Iran

08.22.12

Netanyahu and Barak V. Israel's Defense Community

One of the most astonishing features of Israel's current debate over the Iranian threat is the utter failure of the country's two top leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, to win significant support for an Israeli attack on Tehran's nuclear installations.

Despite months of jawboning and arm-twisting, they have achieved little except to unite the top echelon of Israel's security establishment against them. Nearly every current and former senior figure in the military and intelligence services is now openly opposed to their civilian bosses' war option.

The extent of Netanyahu's and Barak's isolation is little understood. Yes, a majority of the Israeli public is against an Israeli attack without full American backing, polls show. Netanyahu and Barak haven't even persuaded a majority of their own senior ministers to back a military strike. Among Israel's military and intelligence professionals, however, opposition is virtually unanimous.

And the harder Netanyahu and Barak push, the wider the rift grows. In recent months, some of the most senior figures in Israel's security establishment have broadened their attack on Netanyahu's policies and begun linking the neutralization of the Iranian threat to a revival of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. They say that Israel must get back to the negotiating table and restore forward movement on the Palestinian front in order to reduce its global diplomatic isolation and to ease the entry of Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey into an active anti-Iran axis.

It's important to note that advocates of this Iran-Palestinian linkage include not just veteran moderates like former Shin Bet director Ami Ayalon but even hard-liners like longtime Netanyahu security adviser Uzi Arad, the former director of Israel's national security council sometimes known as “Israel's Dr. Strangelove.” Both Ayalon and Arad have outlined the case for linkage to me in recent weeks in nearly identical terms. And they're not the only ones.

This position constitutes a profound challenge to Netanyahu on three separate levels. First, it presupposes that there are steps Israel can take to restore the peace process, and that the breakdown is not entirely the Palestinians' fault. Second, it challenges the long-held Israeli diplomatic axiom that there is no necessary connection between the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian relations and troubles elsewhere in the region. Third, it assumes that a viable Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement is within reach.

Agreement on this third point is not unanimous. Some former military and intelligence service chiefs argue that tensions can be reduced through good-faith progress even though the end-point is not yet visible. But the majority view, based on public statements and my own conversations with principals, appears to be that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement can be achieved—and must be, in order to turn the tables and isolate Iran.

In fact, it's worth noting that some who advocate a possible Israeli military strike, like former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, share the view that reviving talks with the Palestinians is an urgent first step before such an attack.

Right now the case for linkage is heard only from a fairly small group of former security chiefs. It must be remembered, though, that that's how opposition to the Netanyahu-Barak military option began. Israelis and foreign observers alike were shocked in January 2011 when former Mossad director Meir Dagan spoke against the military option in Knesset testimony immediately after leaving the job. In the months that followed he sharpened his attacks, despite furious criticism, eventually making his now-famous statement to a closed forum in May that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea I've ever heard.” Less noticed, his views won endorsement from a succession of former military and intelligence chiefs.

Then, in December 2011, in an utterly unprecedented step, current Mossad director Tamir Pardo publicly challenged the main thrust of the Netanyahu-Barak war argument, declaring in a speech that Iran was “not necessarily an existential threat” to Israel. In April 2012 current military chief of staff Benny Gantz took a similar step, telling Haaretz in an interview that Iran had not decided to build a weapon and that diplomatic and economic measures might persuade it not to because Iran's leaders are “very rational people.”

The unanimity of the current security team was driven home in a shocking way in an August 10 report in Yediot Ahronot by two of Israel's most respected journalists, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, cataloguing the familiar names of the country's top officers: Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Air Force chief Amir Eshel, Military Intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi, Mossad director Tamir Pardo, Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen. A few had spoken before. Others had had their views leaked. Seeing the names listed so graphically in the country's largest-circulation paid newspaper was a bombshell, however.

This sort of rift between the political leadership and the defense community is highly unusual in a functioning democracy. It's not unknown for military professionals to question their civilian bosses' reluctance to use force. It's hard to think of another case where the security elite was so united in viewing the political leadership as reckless adventurists.