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Israeli leaders at loggerheads over Iran attack

Jonathan-cook.net – 27 January 2011

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 earlier this month 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.

According to Israeli intelligence analysts, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, is “furious” with Dagan, believing his statements were designed to tie the prime minister’s hands on a military strike during what remains of his tenure.

On Tuesday, Aviv Kochavi, the new head of Israel’s military intelligence, joined the fray by offering a more conservative assessment, saying Tehran could produce a warhead within two years. His decision to go public with his agency’s estimate was widely regarded as a rebuff to the ex-Mossad chief.

Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that Iran’s nuclear programme poses a threat to Israel’s survival, comparing its leader, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Adolf Hitler.

He has also warned that current international sanctions against Tehran, the approach officially favoured by Washington, are unlikely to dissuade the regime from developing a bomb.

Iran says its nuclear programme is peaceful and aimed solely at producing electricity.

Iranian officials met six world powers in Istanbul last weekend for “confidence-building” talks shortly after Ali Asghar Soltanieh, Iran’s envoy, had said Tehran was taking extra precautions to protect its nuclear facilities because it believed it was facing “a very serious threat” of military action.

Ari Shavit, a commentator for the Haaretz newspaper, said Dagan had spoken out of concern that Netanyahu and Barak, who is believed to take a similar view to the prime minister, “might make some foolhardy move in Iran”.

That fear has been heightened, according to analysts, by the imminent change of commands in the Israeli army. Gabi Ashkenazi, who is due to leave his post as chief of staff next month, is reported to be a strong opponent of attacking Iran.

His successor, Yoav Galant, who is close to Barak, is considered more sympathetic to a military operation.

Amir Oren, a defence analyst for Haaretz, reported that Netanyahu was worried that Gen Ashkenazi, after taking off his uniform, might also criticise the prime minister’s hard line.

Another senior security official reported to share Dagan’s assessment, Yuval Diskin, is due to quit as head of the Shin Bet domestic intelligence service in May.

Uri Avnery, a former Israeli MP and the leader of the Gush Shalom peace group, said Dagan’s comments appeared to reflect concern among officials that Netanyahu might make a “disastrous miscalculation” if he faced domestic political trouble, such as the threat of his rightwing coalition breaking up.

Both the prime minister and Barak have presented themselves as the only leaders in Israel who can be trusted to deal with Tehran firmly.

Aluf Benn, another Haaretz commentator, wrote last week that Netanyahu was determined to keep Barak as defence minister, including by helping him this month to abandon his Labor party, in part because a strike on Iran would be impossible without his military authority.

Other senior government ministers, although hawkish, are regarded as more cautious, including Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, and Moshe Yaalon, the minister of strategic affairs and a former chief of staff.

In December Yaalon made a similar assessment of Tehran’s capabilities to Dagan’s, saying Iran could not assemble a nuclear device for at least three years.

Dagan made his own comments to Israeli journalists three weeks ago, apparently without Netanyahu’s permission. Dagan was renowned for remaining tight-lipped during his eight-year tenure.

In a dramatic reversal of official policy, he said there was no imminent threat of Tehran acquiring a nuclear bomb and that a military strike would be a disaster. Iran’s nuclear facilities should only be attacked, he was quoted as saying, if “the sword is not just pointed at our neck but cutting into the flesh”.

Analysts said Dagan believed an attack would be counter-productive, rallying Iranians behind their regime and leading to a wave of reprisals, including against US forces in Iraq. It would also be likely to trigger the firing of thousands of rockets at Israel from Iran, Lebanon and Gaza.

Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad official and ex-adviser to Barak, said Dagan wanted in part to call attention to his own achievements in delaying Iran’s nuclear programme through sabotage and subterfuge.

Last week the New York Times reported that Israel had been behind the tests of a sophisticated computer virus, Stuxnet, that may have disabled as many as 1,000 centrifuges believed to be refining uranium at Iran’s Natanz facility, setting back Tehran’s programme.

The Mossad under Dagan is also widely credited with the assassination of two Iranian nuclear scientists last year, the creation of shell companies that sold faulty equipment to Iran, and unexplained explosions on cargo planes and at laboratories in Iran.

According to a recent Wikileaks report, Dagan privately told US officials that covert action, including helping minority groups topple the regime, could contain Iran’s nuclear programme for the forseeable future.

Netanyahu, officials close to him told the Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonoth, reprimanded Dagan for his public statements, telling him he had damaged Israel’s fight against Iran.

Alpher said that Netanyahu did not necessarily intend to launch a military strike on Iran, but was concerned that, on learning of Israel’s relaxed estimates, the international community might go “back to business as usual” with Iran.

“He and Barak want the rest of the world to understand the importance of maintaining and even intensifying sanctions against Iran. The threat of an Israeli military strike is an essential component of that pressure.”

Netanyahu called a press briefing that was widely interpreted as a rebuff to the outgoing Mossad chief. He told reporters: “I think that intelligence estimates are exactly that – estimates … There is room for differing assessments.”

He said Tehran would cancel its programme only if it was facing “a credible military option”, adding that sanctions should be “materially strengthened”.

In a sign of the pressure on Dagan, he slightly toned down his earlier comments, telling the parliamentary foreign affairs committee last week that it was possible Tehran might “shorten the timetable” to a nuclear bomb.

But Avnery said Dagan had “created a new agenda” in Israel. “It’s a statement that cannot be rescinded, even by Dagan. We now know what the Mossad really thinks about Iran’s nuclear programme. Netanyahu cannot undo that.”

Alpher, however, warned that Dagan’s comments could prove harmful if they undermined Israeli preparations for a possible war with Iran.

“Regardless of Iran’s nuclear progress, there is always the danger of war with Tehran because of its influence on Hizbullah [in Lebanon] and Syria. If Hizbullah starts firing rockets, Israel and Iran may quickly be drawn into a confrontation.”

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