Is Israel Bluffing?

The effects of public confrontations between top Israeli security officials over Israel's plans for a possible military strike on Iran were felt in the world's capitals recently. Nadav Eyal analyzes the international echo of a bitter season of campaigning, which has been quieted for now by the formation of a new coalition government.   

al-monitor Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.  Photo by REUTERS/Gali Tibbon.

Topics covered

olmert, netanyahu, israel, iran, diskin, dagan, benjamin netanyahu, barak, air strike

May 11, 2012

In the capitals of the world, from Washington eastward to Europe and Asia, everyone is asking the same simple question: Have the Israelis been bluffing all along? The effects of the confrontation between Dagan and Erdogan in New York were also felt in Tehran.

America was astonished at the frenzied and furious verbal exchanges regarding Iran that took place this week among high-placed Israelis. This astonishment was somewhat naïve, "square," American. To the amazed viewers, including those in the Jewish community, only one [explanatory] sentence should have been uttered: Welcome to the current Israeli election campaign, the most aggressive show in town!! This is the venue where accounts are settled, red lines are crossed, and every top-secret offensive in Syria is transformed into grist for the campaign mill. Everyone's blood boils, and the fatefulness of the moment is emphasized over and over again. The end result? The shift of a few mandates from one bloc to another, a split second of coalition [unity] with young politicians — idealists who swear they will never part with their governmental ministries.

But what transpired in New York this week, in the confrontation during the Jerusalem Post Convention, violated even the [combative] Israeli rules of the election-year game. The presence of Gabi Ashkenazi, Meir Dagan, Ehud Olmert and Gilad Arden on a single stage could only lead to explosive results. But in terms of the international community and Israel's great advocates, what happened on that stage was much more than a bitter, aggressive verbal confrontation. It was an exposure—it exposed a fact that had been known to very few people in Israel, and even fewer abroad. Only those who were partners in the circle of Israeli decision-makers, who participated in the relevant meetings or were briefed by those who were present — only these souls were privy to the following reality: that all the heads of the defense system in Israel, at least until recently, have deep reservations about the Ehud Barak--Benjamin Netanyahu modus operandi. "Reservation" is a diplomatic expression, of course. After publicly declaring his opposition to a pre-emptive strike on Iran, Dagan accused Arden — to his face — that Netanyahu's government is sabotaging the Israeli democracy and leading it on the path taken by Germany in the past. Yuval Diskin, on the other hand, [made the following three basic statements]: he argued that the State of Israel is ignoring Abu Mazzen's desire to reach a peace arrangement; that a false picture is being fed to the Israeli public about the possibility of neutralizing the Iranian threat; and that he has no faith in the current leadership. When Minister Arden cast aspersions on Diskin's motives and integrity, Dagan went on a verbal rampage (as opposed to some other politicians, Dagan really knows how to go on the offensive) and announced that Arden was lying. Next to these powerhouses sat Gabi Ashkenazi, who has not yet given his big interview, in which he surely will express his own opinion about the way that Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu are overseeing the security of the State of Israel.

World-Wide Astonishment

For some reason, this has all been perceived in Israel as a dispute based on personal differences and vendettas. Three people, who have dedicated their lives to maintaining the nation's security and have risen to the highest echelons, people who are not suspected of sympathy for the Israeli Left, all express very obtrusive, flagrant disbelief in Ehud Barak and Benjamin Netanyahu. But the Israeli media has become very cynical and accustomed to these [turf] battles; thus, all the alarm-bells that were sounded by Dagan, Diskin and Ashkenazi go in one ear and out the other. But the Americans and Europeans, on the other hand, were shocked. After all—we are talking about Dagan, Diskin and possibly Ashkenazi.

Barak occasionally talks about a possible "immunity space" in Iran during which time the Iranians will transfer their uranium enrichment program to impregnable and  scattered sites, after which an attack will become patently ineffective; the point at which the Iranians will become immune (more or less) to an airstrike. What happened this week is that the Iranians have comfortably entered a space of immunity — not technically but politically. This happened as a result of the scandalous modus operandi of all sections of the Israeli leadership. It will be very hard for Barak and Netanyahu to present a case to Washington calling on the need for a pre-emptive strike, after former members of their professional echelons have expressed their absolute and complete opposition to such a strike via the media. Barak and Netanyahu will barely succeed in explaining it to an Israeli public that had its doubts in the past but now know that Diskin and Dagan belong to the opposing camp. At this point, only a very unusual and worrisome event in Tehran — such as an attempt to break ahead in nuclear development — could now convince the world.

Appalling Modus Operandi

In the capitals of the world, from Washington eastward to Europe and Asia, everyone is asking the same simple question: Have the Israelis been bluffing all along? Likud ministers attacked Diskin and Dagan this week about the "deterrence" damage caused to the State of Israel. This was an attempt to white-wash and minimize the damage caused by Diskin's statements — and make it clear that Barak and Netanyahu are involved in larger, more sophisticated plans than what is visible on the surface. In other words: they did not necessarily plan to attack Iran but they wanted the world — especially the Iranians — to believe that Israel has a sudden air strike [up their sleeves]. This would cause Tehran to blink first and then the world would make sure that the Iranians wouldn't be able to make a bomb, for our sakes. And now along came Diskin and Dagan, these two fools who don't understand the meaning of a [conspiratorial] wink, and have ruined everything.

This is a spin on a spin, and also a falsehood. Dagan and Diskin, as well as some high-placed politicians, know very well that Netanyahu and Barak were not bluffing. In the most confidential, secret talks, they succeeded in convincing their listeners of their true intentions. The listeners received the clear impression that the captains of the State of Israel believe that all possible Iranian scenarios will lead inevitably to conflict and confrontation. We must assume that the chiefs of the Shin Bet, the Mossad and the Chief of Staff were privy to these forums. It seems that the three became deeply convinced that Barak and Netanyahu are approaching the ["zero hour"] assault command too quickly, and these chiefs of the security apparatuses think that we should be much further away. Dagan and Diskin are not fools; they understand deceitful winks and sleights-of-hand even better than the prime minister and his defense minister. Even if Barak and Netanyahu bluffed, we can assume that Dagan and Diskin were supposed to be "in the know." But they were not. [I believe that ] they felt a pressing need to express themselves clearly, in order to thwart a real attack. Evidently they know something that we don't.

But from any point of view, any way you look at it — this modus operandi is terrible. And when one considers the depth of the Iranian threat and the possible implications of an attack, this modus operandi is appalling. Dealing with such a strategic matter as Iran necessitates thorough debate in the political and military elites, but also mutual understanding and the ability to agree on the final tactics. This is vital not only for a process of healthy decision-making, but also for the ability to explain the resultant decisions to the Israeli public and the decision-makers of the world.

It is already difficult to convince the latter group. Last week's New York Times carried an article in which a source in the American government said that the prospects for an attack on Iran have already decreased. One of the major reasons listed was the "deep rupture" in Israel's highest echelons. 

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