Barak’s Iran bombshell sounds like a case of premature detonation
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Barak’s Iran bombshell sounds like a case of premature detonation

Op-ed: Are we really to believe that an inept chief of staff, some wobbly ministers and an ill-timed US drill combined to prevent an obsessed PM from dealing with the ayatollahs' nukes?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Benjamin Netanyahu toasts Ehud Barak on his 70th birthday in February 2012. (photo credit: Ministry of Defense/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu toasts Ehud Barak on his 70th birthday in February 2012. (photo credit: Ministry of Defense/Flash90)

Something doesn’t quite hang together in Ehud Barak’s tape-recorded bombshell revelations of why Israel didn’t send its air force to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010, 2011 or 2012 — despite the prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister all ostensibly wanting to carry out such an attack.

Let’s look case by purported case.

According to Barak, who served a mammoth stint as defense minister from 2007 to 2013, he, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman were first thwarted in their determined and incendiary ambition by then chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2010, who Barak claims refused to sign off on the IDF’s “operational capability” to achieve such a mission.

Ashkenazi had been chief of staff since 2007, having earlier retired from the IDF and been brought back after the debacle of the Second Lebanon War. Given the spectacular incompetence with which that war was stewarded, Ashkenazi immediately instituted a radical overhaul of the Israeli military — correcting basic faults, intensifying training, reassessing challenges. He was also pitched immediately into the struggle against Iran.

How so? Netanyahu is a man openly obsessed with the threat posed to the Jewish state by the potential combination of Iran’s Islamist extremist leadership and nuclear weapons. But long before he was elected as prime minister in 2009, it was crystal clear to the Israeli political and security leadership that Iran was working toward the bomb, and that it might fall to Israel to have to intervene militarily to stop it. The top Israeli echelons had been truly horrified by the US National Intelligence Estimate of 2007 that asserted Iran had in 2003 halted its nuclear weapons program — a bolt-from-the-blue document that was read in Israel as constituting a successful effort by the American intelligence agencies to deny then-president George W. Bush a credible basis upon which to order a US strike on Iran’s facilities. Ashkenazi therefore knew from the day he stepped into the chief of staff’s office that Israel had to have a viable military option in place.

Gabi Ashkenazi, left, speaking to Ehud Barak at Defense Ministry headquarters in 2010. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)
Gabi Ashkenazi, left, speaking to Ehud Barak at Defense Ministry headquarters in 2010. (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry/Flash90)

It is certainly the case that Ashkenazi, along with long-time Mossad chief Meir Dagan, veteran Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin and several key ministers, firmly believed that the guillotine was not yet at Israel’s throat — as Dagan would later say publicly. But that Ashkenazi claimed not to be ready, as Barak indicates, is hard to credit, to put it mildly.

Still less credible is Barak’s description of the second purportedly missed moment of truth, in 2011, when by his tape-recorded account, the Netanyahu-Barak-Liberman triumvirate — now armed with a viable plan by Ashkenazi’s successor Benny Gantz — were stymied because ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Yuval Steinitz, initially supportive of a strike, changed their minds.

Finance Minster Yuval Steinitz, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak attend a meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, April, 2009. (photo credit: Atta Awisat/Yrdioth Aharonot/Flash 90)
Yuval Steinitz, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak in the Knesset in 2009. (photo credit: Atta Awisat/Yrdioth Aharonot/Flash 90)

First of all, Ashkenazi had only stepped down at the beginning of the year and yet we are expected to believe that, within months, his successor had conjured up a viable means of putting Iran’s nuclear facilities out of commission where he had so signally failed. Second, and still more improbable, however, is the notion that Ya’alon and, especially, Yuval Steinitz, would be capable of preventing a military strike desired by the country’s three most powerful ministers, following an attack plan presented as viable by the IDF chief of staff. It’s now or never, the heavy-hitters would presumably have been saying. Iran is about to enter what Barak famously kept calling the “zone of immunity.” Hold your nerve and save the majority of the Jewish people, now historically regathered in Israel, from the ayatollahs’ genocidal threat. And Yuval Steinitz put the kibosh on it? Really? Earnest, dutiful, Netanyahu-loyalist Yuval Steinitz?

Far more likely, in both 2010 and 2011, is that Netanyahu — hesitant, risk-averse, war-wary Netanyahu; the man who, remember, has chosen time after time not to seek to oust Hamas from Gaza despite the certain knowledge that this strategy will necessitate further bloody conflict — was less than certain that an attack was a vital, immediate imperative. Barak himself may not have been pushing for a strike at all cost, either. Maybe his American friends’ relentless opposition had taken its toll; it is also widely claimed that Barak opposed prime minister Ehud Olmert’s immensely less problematic attack on Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007.

Furthermore, a range of negative opinions — from reservations to outright opposition to a strike — extended far beyond a couple of recalcitrant ministers in both 2010 and 2011. Key security cabinet ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor were resolutely opposed. Eli Yishai was wobbly, and his Shas party spiritual leader rabbi Ovadia Yosef, according to a Channel 2 report, described Barak at the time, and in the context of a nucear strike, to be “a fox” and “a danger to the children of Israel.” Opposition to a strike was also reportedly widespread in the Mossad, Shin Bet and IDF upper echelons.

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta tours an Iron Dome battery near Ashkelon with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak on Wednesday. Aug1 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta tours an Iron Dome battery near Ashkelon with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak on Wednesday. Aug 1, 2012 (photo credit: Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Finally, early in 2012, Barak asserts that Israel was ready to strike — all domestic incapacity and opposition by now apparently marginalized or overcome — but that the intended date for the attack turned out to coincide with a long-planned major joint military exercise with the United States. Here, the former defense minister’s account is simply illogical.

Since the drill was planned long in advance, the coinciding dates could not have come as a surprise. Moreover, Barak claims that he asked defense secretary Leon Panetta to shift the drill — because, says Barak in the tapes, Israel did not want to make the US, which strenuously opposed the strike, an unwitting party to it. And that is precisely what happened: Austere Challenge 12, originally scheduled for January 2012, was shifted at the eleventh hour to October. So why, scheduling conflict averted, did the airstrike not go ahead? Barak does not explain. Not, at least, in the portions of the tapes broadcast as of this writing.

And why, if again there was no longer domestic opposition to a strike, did the Netanyahu-Barak-Liberman trio choose not to order it later in 2012? Here, the taped Barak is rather vague, talking about other dates not working out.

Clearly, something was afoot in the summer and fall of 2012. Panetta visited Israel that August and Barak, speaking alongside him at a joint stop during the trip, said he saw an “extremely low” probability that sanctions would ever compel Iran to give up its nuclear activities and that Israel had “something to lose” by waiting for sanctions and diplomacy to run their course, because Iran was continually accumulating enriched uranium as the key ingredient for a nuclear bomb.

Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (photo credit: Flash90)
Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy (photo credit: Flash90)

That same week, the former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy gave a series of interviews in which he warned none too cryptically that “If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks” and asserted that Israel’s threats of military action had a certain “credibility” and “seriousness.”

But still, the Israel Air Force was not ordered into action.

Thwarted by lesser mortals

So why, despite Ehud Barak’s tape-recorded bluster, did Israel not strike at Iran in 2010, 2011 or 2012 if its leaders considered such action essential?

The sensible deduction is that they didn’t really want to.

Israel, in Barak’s era as defense minister to Netanyahu, may have come close to striking at Iran, but ultimately its leaders chose not to

Barak, in these tapes, holding forth to a pair of Israeli journalists sitting respectfully at his feet, so to speak, sounds like he allowed himself to get a little carried away. His remarks reek of self-aggrandizement. Here is an aging hero — Israel’s most decorated soldier, a figure of high, creative intellect and immense valor — portraying himself as the resolute man of action brought low by others’ incompetence and spinelessness. Barak, in short, seems to have overstated the case, rewriting history to show himself as the man who could have saved Israel but was thwarted by lesser mortals.

That the two writers — Danny Dor and Ilan Kfir — then sought to publicize the material to help promote their imminent Hebrew-language Barak biography is only natural. That they were also angry with Barak for signing a separate deal behind their back for an English biography that would render theirs less commercial internationally is perfectly plausible to those who know Barak well. That the military censor allowed the publication of material reflecting the most secret discussions of Israel’s political and security chiefs makes no sense at all.

Yes, Israel, in Barak’s era as defense minister to Netanyahu, may have come close to striking at Iran, but ultimately its leaders chose not to. Not because of this inept chief of staff, that nervy minister, or, risibly, that awkwardly timed joint drill with the US. But because the insistent, determined will to go ahead and risk the potentially dire consequences was absent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak announce a ceasefire with Hamas at a joint press conference in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, November 21 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a joint press conference in Jerusalem, on Wednesday, November 21, 2012 (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

As Liberman noted on Channel 2 on Sunday night — masterfully managing to castigate both Barak for the leaks and Netanyahu for the hesitancy — when Menachem Begin decided he had to blow up Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osiraq in 1981, he didn’t talk about it endlessly. Rather, “we woke up one morning, and the Iraqi reactor didn’t exist.”

Might a prime minister Liberman, who told The Times of Israel in a spectacularly withering interview just two months ago that Netanyahu is “all talk” when it comes to stopping Iran — have ordered the strike? I wonder. But Netanyahu and Barak, for all the defense minister’s attempts at revisionism, self-evidently opted not to do so. And now we all may discover whether they were weak-willed or wise.

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