Israeli President Shimon Peres, in a remarkable display of defiance against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said Thursday that Israel could not and should not launch an attack on Iran without America’s approval.
Peres, who has no direct role in governance and whose job as president is largely ceremonial, made the remark during an interview with Israel’s Channel Two television in what government insiders described as the result of long-simmering tensions between the two men.
"It's clear to us that we can't do it alone," Peres told Israel’s Channel Two television. "We can only delay [Iran's progress]. Thus it's clear to us that we need to go together with America.”
"Israel should rely on itself, but that doesn't mean we should give up our friends," he added.
Several Israeli newspapers called the Peres interview a bombshell and one opinion writer said it would force Netanyahu to rethink his Iran strategy.
The remarks prompted a quick and stinging response from Netanyahu’s office, where aides were quoted as saying Peres had overstepped his position and offered a list of “security blunders” Peres had committed during his long political career.
That the two men would disagree on the issue was hardly a surprise. Netanyahu and Peres come from opposite sides of the political map, one being an unswerving hawk, the other a relentless peacenik.
But the exchange highlighted a broader dynamic underway in Israel: as Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak edge closer to deciding on war, people who don’t normally express their opinions publicly are finding it difficult not to.
To date, the list includes former intelligence heads, current military chiefs, and a number of senior officials involved in Israel’s own secretive nuclear program over the years (though journalists have mostly allowed the latter to have their say without being named).
Some of these figures have come out of the shadows to advocate for Israeli air strikes—arguing that coping with the potential fallout is better than facing a nuclear Iran. But more of them have argued against an attack, describing the ensuing war as potentially calamitous.
Netanyahu says Iran has already enriched enough uranium to build several nuclear bombs—though Iranian leaders insist their program is peaceful. He has pressed President Obama to impose tighter sanctions on Tehran, declare that diplomatic efforts with Iranians leaders have been exhausted and provide a commitment to use military force if other measures fail.
Contacts between Israel and the United States about this issue have intensified in recent weeks, with a string of visits to Israel by high-level American officials. But while Netanyahu has said he’s still weighing whether to strike at Iran, a series of Israeli media reports over the past week suggested an assault was now imminent.
In one of them, two of Israel’s most respected journalists, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, wrote that Netanyahu and Barak had decided to strike before the U.S. election in November.
But they also wrote that it was not clear whether Netanyahu could muster a majority for an attack in his own cabinet given the stiff opposition from military circles.
“There is, of course, great significant to the fact that the most senior figures, the prime minister and the defense minister, are determined to pass such a decision,” they wrote in the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
“It is no less significant that there is not a single senior official in the [defense] establishment, neither among the IDF top brass nor in the security branches … who supports an Israeli strike.”
The opinions of military people count for much in Israel, where the army consistently polls as one of the most-respected institutions. According to surveys over the past month, Israelis are more or less evenly divided on the question of striking Iran.
Writing in Yedioth Ahronoth this week, Barnea said Netanyahu would do his best to prevent generals and other security chiefs from offering their opinions at any cabinet meeting where the matter of war against Iran is discussed.
“He and Barak are waging a campaign in the meantime to discredit the generals ... They say that these people, consciously or unconsciously, prefer their personal careers over the national interest,” Barnea wrote.
According to Barnea, Netanyahu and Barak believe the generals are worried mostly about being blamed if the war fails and have become risk averse.