|Up-to-the-minute perspectives on defence, security and peace
issues from and for policy makers and opinion leaders.
The war of words over an Israeli attack on Iran is splitting the political leadership from military and intelligence chiefs. And that dangerous divide in Jerusalem might well lead to real war.
BY NATAN SACHS of Foreign Policy magazine
Something has gone very wrong with Israel's posture on Iran's nuclear program. While
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak lead a
confrontational approach -- including dramatic interviews and speeches to U.S.
audiences that have convinced many that Israel might soon strike Iran's nuclear
facilities -- the former heads of Israel's intelligence agencies have come out
publicly against the government's position. First, Meir Dagan -- who headed the
Mossad until late 2010 and coordinated Israel's Iran policy -- called an attack on
Iran " the most foolish thing I've heard ." In April, Yuval Diskin -- the previous
head of the domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet -- voiced a scathing and
personal critique of Netanyahu and Barak. Diskin questioned not only the leaders'
policy, but also their very judgment and capacity to lead, warning against their
"messianic" approach to Iran's nuclear program.
Given these differences, should the United States -- and Iran -- fear an Israeli
strike more, or should they relax as Israel busies itself with internal arguments?
Although it may be tempting to think that the Dagan-Diskin campaign lessens the
chance of confrontation, in truth it raises two dire possibilities. First, if the
former spy chiefs are correct about Netanyahu's and Barak's lack of judgment, this
is hardly cause for comfort. If, however, Dagan and Diskin are mistaken and Israeli
strategy is in fact calculated and sober, then undermining Israel's credibility --
as they themselves have done -- makes an Israeli strike more likely, not less. The
less credible the Israeli threat, the more likely Iran is to try to call an Israeli
bluff, and thus the more likely Israel is to try to back up its words with deeds.
At the core of the question is how one interprets Israel's confrontational approach
to Iran. Some view the Netanyahu-Barak strategy as a deliberate attempt to push the
United States and the international community into decisive action, including tough
sanctions and the threat of U.S. military action, lest Israel strike unilaterally.
Israel, in this view, is acting as a "rational madman," calculating that appearing
reckless will compel the United States, the international community, and Iran to
heed its warnings. In an interview with the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom , Barak in
effect said as much: The critics "travel the world, and their words weaken the
considerable achievement of Israeli policy, where we made the Iranian issue a major,
urgent issue, not only for Israel but for the world." For Barak, Israel's strategy
has been manifestly successful, focusing the attention of a reluctant, distracted
international community on Iran's nuclear program and producing stifling sanctions
on the Iranian banking system.
But not all view the Israeli strategy this way. Some observers, both foreign and
Israeli , are convinced that Netanyahu and Barak are genuine in their doomsday
rhetoric and resolve to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. If Netanyahu is willing to
evoke the Holocaust and warn of the Iranian "existential threat," the argument goes,
he cannot mean anything less -- nor can he politically afford anything less -- than
overt military action. Netanyahu indeed has been preoccupied with the Iranian
question for decades and may view stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions as a
generational challenge that will define his term. In this view, the Netanyahu-Barak
rhetoric is meant to prepare the international community for an Israeli strike,
which, according to Barak, would require international legitimacy.
The confusion over what Netanyahu and Barak actually mean is no accident. The key to
deterrence is the credibility of the deterrent; the key to a "rational madman"
strategy is that others do not see his posture as a bluff. From outside the prime
minister's office, therefore, the two explanations for Israel's position are, by
design, functionally equivalent.
One's view of the Dagan-Diskin critiques therefore depends on one's assessment of
Netanyahu and Barak. If Diskin is correct about the leaders' lack of judgment, the
former spy chiefs are breaking their silence to stave off a grave danger. But if
Diskin is wrong, the former spy chiefs' words hold serious consequences for Israeli
strategy -- by undermining the credibility of the threat of military action. On the
face of it, accusations of messianic tendencies fit perfectly with a madman posture,
further scaring the world into action. Dagan in particular was exposed to -- and
indeed produced -- the most classified intelligence on Iran's program; he helped
manage Israel's covert response to the program for years and participated in some of
the most sensitive meetings with the political leadership. If the former
intelligence chiefs, who should know best, are so concerned as to speak publicly
against their own leadership -- something that appears odd to most Israelis , as it
does to many abroad -- then surely foreign observers should believe the sincerity of
the Israeli warnings.
On the other hand, although the Netanyahu government firmly commands the military
(full-scale military disobedience is not even contemplated in Israeli society), it
does not operate in a vacuum. The heads of the military, the Mossad, and the Shin
Bet are household names whose assessments carry weight in Israeli public opinion.
When such high-profile officials publicly question the leadership's judgment,
Israelis listen. Although some (such as Barak in his Israel Hayom interview) have
questioned Dagan's and Diskin's motives in speaking publicly, and although
Netanyahu's political allies have struck back forcefully and impugned their civic
responsibility, few doubt the sincerity of their position. Dagan and Diskin,
moreover, are not alone. Former military commanders, and even the current chief of
staff , appear to hold different views from the political leadership on the severity
of the Iranian threat. The new vice prime minister and former defense minister,
Shaul Mofaz, voiced his support of Diskin before joining the Netanyahu government.
Even among the most hawkish senior ministers, there is opposition to Barak's
approach, especially on the urgency of a strike; Vice Prime Minister Moshe "Bogie"
Ya'alon, a former chief of staff like Mofaz, has implicitly criticized Barak's
notion of a "zone of immunity" -- a point at which Iran's facilities would be immune
to an attack if Israel did not act quickly -- noting , "Anything fortified by a
human can be penetrated by a human."
With all this opposition, it may be no surprise that the public is wary of a
unilateral strike; according to a recent survey by Shibley Telhami of the Brookings
Institution, only 19 percent of Israelis endorsed an Israeli strike without U.S.
support, and 32 percent opposed an attack regardless. Israeli public opinion may
simply not permit the political leadership -- always careful of the electoral
ramifications of its actions -- to undertake a step as bold as a unilateral military
strike. Most importantly: Iranian and international observers know this.
With the U.S. presidential election in November and ongoing talks between Iran and
the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), the
possibility of an Israeli strike will likely remain low for the time being. An
Israeli airstrike would require carefully orchestrated precision bombing that would
be sensitive to weather conditions, meaning that the next window for an Israeli
airstrike would likely be in the spring of 2013. Still, if Israel has any say in the
matter, the Iranian nuclear issue will not go away. If the results of the P5+1
negotiations do not ensure the verifiable end to high-level uranium enrichment and
the removal of existing highly enriched uranium from Iran, Israel may return to the
warpath. And the new national unity government in Israel, though it may moderate the
leadership's position somewhat, will also grant the government valuable domestic
political cover for a strike, should one be ordered.
The lesson from the intelligence chiefs' "revolt" in Israel, therefore, should not
be complacency, but concern. Toward the end of 2012, the world will face either an
Israel that is determined to use overt force to stop a nuclear-armed Iran, as Dagan
and Diskin suggest, or a "rational madman" who believes he needs to repair the
credibility that some of Israel's most prominent military and intelligence chiefs
have undermined. Either way, it is vital that the international community maintain
its focus on the Iranian nuclear program so that the Israeli bluff -- if there is
one -- is not tested.
(c) Foreign Affairs