Iran attack

Some 200 veterans of the Israeli security services have accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of doing irreparable harm to the country’s ties with Washington, just two days before he is due to address the US Congress. It is the first time he has faced a large-scale backlash from Israel’s security establishment – and could damage Netanyahu’s popular image as a strong leader on security matters.

Why is Netanyahu acting like a bull in a diplomatic china shop over Iran, and doing so at the cost of imperilling relations with the US, when his own advisers say there is no obvious threat and a deal next month is unlikely? The answer is to be found on two levels: one related specifically to Netanyahu’s personal political survival; and the other to Israel’s longer-term regional interests.

The contents of a secret report by Israel’s Mossad spy agency on Iran’s nuclear programme leaked to the media are shocking and predictable in equal measure. Shocking because the report shows Netanyahu spent years lying to the international community against Mossad’s advice; predictable because for four years Israel’s security establishment has been screaming as loudly as it realistically could that Netanyahu was not to be trusted on the Iran issue.

Politicians may prefer to express admiration of Israel, and hand over billions of dollars in aid, but the US security establishment has – at least in private – always regarded Israel as an untrustworthy partner. The distrust has been particularly hard to hide in relation to Iran. Mounting pressure from Israel appears to be designed to manoeuvre Washington into supporting an attack on Tehran to stop it supposedly developing a nuclear weapon.

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. US officials quickly denied Israeli claims. But the leak suggested the lengths to which Israeli officials are prepared to go to ratchet up the pressure on President Barack Obama.

Israelis barely had time to absorb the news that they were heading into a summer election when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday pulled the rug from underneath the charade. Rancourous early electioneering had provided cover for a secret agreement between Netanyahu and the main opposition party, Kadima, to form a new, expanded coalition government.

Last February Britain’s then defense minister Liam Fox attended a dinner in Tel Aviv with a group described as senior Israelis. According to reports in the British media, the Israelis in attendance were representatives of the Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, while Fox was accompanied by Matthew Gould, Britain’s ambassador to Israel. A former British diplomat has claimed that the topic of discussion that evening was a secret plot to attack Iran.

There is little evidence that Netanyahu’s threats are likely to dissuade Tehran from developing a weapon, if that is what Ahmedinejad’s regime is really trying to do. In fact, menacing Iran may simply firm up its resolve to protect itself by building a warhead. The real audience of Netanyahu’s threat of military action, it seems, is the White House. He appears to hope that Washington can be goaded into carrying out a strike of its own to avoid the threat of an unsuccessful Israeli operation.

Rivals camps within Israel’s political and security echelons appear to be at loggerheads over whether Israel should keep open an option to launch a military attack on Iran. The feud has been brought to the fore by comments from Meir Dagan, the outgoing director of the Mossad spy agency, that Iran is not in a position to develop a nuclear bomb before 2015 at the earliest. His assessment conflicts with previous Israeli estimates, including one presented in 2009 by Ehud Barak, the defence minister, that Tehran might have a nuclear weapon as soon as this year.

The new administrations in the United States and Israel could collide over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, threatening to strain their close, long-standing relationship. The White House under Barack Obama has made conciliatory gestures towards Tehran, culminating in a video statement from the president a fortnight ago in which he appealed for a “new beginning” in relations between the two countries. But since Benjamin Netanyahu was sworn in as Israeli prime minister on Tuesday, he has preferred to highlight the military option.