Meet the Israeli ‘Octet’ That Would Decide an Iran Attack

Can Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decide on his own to attack Iran? Not a chance, reports Eli Lake.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

This week Israel's prime minister came very close to saying he intended to bomb Iran's nuclear infrastructure, but that’s not something he can decide alone. To order such an attack, Benjamin Netanyahu would need to persuade an informal “security cabinet” that represents the leaders of his political coalition.

The security cabinet is made up of eight senior government ministers including the prime minister. Its membership reflects the composition of the Knesset’s ruling majority, and Israeli leaders often use the body, now called the octet, to build consensus for the Jewish state’s most important decisions.

“A decision like this would rarely be brought to the full cabinet because it is a huge forum, and you can’t get 30 people to agree on anything,” says Chuck Freilich, a former deputy national-security adviser to two Israeli prime ministers. “Israel has a real problem with leaks. That is why the real strategic thinking is done in the octet and other, even smaller meetings.”

Israeli law requires that major national-security decisions, like signing peace accords or ordering airstrikes, must receive a majority vote in either the full cabinet or a smaller ministerial committee on national security—a panel comprising half the ministers of the full cabinet. (The current Israeli cabinet has 30 ministers, 15 of whom serve on the national-security committee.) But in practice, the decision of the octet is most vital.

In addition to Netanyahu, the octet consists of Eli Yishai, a leader from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and currently the minister of interior; Ehud Barak, a former Labor Party prime minister who now serves as defense minister; Dan Meridor, a deputy prime minister and member of the Likud party who is also minister of intelligence and atomic energy; Moshe Ya’alon, a former chief of staff to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) who is a Likud minister of strategic affairs and a deputy prime minister; Benny Begin, the son of former prime minister Menachem Begin, a member of Likud and a minister without profile; Yuval Steinitz, a member of Likud and the finance minister; and Avigdor Liberman, the foreign minister and leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party.

This group would have to reach an informal consensus. “There is no vote in the octet,” says Freilich. “It’s a consultative forum.”

Steve Rosen, a former director of foreign policy for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, says the power of the octet is political, because in Israel’s parliamentary system a ruling coalition can fall apart if one or two parties defect.

“It’s embodied in the coalition agreement,” Rosen says. “It’s almost always impossible to rule the country alone. Likud has 27 seats today. It takes 61 to control the Knesset.”

When a formal vote comes to the ministerial committee or the full cabinet, Freilich says, the weight of the octet almost always carries the day.

In recent months, the Israeli press has been rife with speculation about how the octet would view a strike on Iran. Last month, Haaretz newspaper reported that Foreign Minister Liberman, who had previously expressed reservations about a strike, had changed his mind. At the same time, Yishai was undecided on a strike, the newspaper reported.

The most forward-leaning ministers, at least in terms of their public comments, have been Barak and Netanyahu himself.

In an interview Thursday with Israel’s Channel 2, the prime minister gave more details on his current views. “This is not a matter of days or weeks. It is also not a matter of years,” he said. “The result has to be that the threat of a nuclear weapon in Iran's hands is removed.”

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Barak said in November that Iran was less than a year away from crossing a threshold from which Israel would no longer have the capability to stop its nuclear program.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Daily Beast, “Given the statements of the last several months, it’s very clear that Defense Minister Ehud Barak is the leading proponent of a strike; he is someone who is identified with the idea that time is running out. We assume he will press for a strike.”

On the other hand, Meridor and Ya’alon have been portrayed in the Israeli press as being more skeptical. While Ya’alon has spoken publicly of the need to convince Iran that Israel and the United States are ready to attack Iran, he has not endorsed such an attack. Meridor has also been more tight-lipped in his public comments on Iran.

Another factor that will affect the internal decision making in Netanyahu’s cabinet is the opinion of the country’s military and intelligence leaders. Giora Eiland, a national-security adviser to former prime minister Ariel Sharon, says the opinion of Gen. Benny Gantz, the IDF chief of staff, carries significant influence.

“The most important person is the chief of staff of the IDF,” Eiland says. “Officially, the government can make any decision, and the professional military is subordinate to the political decision. But you cannot make an important decision like this if the chief of staff is against.”

In public testimony during the last year, Gantz said Iran is building a weapon and that Israel has a right to strike its nuclear program. Behind the scenes, however, some Israeli observers, such as Haaretz’s defense correspondent Amir Oren, have written that Gantz does not favor an attack.

Today perhaps the loudest voice opposing military action is Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Mossad, who is likely the architect of Israel’s covert war against Iranian nuclear scientists and sensitive installations.

Dagan’s successor, Tamir Pardo, told the Knesset last year that he did not think an Iranian nuclear weapon posed an “existential” threat to Israel. Yet Pardo was dispatched early this year to Washington to learn how the Obama administration would react to an Israeli attack on Iran over objections from President Obama.

Regardless, Makovsky says he estimates that Netanyahu and Barak may have enough influence to get their way on Iran.

“If you look at history as an example, a few determined people at the top are able to bring people along. We saw this in 1981 with Osirak in Iraq, and we saw this in 2007 with Syria,” Makovsky says, referring to two other Israeli bombing raids. “Barak and Netanyahu should not be underestimated in their ability to bring other people in the cabinet and the defense establishment around to support their views.”

Freilich says it’s possible, however, that all the talk of war could be part of a strategy just to press Iran into concessions. “There is a lot of posturing going on,” he says. “Clearly much of the hoo-ha lately has been part of an intentional policy to ratchet up international pressure on Iran so in the end Israel won’t have to do anything. No one wants a diplomatic solution here more than Israel does.”