched or while they are already underway (suffice it to mention the Gaza War of 2008–2009, known as Operation Cast Lead, the 2006 Lebanon War, known in Israel as the Second Lebanon War, and other operations that are still considered classified). Let's call the option described above, whereby Barak is actually bluffing us, the "trickery option".

He knows better

The problem is that there is another option. Under this option, it may well be that this time around it's for real, that Barak indeed means what he says. Quite a few of his close associates were cited here, time and again, as saying that the only way Ehud Barak can rehabilitate his reputation is by means of either a far-reaching political move recorded to his credit (which is not going to happen anymore) or a large-scale, resounding military move in line with his security doctrine (which is liable to happen yet). Furthermore, Barak is known to ignore warnings and take no notice of imminent catastrophes. There are ample examples of it.

Before then-Israeli Prime Minister Barak left for [the July 2000 Middle East Peace Summit at] Camp David, on what proved to be a disastrous trip, he had been warned countless times that he was playing with fire, that [Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser] Arafat was not ready for the move, that the groundwork had not been properly laid, that it could all blowin his and our face. Eitan Ben-Zur, who was serving at the time as the Israeli Foreign Ministry director general, told me on July 26 that he and then-Foreign Minister David Levy held numerous face-to-face talks with Barak [in an attempt to dissuade him], but that he refused to listen. Levy and Ben-Zuralerted the Americans as well; however, Barak exerted heavy pressure on the U.S. Administration, which eventually gave in. Levy and Ben-Zur took care to be discreet so as not to embarrass then-Prime Minister Barak, who would never agree to look as if he succumbed under pressure. However, this too did not help. Regardless of the warnings repeated in all the situation assessments by all the security officials involved, Barak insisted on his own. He knew better than anyone. Just give him Arafat for half an hour in the lodge at Camp David and everything was going to be all right.

Eventually, David Levy resigned from office as foreign minister as he did not wish to take part in the fiasco. Barak pushed everybody to go to Camp David. It turned out to be a flop since nobody had bothered to prepare it, no one had taken the trouble of enlisting the support of the Egyptian and the Saudis or, in fact, generating a pan-Arab move, reaching some sort of an agreement beforehand, formulating an outline acceptable to the Arab League that would enable the success of the move. Camp David is a living example of total eclipse, of the absolute blindness of a leadership that failed to read the reality and rushed straight into the wall in a head-on collision rather than cautiously circumventing it and re-planning its next moves. It seems that we have now reached chapter B. In terms of blood and fire, this chapter holds a far greater potential. The second Intifada is liable to look like a young scouts' activity compared with the fate awaiting Israel if it drags the region to war. [During the second Intifada over 1000 Israelis and 2000 Palestinians were killed.]

Against this backdrop, the statement made on July 24 by the IDF Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Benny Gantz at the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee resonates all the more clearly. Gantz was talking of [Israeli military] involvement in Syria, which could spark a full-blown war, but he meant other things as well. The Middle East has never been more explosive. Although, on the face of it, no Arab state has motivation to enter into conventional war against Israel, the situation is so volatile that a single miscalculated move made in a certain local event is liable to set the entire region ablaze in no time at all. There are no definite landlords around capable of sorting things out; there is no clear-cut address to turn to. Egypt is in upheaval. Syria is in complete chaos, going up in flames, exploding into pieces. In Lebanon, the Hezbollah militants are virtually sitting on their rockets and missiles, waiting for the right moment. Iran is looking for a way out of the suffocating grip of the West. Jordan is shaking in fear. And the air is saturated with petrol fumes, in part unconventional.

The warnings voiced by Gantz in public are vague and guarded. In closed meetings, in secret forums, he talks much more clearly. By the way, Gantz enjoys his appearances before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, and he is evidently pleased with the activity and thoroughness that characterize it under its new chairman, Ronnie Bar-On [Kadima Knesset Member. The committee tours the defense establishment at least twice a week. The number of debates in the committee has grown and they have become considerably more exhaustive and more comprehensive. The work relations created between the IDF Chief of Staff and the defense establishment heads and Bar-On are productive and meaningful. Given the system of checks and balances between the political and military echelons in these troubled times, the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee plays a significant role. Some of the checks and balances have been exposed to shocks lately and some have been damaged or put out of order. We have no choice but to make do with what is left.

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