Will Netanyahu and Barak Risk a Coup?

If there's anything that changed in our picture of the Israeli-Iranian stand-off after this morning's barrage of warlike headlines in all four Israeli dailies it's that the camps in the Israeli leadership were sharply brought to focus. In the pro-war corner: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak. In the anti-war corner: Everybody. Literally everybody else. The punchline: They still wanna do it—and they just might.

In Yedioth Ahronoth, an unequivocal headline informs us "Netanyahu and Barak determined to strike Iran in the fall." The report itself, put together by two of Israel's most senior diplomatic correspondents, Nahum Barnea and Shimon Shiffer, suggests that Netanyahu and Barak believe that the risk of an Iranian retaliation is worth gain that would result from an attack, and that they do not believe President Barack Obama will act against the Iranian nuclear program as forcefully as he promised. And, consequently, that there simply isn't any sense in waiting for the November presidential elections. Τhe reporters also state the prime minister's office is well aware that the damned-if-you-join-the-war-damned-if-you-don't situation in which such an attack would put Obama can cost the latter his second term. It's hard to imagine Netanyahu shedding any tears over this prospect.

And this, pretty much, sums up the pro-war camp. In that very same report, Schiffer and Barnea note that the duo knows that "there is not a single senior official—not at the top of the security establishment, not even the President of the state—who supports an Israeli attack on Iran." Yedioth goes on to name the opponents of a solo attack. It is a daunting list: the Chief-of-Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz; Maj. Gen. Amir Eschel, commander of the Israel Air Force; Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, director of Military Intelligence; Mossad chief Tamir Pardo; Shin Bet (secret service) director Yoram Cohen; and most of the "octet"—Israel's informal inner cabinet of eight ministers. President Shimon Peres is opposed to a unilateral solo strike, as is, of course, the United States. Yedioth has also reported recently that Netanyahu twice summoned the top brass to his residence to obtain the general's support for the war and twice failed, prompting Barak—the gall of it—to accuse the generals of cowardice and careerism, and inviting any opponent of the war to quit their post. So far, none obliged.

Meanwhile, another centre-right daily, Maariv, tries interpreting its own survey as pro war, but ends up telling us the opposite story: While 33 percent of the population believe Israel should attack Iran even if it goes alone, their support for such a move is explicitly conditioned on the approval of Israel’s own top brass. This approval is manifestly lacking, so it would seem safe to relegate even these meager supporters of a solo strike to the camp opposing Netanyahu and Barak. That same survey also lists 37 percent as giving more credence to Obama's assurances than Netanyahu and Barak do, expressing a belief the American president will stop the bomb. Only 29 percent think that he will not.

To recap, then, according to Israeli media the hierarchy of power play on the Israeli side and the actors’ stance on the idea of a solo air strike before November looks as follows :

  1. United States, principal ally and patron: Opposed to the strike.
  2. President Shimon Peres: Opposed to the strike.
  3. Prime minister and Defense Minister: Hell-bent on strike.
  4. Inner cabinet (Octet): Largely opposed to the strike.
  5. IDF, incl. Chief of Staff, Head of Intelligence and Commander of the Air Force: Opposed to the strike.
  6. Chiefs of counter-intelligence (Mossad), secret service (Shin Bet): Opposed to the strike
  7. Most of the public: Opposed to war so long as the top brass above is opposed to the strike.

This alignment, laced with acrimony and infused with rising tension over the incredible, apocalyptic stakes hanging in the balance, constitutes an alarmingly near-perfect set up for a military coup.

In particular, it’s disturbingly reminiscent of the last time Israel faced such a risk. In June 1967, as prime minister Levi Eshkol played for time and tried to secure U.S. support for what would become the Six Day War, enemy armies amassed themselves on Israel's borders and the nerve-wracked top brass of the IDF felt that going to war was less dangerous than not going. As the country agonized in a nerve-wracking wait, the then-Major General Ariel Sharon tried to persuade his superior, Chief-of-Staff Yitzhak Rabin, to stage a coup. Sharon himself candidly recalled later to a military historian how it would be done: "You get up and say—listen, you [ministers], your decisions are endangering the State of Israel, and since the situation has reached a critical point, we kindly ask you to move into the next room and wait there. And the Chief of Staff would go on radio and make a statement. They [the ministers] would have accepted this with relief." Sharon also said almost as much to Eshkol's face, and in an atmosphere historian Tom Segev describes as already resembling a coup, the die was cast, and Israel went to war—against the wishes of the United States.

Forty-five years later, we’re told the majority of the top brass believes not launching a war in the nearest future is safer than launching one, and this time it’s perfectly aligned with the opinion of the United States. It's hard, then, not to imagine similar conversations already taking place, around a scenario one would imagine to look something like this: When put before the inevitability of a strike they clearly believe to be militarily and politically catastrophic for Israel, instead of complying, the Chief of Staff and the Commander of the Air Force arrest Netanyahu and Barak. Gantz “goes to the radio” and announces an emergency provisional government , tasked with de-escalating the situation at least until after the American elections. The anti-war ministers of the inner cabinet are offered to keep their jobs, and Peres grants the generals a presidential pardon. The United States tut-tuts but looks the other way. The Israeli public, which deems Barak unelectable, has recently sent Netanyahu's approval rating through the floor, and anyway has always trusted the army more than the politicians, does the same. Even the most ardently "pro-Israel" pundits in the United States will find it hard to support Netanyahu and Barak against the idolized IDF's top brass.

This is a purely speculative and, needless to say, highly undesirable scenario. It’s very difficult to take a “break” from democracy and then resume it as if nothing happened. Military coups that start off as "temporary" tend to morph into permanent very quickly, and it's more than likely an army-led anti-immediate-war government will seek to establish its patriotism through a crackdown on Israel's civil society, on Palestinians, or both. Moreover, the scenario is not based on any primary sources—only on what has been reported so far in the Israeli press and on historical precedent. A much better option, as the top brass of the 90's told told Netanyahu when he threatened to arm Israel's missiles in response to some vague Iranian statement, would be for everyone to take a pill, relax and forget about it. An even better, and one hopes the likeliest option is that all of it is just a spin atop a spin atop another spin. Fingers crossed.

Still, it seems the situation in both the region and in the innermost chambers of the Israeli state has come to resemble a Mexican stand-off in a mirror-maze, something out a bad 1980's action movie. Everyone is staring hard at everyone's reflection, and everyone hoping everyone else is bluffing. The possibility of the generals moving first—either by staging a coup or simply by calling Netanyahu's bluff and collectively resigning—is surely one of the considerations hanging thick in the air as we shuffle uneasily towards D-day.