These past few days, the previous two chiefs of Israel's famous secret intelligence service, the Mossad, have separately come out publicly, warning against a military strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear facilities. This revolt of the Mossadniks is a powerful statement both Israelis and Americans need to listen to, and a good sign that Israeli democracy is alive and thoughtful despite the tremors and tensions of the Arab awakening.
Meir Dagan and Ephraim Halevy are very different men in many ways, but they share a passionate love of country and a dispassionate commitment to honesty in speaking truth to power. Both have warned against attacking Iran before, but now their warnings have new urgency, as the International Atomic Energy Agency reports Iran is getting closer to having a capability to make bombs with the help of Pakistani, North Korean, and Russian scientists. Neither man is naive; both know Iran is a dangerous state, which supports terror and hates Israel. They know Iran better than most, in fact, having sent agents into danger to spy on it and devoting years to studying its clandestine activity. They are masters of the espionage craft, worth listening to in detail.
Halevy this weekend was quoted as saying an attack on Iran could have devastating effects that could impact "Israel and the entire region for 100 years." Not only can Iran retaliate against Israel and America, but an attack could also radicalize Iranian and Arab politics in unpredictable ways. Unlike Israel's surgical strike on Syria's nuclear plant in 2007, hitting Iran is bound to be messy, explosive, and counterproductive. Halevy also notes that Iran, while dangerous, is "far from posing an existential threat to Israel."
Dagan and Halevy believe sabotage and diplomacy have done much to set back Iran's nuclear ambitions and can do more yet. Dagan has argued that a strike would be a "stupid" act with more downsides than positives.
Speculation about Israeli plans to hit Iran is a recurring staple; every few months it rises up. The new IAEA report and the crumbling of the old order in the Arab world this year have understandably increased anxiety in Israel. Two cornerstones of Israeli strategy for decades are in danger. It may lose its monopoly on the bomb in the Middle East, which it has guarded jealously since the 1960s, and its peace treaty with Egypt is in more question than ever due to the revolution in Tahrir Square.
But the two spymasters seem to be reminding Israelis that their country is still strong and powerful. It has a conventional military advantage, a strong nuclear capability, and excellent intelligence services. Of course, it also gets billions every year from the American taxpayer. The Pentagon and CIA work constantly with their Israeli counterparts to ensure Israel's qualitative edge. Believe me, been there. President Obama has stepped up cooperation more than ever with the Israeli security forces despite arguments over settlements.
Some in Israel have suggested the ex-spies should stay silent and not speak out publicly. That's a mistake. The decision to go to war is the most critical any society can make. We had far too little debate about Bush's Iraq War in 2003. Neither Israel nor America should make that grievous mistake about Iran. No more march of folly.