Israel's Top Brass Torn Over Possible Iran Attack

Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have a different timetable from US leaders when it comes to a possible attack on Iran, write Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer. But Shaul Mofaz and most of IDF's top officials agree with Washington that a near-term strike is premature. The question is, will Bibi go ahead and force the confrontation? Read the analysis and an interview with Mofaz.

al-monitor Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Shaul Mofaz. 2012  Photo by REUTERS/Oded Balilty/Pool.

İşlenmiş konular

strike, romney, presidential elections, panetta, obama, nuclear, netanyahu, iran, idf, benjamin netanyahu, barak

Ağu 13, 2012

If it were up to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, an Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would be launched in the coming autumn months, before the US election in November. Of course, the fact that Israel's two most senior figures are determined to adopt the decision and pass it in the cabinet is of immense significance. It is no less significant that not one high-ranking official in the Israeli establishment — not in the Israel Defense Forces' (IDF) top echelons, nor in the defense establishment and not even the President of Israel — currently supports an Israeli attack.

The issues at the center of the debate are fateful indeed: To what extent can such an attack halt the Iranian nuclear drive? How would it impact Israel's relations with the US? What is going to happen on the Israeli home front? And perhaps most important of all, would the Israel of today be willing to pay the cost of a military confrontation with Iran, in terms of human life, property damage the economy and the implications for its foreign relations? The two camps in the controversy over the attack agree on one thing: It is going to be tough, really tough. The question is whether the cost is worth it, whether it's worth the sacrifice. The defense establishment seniors say no. Netanyahu and Barak say yes.

Barak, in particular, is positive about it. Netanyahu is talking about Iran in demonic terms in his public addresses. Barak is conducting his propaganda campaign behind the scenes, in discussions with the Americans, from the President down, and in talks with Israelis, in uniform or without. Assessing the situation judiciously, it may be said that, bottom line, the views of the two on the Iranian issue reach the same conclusion, although each has his own rationale and his own unique tone. However, when it comes to other security and governmental performance issues, the two are at odds, and their differences of opinion are a source of growing tension between them.

On the eve of US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's recent visit to Israel on August 1, it looked as if the two governments, the Israeli and American, were like two trains charging forward in opposite directions, with one heading towards a military operation, while the other headed towards preventing such an operation.

In the talks between Barak and Panetta, a more complex picture emerged. The Obama Administration is convinced that under the present circumstances, an Israeli military operation would be a mistake and to the detriment of both Israel and the US. Dear Israeli allies, you better seriously consider our advice, the US Administration is telling us. It is clarifying its stance, pleading with us and once in a while, leaking information, but all along it has refrained from imposing a veto.

Had the US Administration banned Israel from taking action, it would have been acting contrary to the "rules of the game" established in the relations between the two countries in the past decades. Even worse than that, the US Administration would have thus exposed itself to harsh political criticism at the height of the election campaign. As a matter of fact, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney accused President Obama of having "thrown Israel under the bus" in a major foreign policy speech on the Middle East delivered by Obama on May 17 and this, when the US Administration did no more than offer Israel advice. Had the US Administration gone so far as to impose a veto, the Republicans would have accused Obama of nothing less than a Munich Betrayal.

Meanwhile, the Americans presented an Intelligence report to Israel detailing the progress made by Iran in its nuclear program [President Obama received this week the latest National Intelligence Estimate on the Iranian nuclear program. It emerges that, for the most part, the report is identical to the Israeli Intelligence findings, while on certain items, it is even more severe. According to the American report, in the past four months the Iranians made [significant] headway in the [uranium] enrichment process, producing 170 kilogram of uranium at 20% enrichment level. They have at present 11,000 active centrifuges and they have made marked progress in the development of their military nuclear capability.

Once Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei decides to realize this capability and move on to the nuclear armament phase, the Americans say, it will take Iran two years to achieve nuclear weapons (the term used by the Americans to describe the process by which nuclear capability is materialized and nuclear weapons acquired is "weaponing"). Israel estimates that it will take Iran a year and a half to obtain the nuke, but adds a warning: We may never know when Khamenei orders the move to the nuclear armament phase, and when we find out, it may be too late to do anything about it.

Israeli Defense Minister Barak asked U.S. Secretary of Defense Panetta to step up talks with the Iranians, keep up the pressure on them and deliver a clear-cut message to Tehran. The Iranians are playing for time, as you may yourselves have realized during the summer [Barak told Panetta]. If you take military action, we will greatly appreciate it and give you full credit. However, if you fail to act, we will take action.

Panetta rejected the timetable suggested by Barak, as he assesses that nothing will be decided until next year. There is no justification for a military operation this summer, [Panetta said]. In the course of his visit, the US Secretary of Defense reiterated Obama's commitment to stop Iran's nuclear program; however, Netanyahu doubts its sincerity and believes that it is mere talk. Obama is not going to take action. [Of that Netanyahu is certain.] Barak was less confrontational, but he reached the same conclusion. He actually told Obama that Israel could not possibly entrust its security to another country. Barak had in mind the case of North Korea, whose nuclear armament [former US President] Bill Clinton had pledged to prevent, but at the moment of truth, failed to keep his word. The United States can live with a nuclear Iran. Israel cannot.

Barak is not alarmed by the warnings about a possible confrontation with the US. Come on, he says, what do you think, if we act against Iran, the American Congress will decide all of a sudden that Iran is the world's darling? And that Israel is the bad guy in the story? We share the same goal with the Americans. We are divided only on tactics. Unfortunately, they have elections in the offing now, and an Israeli military operation just before the upcoming election would be rather inconvenient for them. However, our capability is limited in comparison to that of the US and our timetable is thus tighter. It does not take into account the election date.

Or rather, it does take it into consideration. In the Israeli Prime Minister's office they are well aware of the possibility that an Israeli attack on Iran on the eve of the election in the US would embarrass Obama and boost Romney's chances of winning the race, and it has not evaded the White House advisers either. The day before Netanyahu and Romney lined up next to each other in Jerusalem [on Romney's lightning visit to Israel on July 29-30], U.S. President Obama signed another significant bill for supplying military equipment to Israel and for an additional $70 million in aid for the Iron Dome missile defense system. [On July 27, President Obama signed a law enabling to enlarge the US-Israeli military cooperation and aid. The new bill also structures military joint exercises and calls for a more significant status for Israel in NATO.] Barak thought that Netanyahu should take advantage of the opportunity [offered by Romney's visit] to thank the American people, its president and the two American parties [for the aid package]. Netanyahu thought otherwise. He lavished the Republican nominee with praise and made no reference to the aid package.

Keys to the [U.S. Emergency] Depots

Many in the US, including, so it seems, Administration officials, are convinced that the military operation Netanyahu and Barak are promoting is actually designed to achieve one thing — to drag the US, contrary to its will, into war against Iran. Israel will get in trouble and the Americans will have no choice but to act. Barak firmly denied such alleged intentions. He evaluates that the United States will not get involved in war, but rather will do its best to bring it to an end. However, it will give Israel the keys to its emergency depots, set up in Israel in the past. It's all that Israel will need. [In the late 1980s, with the fall of the Soviet Union, the US invested heavily in building up emergency military depots in Israel. These depots facilitated the American rapid deployment during the Gulf war. The depots are still being used]. Barak rejected the assessment that the Iranians would respond by attacking American facilities in the Persian Gulf. The Iranians know better than that; they are far more rational than customarily attributed to them, Barak noted. Their biggest fear is that the US will enter the war. They are not going to do anything that may push the Americans into a military confrontation.

It has been claimed that an Israeli attack on Iran in the absence of coordination with the US could lead to the launching of American missiles toward Israeli fighter jets, or to their interception on the way to Iran. No chance for that, Barak argued. The Americans are not going to act against Israeli aircraft. (However, according to American sources, the Saudis threaten to intercept Israeli fighter jets if they pass through their airspace on the way to Iran. The report is [apparently] designed to deter Israel from taking rash action.)

The Home Front Under Attack

At a certain time in the past, the Iranian nuclear facilities were located, for the most part, above ground, exposed to potential air strike. However, such an air strike was apparently not viable then. This is no longer the case in the summer of 2012. Still, the entire [military] professional echelon opposes military attack [against Iran], from the IDF Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, to the Israel Air Force (IAF) Commander, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, the director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi and all other IDF General Staff generals, the Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, the director of Israel Security Agency ("Shin Bet"), Yoram Cohen and, in the political establishment, most members of the narrow security forum of eight cabinet ministers.

This division [into pro and the con camps] points to two rather surprising phenomena. First, two figures known for their outstanding persuasive skills and their flair for public relations and propaganda campaigns fail to win over to their side virtually any of their colleagues and subordinates. Second, the respect once enjoyed by premiers and defense ministers in Israel, which enveloped them with an aura [of authority and power] and helped them enlist the majority support for military decisions, has vanished into thin air. Either the persons concerned have changed or the reality has changed.

Barak attributed the opposition to military operation to the trauma of the 2006 Lebanon war. At the time, all decision makers were unanimously in favor of going out to war, from government members to the last of the professional echelon seniors. Later on, when things got botched up, they realized that they had been blindly led like a herd by Prime Minister [Ehud Olmert] and regretted their support for him. The lesson learned in 2006 hovers over the top echelon of 2012.

Barak summoned the military top brass for a series of meetings on the Iranian issue in his bureau on the 14th floor of the Defense Ministry building in Tel Aviv (located at the "HaKirya" site, [the seat of the IDF headquarters and the Tel-Aviv District government offices]). The deliberations were frequent, comprehensive and exhaustive. The opposition was firm and uncompromising. Well, let's change the setting, Barak thought to himself, and convened the IDF General Staff officers for a relaxed open discussion, without any predetermined agenda, on the soft sofas of the villa at the Mossad headquarters in Glilot [in central Israel]. The outcome was the same.

Barak came to the conclusion that the question of the impact an Israeli attack was likely to have on Iran was of secondary importance in his dispute with the IDF generals. The two issues that really bother them are the possibility of launching a solo attack in the face of US opposition and, even more important, what's going to happen in Israel the day after. They are talking about Iran, but their heart is here, in Israel. It's quite clear that the Iranians will retaliate, directly and through Hezbollah. There is no question about it. The response is liable to escalate into a full-blown regional war. The Israeli home front will be attacked by an unrelenting daily barrage of rockets [and missiles]. People will be killed. Houses will be destroyed. The economy will suffer. Every day of fighting will cost over $375 million(1.5 billion shekels). It is certainly not going to be a picnic, Barak said, but Israel will not be destroyed; it will survive. And it shall not be "like the heath in the desert," as Peres said [citing Jeremiah 17:6]. The attack on Iran will not turn Israel into an outcast in the international community.

Barak introduced a somber scenario for consideration. Israel is liable to come under a missile attack by Hezbollah even if it does not attack Iran, he noted. One single rocket launched from Lebanon and accidentally hitting a wedding party in one of the villages in the Galilee [in northern Israel], killing 20 people, will trigger an immediate Israeli reaction, and in response, a massive barrage of thousands of missiles will sweep the country. The conclusion is clear: Israel cannot allow itself the luxury of giving up its freedom of decision just because tens of thousands of missiles are deployed in Lebanon, directed at us. Our freedom of decision is more important than the home-front calm.

Barak is looking at the IDF generals and assumes that every one of them has learned the history of past wars in Israel. Following each of the wars, a commission of inquiry was set up. The work assumption of all those involved is that this time around, too, an inquiry commission will be appointed following the attack on Iran. It's a given. And it is also a given that following each of the wars, from the 1973 Yom Kippur War onward, the entire security top echelon was summarily sent home. They guess that this is the fate awaiting them in case Israel launches the attack. As it happens in the James Bond series of films, there is a pushbutton hidden under the seat that will do the trick at the right moment.

Every professional echelon officer who opposes the military option is free to get up and resign, Barak clarified. The responsibility is his and the Prime Minister's. It is easier to avoid decision. Indecision may be explained in 1000 ways. It is much more difficult to justify a decision made.

That said, Barak insists that a nuclear Iran is more dangerous than the cost Israel will have to pay in case it attacks Iran. Even if an Israeli attack on Iran will succeed only in delaying the Iranian nuclear program. Even if it will not manage to erase the Iranian nuclear threat, the risk is still worth it. Delay will buy us time, and with time, who knows, maybe the regime in Tehran will change, or maybe Iran will change its mind.

The Chariot of History

At 70, Barak is looking back on the history of Israel and through the historic prism he ponders about the attack on Iran. When David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first Prime Minister, demanded on the eve of the establishment of the State of Israel nonexistent funds for financing military purchases on a huge scale and called for the adoption of a whole new military doctrine, they dismissed his supposedly crazy notions, saying: "The old man has gone nuts." The combatants on the battlefield could understand him, but on the home front, life was carried on as usual, with people going out and having a good time, oblivious of the war already raging around. When Ben-Gurion decided to go ahead and announce the establishment of the State on May 14, 1948, his colleagues warned him that he was leading the Jewish population in the "Yishuv" [the country] to a disastrous adventure that was bound to wipe them all out. As it turned out, the apprehensive skeptics were wrong, while Ben-Gurion was right.

On the eve of the 1967 Six Day War, after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, Foreign Minister Abba Eban and head of the Mossad, Meir Amit, were sent to Washington to meet with American Administration seniors, including President Lyndon Johnson. The Americans told them, wait, we have no ships in the region right now, but we will organize a flotilla. The situation at the time was quite the opposite — the military top echelon rose against the government in protest of its decision to wait. Well, the generals were in the wrong then, while Prime Minister Levy Eshkol was in the right, Barak noted. However, when the government eventually decided not to wait any longer and go out to war, the Americans did not interfere and allowed Israel to win.

In 1967, Nasser did not threaten the very existence of Israel. He had no plans of conquering it. He just closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, preventing passage of ships to Israel's southern port and resort city, Eilat. At the time, the passage of goods through the Eilat port was rather sparse and the port was not really essential to Israel's economy. Yet, the Israelis felt that Nasser was threatening their survival. It is strange that they don't feel the same about the Iranian bomb. They fail to realize that their lives will be totally different once Iran gets hold of the bomb.

In Barak's opinion, the controversy has exceeded the simple cost-benefit analysis of risks against prospects. As he sees it, the debate concerns the mental strength of the Israelis, including the IDF General Staff officers, and their willingness to accept losses and pay both the national and personal cost entailed.

The ability to examine the events through the prism of history imparts an aspect of depth and significance to the public discourse. However, it is not devoid of risks. Netanyahu and Barak, two pragmatic politicians, connected to reality, have boarded the chariot of history, each in his own unique way. They look down on whoever declines to join them.

Israeli novelist Amos Oz warned at the time against former Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan's penchant for poetry, in particular poetry dealing with death. The same thing may be said with respect to Netanyahu's and Barak's fascination with history. History has its own way of taking its revenge from those who carry too far their aspiration to become a part of it.

His Left Hand

On most issues (except for the Iranian issue), Barak is positioned at present on Netanyahu's political left. It is true first and foremost with regard to the political process. Barak believes that had a political process been underway, it would have facilitated matters for Israel in numerous spheres, as well as in the Iranian arena. What's more, Barak is worried that the process [already underway] is liable to lead to the creation of a bi-national state. And he has sharp differences of opinion with Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz over the economic issue. When the two said at the government meeting in May 2012 that "the recession could not be anticipated in time," Barak and Dan Meridor jumped from their chairs: They did foresee it and warned against it, but Netanyahu refused to listen.

The failure of the government to advance the political process and its zigzags on the economic issue have contributed to widespread skepticism in the Israeli public with regard to the attack on Iran. Having been scalded by the economy, the public is wary about war. Barak seems to understand all this; however, he is unwilling to give in. The mistakes the government made and is still making do not exempt it from responsibility for the security issue, Barak said.

The duo, Netanyahu and Barak, were widely lauded for their success in inducing the international community to crack down on Iran with tougher sanctions, as a measure of forestalling an Israeli attack on Iran. Barak regarded the pressure on Iran as a by-product; however, contrary to the prevalent impression, he really meant it. And he still means it. His characterization as a conniving weasel raises a sardonic smile on his lips. And the same holds true for Netanyahu: The two want action.

Poking in the Eyes

Shaul Mofaz is wishing for an American military action against Iran, but resolutely opposes an Israeli assault, certainly in the time span of the next two years. He believes Obama. "A month and a half ago I met the president in Washington. He told me, 'my commitment is to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and [to that end,] I will use all the necessary measures.'

"I asked Obama whether he meant a military operation as well. All measures, was his answer.

We are familiar with the American military plans. They are shaped the way the Americans know, taking care of all aspects and [in this case,] they are aimed not just at destroying the Iranian nuclear program, but also at seriously damaging other Iranian infrastructures. The intention of the Americans is to put off the Iranian nuclear program for many years and perhaps even, in passing, do away with the Ayatollah's regime.

It is quite unlike an Israeli operation, which would be launched prematurely, in the absence of international legitimacy, without any coordination or support on the part of the US. If we attack Iran on our own, Israel will look totally different the day after. Such an attack will have far-reaching economic and political repercussions. Furthermore, it is liable to escalate into an all-out regional war. And rather than strengthening our deterrence power, it will weaken it."

Netanyahu sharply criticized IDF senior officers and the top echelon of the defense establishment [beginning of August] for opposing a military operation in Iran. Mofaz says that the criticism testifies to the deteriorating self-assurance of the Prime Minister. "A Prime Minister who accuses his Chief of General Staff of seeking excuses for the day after is a weak Prime Minister," Mofaz says. "You cannot remove from the agenda just like that professional opinions presented by the defense establishment senior officials. There is no disputing that their assessments on the issue are balanced and judicious."

Why do you claim that the emphasis put by Netanyahu on the supremacy of the political echelon is an indication of weakness, we asked Mofaz.

"Clearly," Mofaz said, "the Prime Minister is the [leading] decision maker. But you have to let the process evolve. If you really think — and I personally don't think so — that [Chief of staff]  Gantz, [Director of Military Intelligence]  Kochavi and [Chief of the ''Mossad'']  Pardo are preoccupied with looking for excuses for the day after, you can take them for a discreet talk. Don't complain in public.

I know Gantz for 30 years now. Pardo served as a liaison officer in the [IDF elite "Sayeret Matkal"] unit during the Entebbe operation [counter-terrorist hostage-rescue mission carried out by Sayeret Matkal commandos at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in July 1976]. Kochavi was a cadet under my command at the IDF officers training base. They are all serious people. You cannot underrate their arguments. And by the way, Bibi is not telling the truth about the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear facility back in 1981. He said that the entire [defense] establishment was against the operation and that Prime Minister Menachem Begin made the decision to attack all by himself. The truth is that Raful [Rafael Eitan], who served at the time as the Chief of Staff, and David Ivri, then the IAF Commander, were in favor of the operation."

Were you against the operation, the way you are today, in your two-month tenure [throughout May and June 2012] as Vice Prime Minister, we asked him.

"My views have not changed," Mofaz said. "There were two or three talks with Netanyahu on the Iranian issue during that period and I made it clear to him that I opposed the operation. I voiced my concern over the possible escalation of the operation into a full-blown regional war, which would weaken Israel instead of strengthening its deterrence power. I also drew his attention to the potential implications of such an operation on our special relations with the US. All along the years, up till now, the US honored its commitments [to Israel]. Obama has given his word [to act against the Iranian nuclear program] and he is going to be true to his word.

If we act [solo] we will lose on both ends. Sticking a finger in the eye of the US President, you will get him [inadvertently] involved, as you wish to knock him out at the ballot box. However [it will get you nowhere, as] he will then help you defend yourself, but he will do nothing beyond that. At the most, he will give us the keys to the [U.S] emergency depots."

What would prompt you to support, nonetheless, an Israeli military operation, we asked.

"Only one thing: If we were to receive Intelligence indicating that the Iranians have entered the last stretch of the [nuclear] race, while the US was not honoring its commitments and failed to attack. In that case, we would have no choice but to act on our own."

Is there any connection, in your opinion, between Israel's political situation and its ability to take action against Iran, we asked.

Mofaz answered positively. "You don't build a wall that way," he said. "For four years, Netanyahu refrained from making any strategic decision. It would be better if the first strategic decision he makes is not a [very big] mistake on a strategic scale. I would rather not even take into account the possibility that there are electoral considerations involved here, either with respect to the American presidential election or with regard to the [next] parliamentary election here in Israel.

"In my eyes, a bi-national state is even more dangerous for Israel than a nuclear Iran. Netanyahu should have advanced the negotiations with the Palestinians regardless of the Iranian issue; however, he prefers to shut his eyes to the problem."

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