Excerpt from column [first section], Nahum Barnea, Yediot Friday Political Supplement [with front-page teaser], October 28 2011
Have the prime minister and the defense minister made between themselves, in private, a decision on a military strike on the nuclear reactors in Iran? This question preoccupies many today in the security establishment and in the government. It also troubles foreign governments, which have a hard time understanding what goes on here: on the one hand, rumors are increasing about an Israeli offensive that would change the face of the Middle East and perhaps seal the fate of the Jewish state for the coming generations. On the other hand, there is a complete absence of public discourse. A strike on Iran is the subject that is farthest from the Israeli agenda.
It’s true that the agenda is loaded with weighty subjects: the social protest movement is trying to resurface; the price of electricity is rising; the hospital residents are fighting for their right to resign; Gilad Shalit leaves his house; Ilan Grapel returns — Ouda Tarabin stays; a Grad rocket is fired at Rishon Lezion: Ahmed Jaabari and his colleagues, our new Palestinian buddies, want to prove to the world, and mainly to themselves, that glory hasn’t emasculated them: in Gaza too there are the holidays, and there are the post-holidays.
All these matters are important, and moving: none of them are fateful. Perhaps that is why everyone finds it convenient to address them and not the question of what to do about the Iranian nuclear program.
It’s easy to understand the difficulties. First of all, the data: anyone who wishes to delve into the problem, drowns in a sea of technical data whose meaning is only clear to a few in the know. Behind every report about a centrifuge hides a viewer who has switched to another channel or a reader who has moved on to the Sudoku puzzle.
Second, because of the secrecy: the available information is partial, and is subject to the interest of those providing it. Third, because of habit: the public was not a partner to Menahem Begin’s decision to strike the nuclear reactor in Iraq and did not share in Ehud Olmert’s decision (according to foreign reports) to attack the nuclear reactor in Syria. Since both of these went well, nobody protested.
The decisions on these two strikes entailed considerable risks: the pilots were liable to fail in their mission, to fall into captivity, to cause mass killing; Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Bashar Assad’s Syria could have responded militarily, in terror attacks or missile fire; foreign countries, first the United States, could have created a crisis. Happily, the opponents’ prophecies of doom did not come true. The success was complete, without casualties, without any damage to our forces.
Will what worked twice work the third a time? Yes, say the proponents of a military action; absolutely not, say the opponents. Iran is a completely different story — a state in another league, another regime, another culture, a different nuclear program, a different level of risk.
The top members of the political and security establishments are divided into a number of camps. One camp says, the benefit of a military action is limited; the risk is insane. The Iranians will respond by firing missiles from Iran, from Lebanon by means of Hizbullah, and from Gaza by means of Hamas. A regional war will break out that will destroy the State of Israel. Better for Israel to rely on the sanctions of the international community and hope for the best. If Iran does obtain nuclear weapons, that won’t be the end of the world. Israel can handle that.
The second camp says, what’s the rush. The Iranians need at least two or two and a half more years until the project is ready. Delays are taking place and will yet take place along the way. In the meantime, there will be presidential elections in the US. Obama in a second term or a Republican in a first term are liable to take a strike on Iran on themselves. The Iranian regime could change. A lot of things could happen in two years.
This week I met, in Europe, a senior American diplomat from previous administrations. Iran, he said, is proposing that negotiations be held with it for imposing international inspection on its nuclear facilities. If I were Israel, I would respond positively.
But the Iranians are being deceptive, I said. All they want is to gain time.
Obviously, he said. But it will be more convenient for the US and for Israel to take action after the entire international community openly admits that the Iranians are being deceitful.
Some of the high-ranking ministers in the government share this view. They support a military action as a last resort. They suspect that pressure to expedite an action is tainted by irrelevant, personal and political motives.
Among the third camp number the leaders of the security branches — the chief of staff, the Mossad director, the director of IDF Intelligence and the GSS director. When the question came up of a military action in the previous round, the people who served in these positions were, in order, Gabi Ashkenazi, Meir Dagan, Amos Yadlin and Yuval Diskin. The four of them adamantly ruled out a military action. They were succeeded, in order, by Benny Gantz, Tamir Pardo, Aviv Kochavi and Yoram Cohen. A personnel change can have far-reaching significance. The Shalit deal is a perfect illustration: Diskin and Dagan were opposed to a deal; their opposition caused the government position to be inflexible; Cohen and Pardo were in favor; their support sanctioned the agreement.
But as far as is known, on the Iranian issue, their view matches that of their predecessors: all four, it seems, rule out a military strike at this time. The difference is in their willingness to fight [for their viewpoint]: the previous directors arrived at meetings after years of success, each in their organization, enjoying strong public standing. Toward the politicians they projected determination and self-confidence. The new ones are less well known, less emphatic, less consolidated.
In Israel, the division of labor in decisions on security matters is clear: the political echelon decides, the operational level implements. There is no such thing as disobeying orders. There are no juntas. But the process is more complex that what we are taught in civics lessons: the professional level is an equal partner in the discussions. It expresses its view not only on subjects that are within its realm of responsibility, but in every subject that comes up. The lines of separation are blurred. In actual practice, the prime minister cannot make a decision that entails risks if the defense minister, the chief of staff, the Mossad director and the GSS director, all of them or most of them, are opposed. Even if he enjoys the support of the majority of the security cabinet members, he would not dare. He will take into account that if the action fails, he is liable to arrive at the commission of inquiry naked and bare, without documents that prove that he had the support of the professional level.
There is therefore great importance to the question of how the professional level expresses its view. Does it pound on the table, as Meir Dagan would do, or does it delicately and calmly express reservation; is it an active player in the decision-making process or is it a minor player doing the bidding of its superiors.
Which brings us to the fourth camp — to Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the two Siamese twins of the Iranian issue. A rare phenomenon is taking place here in terms of Israeli politics: a prime minister and defense minister who act as one body, with one goal, with mutual backing and repeated heaping of praise on each other. Such harmony was achieved only when one person held both positions. If we insist on rummaging through history, we are reminded of the fertile cooperation between prime minister Shamir and defense minister Rabin. What united them was the scorn they both felt for Peres.
Netanyahu and Barak appear to be pushing for action. Netanyahu phrased the equation at the beginning of his term: Ahmadinejad is Hitler; if he is not stopped in time, there will be a Holocaust. There are some who describe Netanyahu’s fervor on this subject as an obsession: he has dreamed of being Churchill his entire life. Iran provides him with the opportunity. The popularity that he gained as a result of the Shalit deal hasn’t calmed him: just the opposite, it gave him a sense of power.
Barak does not use the same superlatives but is pushing for a military action: he is certain that just as Israel prevented nuclear projects in the past, it must prevent this one as well. This is strategy; this is legacy.
He believed that Dagan’s opposition stemmed from psychological motives: as Mossad director, wondrous achievements in delaying the project were attributed to Dagan. A military action a short time after the end of his term would dwarf the importance of those achievements.
Among the ministers there are those who suspect Barak of having personal motives: he has no party; he has no voters. A strike on Iran would be the big bang that would make it possible for Netanyahu to bring him into the top ten of the Likud in the next elections. This way he could continue to be defense minister. On the face of it, this suspicion appears exaggerated: Barak does not need Ayatollah Khamenei in order to join the Likud. Shalom Simhon can arrange this by peaceful means.
Precisely now, when the sense in the world is that the Iranian progress has been slowed, the rumors speak of pressure being brought to bear to take action. One of the issues is the weather: winter is approaching; and winter imposes limitations. Others look ahead: they say that after the winter will come spring, and after that, summer.