Netanyahu is the dangerous unknown in strategy on Iran

12 August 2012

The National – 12 August 2012

Time is running out, or so Israel’s dailies roared in unison from their weekend front pages. Yedioth Aharonoth captured the mood with its headline: “Netanyahu and Barak determined to strike Iran in the fall.”

Those Israelis baying for a military strike on Iran – led, it is said, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak – appeared last week to have received a timely fillip. The Israeli media claimed that last-minute changes to the US intelligence community’s National Intelligence Estimate report showed Tehran was reviving its efforts to develop a military nuclear programme.

The last NIE report, partially declassified in 2007, concluded that Iran had abandoned its military programme four years earlier. Israel, whose hopes of arm-twisting the US into an attack were scotched as a result, has been strenuously lobbying for a reassessment ever since.

US officials quickly denied Israeli claims, saying the intelligence evaluation was unchanged. But the leak, confirmed by Mr Barak himself, suggested the lengths to which Israeli officials are prepared to go to ratchet up the pressure on President Barack Obama.

So far, most analysts have discounted the possibility that either the US or Israel might take the drastic step of launching a military operation, given the widely predicted catastrophic effects on oil prices and the global economy.

The Israeli leadership’s belligerence is interpreted as a sophisticated game of bluff, intended to coerce the US and Europe into intensifying sanctions to avert the danger of a reckless Israeli unilateral move. But the assumption that Nr Netanyahu is far more astute and worldly than suggested by his doomsday “Iran is Nazi Germany” rhetoric may prove to be unfounded.

A key piece of evidence for doubting Mr Netanyahu’s judgement, especially at times of crisis, was supplied by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper last week, when it revealed a little-known incident during Mr Netanyahu’s previous premiership. The reference was quickly excised from the paper’s online edition, reportedly because it violated military censorship laws.

In February 1998, the then-Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, threatened to launch missiles at Israel in retaliation for the West’s punitive sanctions regime and no-fly zone. Mr Netanyahu responded, said the article, by ordering the preparation of the country’s nuclear-armed Jericho II missiles. The order was only rescinded after the army’s three most senior generals talked him out of it.

Avner Cohen, one of the foremost authorities on Israel’s secretive nuclear programme, has confirmed the account. It is the only known time in Israel’s history when a prime minister made such a decision. In response, the most prominent military correspondent of the day, Zeev Schiff, wrote a coded article urging a “Red Button Law” to ensure no future prime minister could act in a similar manner.

Mr Netanyahu’s record goes some way to explaining the bitter feud over Iran waged in the Israeli media over the past year between the prime minister and almost the entire Israeli intelligence and defence establishment. The airing of such open division is unprecedented in Israel.

It also explains the vitriol directed against the prime minister by security figures, who usually offer their counsel in private. Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, has described Mr Netanyahu and Mr Barak as “messianic” on Iran, adding they are “unfit to hold the reins of power”. And Meir Dagan, who stepped down last year from leading the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, infuriated Mr Netanyahu by calling an attack the “stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”.

The bickering has intensified in recent weeks. This month Yedioth Aharonoth published a list of security chiefs known to be opposed to an attack – or at least an attack without US assistance. They argue that Israel alone could set Tehran’s nuclear programme back by no more than months, and this limited success would be negated by an inevitable decision in Tehran to go for broke in developing a warhead as a deterrent against further attacks.

In recent days, Mr Netanyahu has promised that he alone, rather than the security echelon, would decide on a military operation. Presumably to placate ordinary Israelis, Mr Barak has trumpeted supposedly reassuring calculations that there would “only” be 300 Israeli fatalities from a retaliatory Iranian strike.

It is questionable whether Mr Netanyahu really has the nerve to wage a war when so many generals are lined up against him. However, Israeli commentators have suggested he and Mr Barak have a plan to wrong-foot their opponents.

According to this scenario, Mr Netanyahu authorises an Israeli strike before the US presidential elections, knowing it to be largely futile. Although the operation has limited military effectiveness, it is very effective politically. The Iranian counter-attack, whether directed at the US or Israel, forces President Barack Obama’s hand. He has to crush Tehran and its nuclear ambitions, or face an electoral pounding for being a milquetoast president.

In this scenario, Mr Netanyahu, the wily politician, emerges victorious, trumping the naysayers. Either Mr Obama fights Israel’s war for him, or Mr Obama’s successor, Mitt Romney, does so a few months later.

This sounds like delusional politicking, and it may be a grand bluff. But Israel’s military leaders’ concern appears to be genuine, suggesting they fear that the man who once readied Israel’s nuclear arsenal may be capable of equally intemperate behaviour again.

Former Mossad chief Ephraim Halevy, another high-profile opponent of Mr Netanyahu on the Iran issue, has cautioned that an Israeli attack could wreck the “entire region for 100 years”. This month he added a new warning: “If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks.”

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