Ready, Aim, Conflagration

Prematurely At The Brink Of War

Ali Gharib on a news report that Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to bring Israel to the brink of war with Iran in 2010.

A report to air in a documentary on Israel's Channel 2 tonight will recount the tale of an order handed down by Benjamin Netanyahu in 2010 for Israel to prepare an attack on Iran. The news is that his security chiefs didn't cooperate. If making such plans is standard operating procedure, why did then-Israeli military Chief of Staff Gabi Askhenazi and then-Mossad head Meir Dagan reject Netanyahu's command? Perhaps the order went beyond a standard operational procedure; maybe it was more than just preparations. Indeed, Netanyahu's command to his security chiefs reportedly asked the military to be ready to attack Iran within 24 hours. “This isn’t the sort of thing that you do unless you’re certain that you’ll end up launching an operation," Ashkenazi said, according to the Times of Israel account of the tease aired last night. “It’s like an accordion that makes music even if it is merely handled.”

More recently, in the autumn of 2012, we learned that even Netanyahu thinks Iran won't be beyond the "point of no return"—or the "zone of immunity," or whatever you want to call it—until the middle of 2013, at the earliest. Why, then, bring your military so close to the brink of war as to discomfit top commanders fully three years before your own, already hawkish government feels drastic action must be taken?

That's what makes the timing the most troubling part about the story: not the timing of the Channel 2 piece itself, but the timing of the order handed down by Netanyahu. In 2010, Netanyahu, as he had been for more than a decade already, was raising alarms about Iran's nuclear ambitions. But the rest of the world was far from on board with such a move. The New York Times pointed out that the order reportedly occurred as an American and Israeli effort to cyber-sabotage Iran's nuclear program was discovered by the Islamic Republic, allowing it to cleanse the virus Stuxnet from its systems. But the June 2010 outing of Stuxnet came during the very same month that the U.N. Security Council passed its latest round of sanctions against Iran's nuclear program. Those sanctions—which have, according to U.N. reports, closed Iran off from the world's supplies of nuclear and non-nuclear "dual-use" materials—indicated how isolated the Islamic Republic was just then becoming: even staunch opponents of supposed Western meddling China and Russia voted for the resolution. In January of 2010, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated; another two died in a bombing later that year. Despite Stuxnet's discovery, the pressure and covert war were not slipping; they were ramping up.

On Twitter, Michael Koplow said the story serves as "reminder for those who have insisted that if Netanyahu decides to strike Iran, the top brass will just fall in line." But serving in the professional military of a democratic country should mean following orders. Perhaps this sort of internal wrangling happens, but normally remains out of view. Either way, if the story is fleshed out and supports these initial accounts, Netanyahu verged dangerously close to a war years before even his government thought it necessary. Perhaps Askhenazi and Dagan's rejection of the command should be a reminder to us not of the soberness Israel's security establishment, but of the recklessness of its political leadership.