Hear that frantic whispering noise beneath the hum of the air-conditioners in this sweltering Israeli summer? That’s the sound of many Israeli insiders repeating over and over and over: Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.
“If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks,” Efraim Halevy, the wise and wily former Mossad chief observed in an Israel Radio interview early this month. Well, what some Israelis in the know are saying amounts to, “Never mind the Iranians, it’s the Israelis who need to be fearful. And we are. We’re terrified. We’re terrified our leaders are drawing us into disaster.”
But there’s another sound, too — other voices just as frantic. Do it, they urge. Do it, before it’s too late. Confound the cynics who say that you, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, can’t make a decision at the best of times and are given to panic at the worst. Remember, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, that those who snipe at you are lesser men, cynics and cowards. Trust your judgment. This is the eve of ’67 again. The imperative is to act.
When Halevy spoke, there were actually about 14 weeks until the US presidential elections. Now there are about 10. Ten weeks before America votes. Ten weeks before the skies cloud over, and complex, distant air strikes become still more complex. Ten weeks. Count them down.
Fear and loathing
For more than a year, Israelis have been exposed to the deeply dismaying sight of members of the elected political leadership doing battle with a series of the country’s most experienced and credible former security chiefs over the fateful question of whether Israel should go it alone and strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities. On an issue so sensitive and so central to the Jewish state’s well-being that one might reasonably expect all discussion to be conducted far from the public eye, assessments and accusations and personal critiques have instead been hurled around, again and again and again, in full view.
But former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin’s bleak depiction of Netanyahu and Barak as a pair of “messianists,” who cannot be trusted to lead the state, sounds mild compared to the fearful assessments offered by some behind the cloak of anonymity. Former Mossad head Meir Dagan’s repeated lunges into the spotlight, to declare that only an idiot would consider a resort to solo Israeli military action at this stage, sound like mild rebukes when compared to the bitter epithets being hurled in private.
Behind-the-scenes, the degree of concern being expressed by some insider experts about a possible Israeli strike at Iran this fall is greater than anything that has been aired publicly to date. To these people, Netanyahu and Barak are deemed to be capable — through a mixture of obstinacy, narrow political objectives, misguided ideology, ego and more — of creating the circumstances in which a nuclear Iran really could become unstoppable. By launching an operation to stop Iran, they fear, Israel may end up liberating the Islamic Republic to cast off all constraints and break out to the bomb.
Some of these professionals — technocrats whose job it is to give non-ideological assessments — are smarting as seldom before. Some speak of the unprecedented disdain they and their colleagues face from Israel’s leadership duo — who, they lament, seek to discredit as tantamount to treachery their professional opposition to an Israeli resort to force at this stage. They say the leadership duo has avoided serious cabinet discussion of Iran in order to prevent the technocrats from effectively presenting their assessments. The experts say they are being told that they are not merely misguided, but that they cannot see the bigger picture, that they’ve forgotten the limits of their roles, that they are scaremongers and ass-coverers, that they have partisan political motivations, that they are undermining the national interest, even that they are serving foreign interests.
It is not that they are categorically opposed to Israeli military intervention in Iran, some of these insiders stress. It is, rather, that they are categorically opposed to Israeli military intervention in Iran now. They consider Iran’s nuclear weapons drive to be an immensely grave threat. But they are convinced that Israel action at this stage would be premature and counterproductive, and that Israeli action at any stage may not be necessary. They have been known to use the word “suicidal” to describe the idea of Israeli action now in the absence of clear US-Israel understandings.
Lost in the bitter public debate of recent months, they stress, is the fact — an undisputed fact, they insist — that were Iran to decide today to go for the bomb, it remains some 18 months away. And Iran has taken no such decision, they say.
Battered as narrow-minded and partisan, they are not above leveling political accusations of their own. Some consider Netanyahu’s obsession with Iran to be a consequence of his failure and irrelevance as prime minister in all other major fields. The peace process is going nowhere, he offers nothing as Islamist politics rises regionwide, he is failing in social and economic fields. Where else can he position himself as a purportedly necessary prime minister, they snipe, apart from on Iran?
As for Barak, here one encounters disillusionment. Barak was meant to be the responsible adult. Barak, the former chief of staff with his decades of defense expertise, could be relied upon to climb down the ladder before the war rhetoric got out of control. Barak was perceived by the Americans as the non-ideological, dependable interlocutor. But Barak, the head of a splinter party with no following, reasonably believes he might not be in office a year from today. And he has proved incapable, his insider critics say now, of separating personal political interests and narrow tactical considerations from the wider national interest. The Americans, they claim, have quite given up on him.
But there are other insiders, too — others, who empathize with Netanyahu’s parallels between the Iranian threat and the Holocaust, and some who go further. Germany had to gear up, gradually and protractedly, for the manufacture of mass murder. With Iran, if unchecked, genocide for the Jewish state could be attempted with the press of a button. No time then for a Churchill to shake us all out of our lethargy, slowly make up for lost time, and turn back the tide.
Yes, these insiders say, there are powerful arguments in favor of doing nothing — hoping the sanctions work, or the Iranians give ground in diplomatic channels, or sabotage has a deeper impact, or the regime is ousted or, when all else fails, America does have the will to utilize its military might. But how realistic are any of those hopes, they ask? What have sanctions and diplomacy done for us so far? How profoundly have the Stuxnet-style viruses and disappearing scientists set back the program? Does the Iranian regime look remotely wobbly? And can we really, truly, existentially expect — because our lives could depend upon it — that second-term-Obama or first-term-Romney would send in the bombers?
Can we expect that confidently enough to let our own opportunity to send in the bombers pass unused, our engines cold, our arms folded? The mighty Jewish state placing its destiny in the hands of, either, an untried president heading a parochial, unpredictable party, or a familiar president who didn’t even take a stand against the regime when the Iranian people were trying to rise up against it three years ago?
Where the insiders who support and those who oppose an imminent Israeli military strike on Iran agree is that Netanyahu’s temptation to order it stems in large part from his conviction that a re-elected Obama cannot be fully trusted to use force if all else fails to stop Iran, and that a president Romney might be still less likely to do so.
Before November’s presidential elections, by contrast, however reluctant he might be, Obama, in Netanyahu’s assessment, simply could not politically refrain from supporting Israel in the potentially messy aftermath of an Israeli strike.
Insiders say Barak has told Netanyahu that Israel’s window of opportunity for action — for seriously impacting the Iranian program — closes at the end of the year. The former IDF Military Intelligence chief and Osirak pilot Amos Yadlin (who I should stress is not one of the anonymous insiders quoted in this article) tends to disagree, as do others, assessing that Israel would have a little more time. But Barak is Netanyahu’s font of Iranian wisdom. So if Israel is to avoid subcontracting its security, as Barak puts it, even to the best of its friends, Netanyahu may feel it’s a case of act now or forever hold your peace.
Everything you have heard about the personal hostility between Obama and Netanyahu is true, and then some, according to the insiders from both the pro- and anti-strike camps. The prime minister thinks the president is unreliable and misguided on matters Israeli, Middle Eastern and Islamist. Holding to “a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon,” as Obama put it in his AIPAC speech in March, is not the same as vowing explicitly to use whatever tools are needed, up to and including force, in order to guarantee that Iran does not gain a nuclear weapons capability.
The president, for his part, thinks the prime minister is arrogant, manipulative and indecisive, the insiders from both camps agree. He feels that Netanyahu, who had the temerity to publicly lecture him in the Oval Office last year about Israel’s territorial red lines, has consistently sought to undermine him in the pro-Israel community in America — whether directly or through wealthy and influential American Jewish figures. He regards Netanyahu’s address to the 2012 AIPAC conference as a slap in the face, publicly blowing off the president’s appeal a day earlier to give diplomacy and sanctions more time. He considers that the enthusiastic welcome for Mitt Romney here last month strayed beyond the polite, correct hosting of a presidential candidate.
The problem with the Netanyahu overview, the don’t-strike-now insiders say, is that attacking Iran at this stage would be strategically counter-productive, to put it mildly. It would see Israel perceived globally as an impatient, over-hasty aggressor. It would unify the Iranian public around their regime’s nuclear goal. It would ostensibly legitimize accelerated Iranian progress — here would be proof of Iran’s need for a nuclear counterweight to regional aggressor Israel. It would infuriate Obama, who has pledged to take care of the crisis. It would spark a regional nuclear arms race, wiping out Israel’s military advantages. It would put Israel’s nuclear program on the international agenda; can those guys be trusted with the bomb? It would destroy the international sanctions effort, however imperfect that may be, and likely destroy the prospect of international force being employed to stop the Iranians. But it would not destroy the Iranian program, since Iran — unlike Saddam after Osirak in 1981, or Syria after its Korean reactor was smashed in 2007 — has the knowledge and the wherewithal to rebuild.
The counter argument to those critiques, says the better-strike-soon camp, is that a decade’s evidence suggests that nobody else has the will to stop the Iranians, and if we don’t act soon, it will be too late for us to thwart them either. That there are no guarantees the Americans would recognize an Iranian breakout to the bomb in time, and no guarantees that, if it did, even a president who wanted to act would have the necessary support to do so. And, yes, it is already, sadly, dismally, too late for Israel to smash their entire program, but the air force can certainly delay it — and earn another few years’ grace in which the regime might fall. If not, if Israel has to strike again, so be it. And since sanctions haven’t worked, the collapse of the sanctions regime is hardly the end of the world, though it probably could be revived over time. And a regional arms race is inevitable if Israel doesn’t act, since this entire region is terrified of a nuclear Iran.
Overplaying their hand?
Even the anti-strike insiders don’t claim that Obama can be relied upon 100 percent to take care of Iran. Not necessarily. Not all of them.
If there is a brazen escalation by Iran of its nuclear program — a breakout to the bomb — many in the don’t-strike-now camp believe the international community would see it, and many believe Obama would use force to thwart it.
But if the current situation persists into 2013, with sanctions continuing to fail, diplomatic overtures going nowhere, and Iran continuing to make headway with enrichment and other aspects of the program, even those in the don’t strike-now camp are not certain that a re-elected Obama, or a president Romney for that matter, would declare that the time had come for a resort to force. Some of these insiders think, however, that Israel would still be capable of meaningful military intervention in 2013, and that it would be able to act then with greater international legitimacy and support, without alienating the US and without destroying the sanctions effort — keeping the pressure on Iran, that is, even after an attack.
Clearly, the Americans have chosen not to force a showdown with Iran. They’ve not said to the Iranians, ‘Here’s our best and final offer; if you reject it you’ll face the consequences.’ They’ve indicated a disillusionment with the negotiations, but they’ve not pushed a confrontation. That will come after the presidential elections — in February or the spring, say some insiders. Or not, say others.
Incidentally, some of the don’t-strike-now insiders speak of indications that Iran is waiting until after the US elections to negotiate meaningfully. It wants to be sure who’s president, they argue. It might then be willing to be forthcoming, knowing that the US could be more forthcoming, too. Others believe Iran is intransigent and will continue to be so.
Amos Yadlin last week called on Obama to assuage Israeli concerns about his commitment to use force if needed by coming to Israel and speaking in the Knesset. Israeli sources quoted in Hebrew TV reports have posited that an Obama-Netanyahu meeting after the UN General Assembly in late September might enable the US president to offer the prime minister the reassurance he apparently needs in order to refrain from sending in the IAF.
But insiders in both the pro- and anti camps say there would be zero prospect of Obama quickly adding in an Israel trip in the weeks before the elections even if he did want to offer further reassurance. And they say that the president was trying assiduously to provide precisely such reassurance in any case. For the past six months.
The US really didn’t understand the gravity of the issue until fairly late in the day, they say. It took the administration a long time to believe that Netanyahu and Barak were seriously contemplating a strike. And then it believed that Barak would ultimately be persuaded to hold Israeli fire — that it could win him over and create a wedge between him and Netanyahu.
There was a big debate in the administration, some insiders claim: Should we bother with Netanyahu? It wasn’t even clear to the Americans what it was that the prime minister wanted from them. Was he seeking a green light for Israeli action? A guarantee that the US would stand by Israel if Netanyahu did act? Clearer reassurance that the US would act itself if all else fails? In the climate of mistrust, they found Netanyahu very difficult to read. They couldn’t even be sure whether the issue was Iran or bringing down Obama. With Barak, they thought it was Iran. With Netanyahu?
But eventually, the president did give the order to reassure Israel — to provide the ladder for Barak to walk down, with Netanyahu reluctantly following.
Amid the incessant visits to and fro by top US and Israeli officials, the insiders say with understandable vagueness, the US has helped boost Israeli offensive and defensive capabilities; it has deepened operational cooperation and intelligence sharing; it has publicly reaffirmed Israel’s right to act if needed; it has made overt that the US president will prevent the nuclearization of Iran; it has not only stated clearly that all options are on the table, but has also given Israel tangible proof that all options are being prepared, including operations in the Gulf. It has shared sufficient details of its war plans for Israel to recognize their credibility.
But Barak did not budge.
In the past two weeks, some in the don’t-strike-now camp see indications that Barak might now be ready to climb down. This, despite the interview a man identified as “the decision maker” who was clearly Barak gave to Haaretz two weeks ago, in which he declared that (a) “If Iran’s nuclearization is not halted now, before long we’ll find ourselves in a Middle East that has all gone nuclear”; (b) “Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen”; (c) “there are moments in the life of a nation in which the imperative to live is the imperative to act. So it was on the eve of the Six-Day War. So it was in 1948. And it may be so now, too”; (d) “we mustn’t listen to those who in every situation prefer inaction to action”; and (e) “The sword hanging over our neck today is a lot sharper than the sword that hung over our neck before the Six-Day War.”
Those same anti-strike insiders, however, also see signs that the Obama administration has now lost patience with Netanyahu, and has concluded that the prime minister and the defense minister have overplayed their hand. The former American ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, gave public expression to this sentiment in an Army Radio interview last Thursday: Israel’s talk of attacking Iran was “a classic case of crying wolf,” he said. “The US has done everything it could to reassure Israel and doesn’t have anything more in its quiver… So it thinks [when it hears talk of an Israeli strike on Iran], ‘Here we go again. There’s nothing else we can do. We’ll learn to live with it.’”
The administration is betting, the anti-strike insiders say, that a critical mass of opposition has been reached to unilateral Israeli action this fall that will now compel Netanyahu to abandon the idea. The accumulation of opposition — by the ex-security chiefs like Dagan and Diskin; serving security chiefs including chief of the General Staff Benny Gantz; opposition leader Shaul Mofaz (however discredited by his constant zig-zagging); and President Shimon Peres (despite his opposition to the Israeli strike on Osirak 31 years ago), backed up by former president Yitzhak Navon — is now deemed to be simply too widespread and overwhelming to defy.
And of course the Americans themselves are doing their best, and have been for months, to further discredit an Israeli strike. In March, a senior unnamed American intelligence official told Channel 2’s reliable diplomatic correspondent Udi Segal that Israel’s leaders seem to be drastically underestimating the likely near-apocalyptic repercussions of an Israeli strike. Leon Panetta, speaking off-the-cuff three months earlier, had said almost the same, albeit without the hyperbole. In the last few days, though, the Americans have stepped up the challenge, with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, making wearily, almost derisively clear, twice, that he doesn’t think Israel could stop the Iranians if it tried.
The Iranians, for their part, are openly derisive. Israel doesn’t have the guts, they gloat. It’s all talk, they sneer.
Might Netanyahu and Barak nonetheless follow through on their threats? As of last week, they were still allowing them to be aired.
Ten weeks to go…
And what of the Iranians?
Nobody, but nobody, among the Israeli experts doubts that Iran has a clear aspiration to attain nuclear weapons. But thus far, whether for strategic, political, religious and/or ideological reasons, the Iranians are hedging, some say.
Iran wants the wherewithal to break out to nuclear weapons quickly, when it decides to do so. But it has not taken that decision. In fact, say some, the Iranians have taken a decision not to accelerate into the end zone for now, by constraining what their scientists and technicians work on.
The Iranians are running a sizable and growing enrichment effort, all the insiders say. And they have kept in place the team necessary to take that effort to the next level. They are also expending ever greater energy on long-range delivery capability. And they are investing heavily in “hardening” the project against attack — so that a one-time attack would not kill off the program in the way a single strike halted Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007. But they have not ventured into that 18-month break out period.
Some insiders believe Iran knows it can’t encroach on that period without this being recognized very quickly, and that it holds back because it fears this might unleash an American response.
Last week, the air force commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards asserted that Iran would “welcome” an Israeli strike. It would give Tehran the opportunity to be rid of Israel forever, said Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh. The Israeli technocrats don’t all believe Iran is happily contemplating an Israeli strike. But Iran is not petrified of an Israeli attack, they say, and broadly, it could withstand one. Not so, an American attack — because a single American strike would be more damaging than an Israeli strike, because the Americans could return to hit again and again, and because the Americans would not limit themselves to a strike at nuclear targets.
The Americans would go about an attack, the Israeli experts say, in an entirely different — and dramatically more substantive manner — than Israel could. The US has made this clear to Israel — another reason for its frustration at Israel’s lack of faith. And it is clear to Iran too. If the Americans act, they go after the air defenses, the missiles, the Revolutionary Guards. They make sure that Iran can’t retaliate.
If Israel strikes, Iran rebuilds and promptly moves into the 18-month breakout period, the don’t-act-now Israeli insiders say. Whatever damage Israel thus has done has no lasting value. In fact, it boomerangs. The sanctions are off, the inspectors are gone, the legitimacy is there. Iran crosses the Rubicon.
That’s dramatic but wrong-headed, says the better-strike-soon camp. An Israeli attack might spell harsh short-term consequences — including the 500 dead that Barak has posited — but it delays the program; it forces an Iranian rethink; it destroys the sense of fait accompli — that the Iranian bomb is inevitable; it staves off the untenable remaking of our region in Iran’s favor.
About those 18 months
How firm is that 18 months? If everything went smoothly, Iran might be able to shave off a couple of months, at most. Unforeseen delays might add another six months.
But there’s a lot of confusion about the period, the experts all say. Israeli experts were saying 18 months to an Iranian bomb in 2006, and in 2008, and in 2010. Were they wrong? No. Iran has progressed a great deal in that period. But Iran has yet to make the accelerated, 18-month push to the bomb. So what’s changed is how things would look over those 18 months, the experts say. Things like, whether Iran would have a better or worse missile delivery system. Things like Iran’s capacity to withstand attack. Things like how many bombs Iran could build in those 18 months.
Some of the technocrats say these factors hold the key to Iran’s decision-making process.
In the better-strike-soon camp, the assessment is that Iran will give the order to plunge forward when it thinks it will be able to build enough bombs — whatever “enough” may mean — in the 18 months, and when it believes itself to be sufficiently protected against attack. So the time for action is now.
In the don’t-strike-now camp, some believe that the Iranians have lost confidence in their ability to do things in secret, and that the US constantly reinforces this sense of lost confidence by indicating that it can see what Iran is up to — thanks to the intelligence work of the US, the Israelis, the Canadians, the Brits, the Germans…
Iran keeps getting reminders that it is penetrated, that it is transparent, these experts say. So, encroaching into the 18 months becomes a still bigger strategic gamble. They might be playing into their adversaries’ hands. The Iranians are saying to themselves, can we do this in secret? No. Can we act quickly and successfully? No. Can we be sure that it won’t be just Israel that attacks? No.
Signs that the Iranians are accelerating toward a bomb would be quite clear, the don’t-strike-now experts say. One would be if Iran began enriching uranium beyond 20%. (Evidence of a recent minor enrichment beyond 20% was what the experts call a normal fluke). Another would be if they stepped up efforts to produce a warhead. They have the basic design and some elements, but they’d need to accommodate the enriched uranium inside a warhead, or in the interim, in some kind of a device that would enable a test.
But this kind of process unfolded in Pakistan and North Korea, the better-act-now camp counters. Threats and promises notwithstanding, there was no military intervention in either case. And anyone who thinks the dangers posed by a nuclear Iran are remotely comparable to those the world faces from nuclear Pakistan and North Korea, noted Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman on Friday, “doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Where does Liberman stand on the imperative or otherwise for action? “We should have struck in 2001,” he said Friday.
The bottom line
The insiders in the don’t-strike-now camp speculate that the US has it about right in gauging Israeli intentions: that Netanyahu and Barak won’t act before the US elections. Something that seemed to Netanyahu and Barak to be politically doable in the past has now become extraordinarily risky, some of the insiders say.
The damage done, these technocrats say, has already been enormous: People taking money out of the country; parents taking their children out of the country. Israelis looking for alternate citizenships; investors looking for alternate investments. Worse still, Israel under Netanyahu has “taken ownership” of the Iranian nuclear crisis, when it’s the international community that needs to feel the onus to act. There are plenty of people in the West who want Israel to strike at Iran, some of the insiders say — and those people are not friends of Israel.
All wrong, say those in the better-strike-soon camp. Israel waited a decade for someone else to step up. Now it has no choice. Netanyahu the indecisive is capable of being coldly decisive on this issue alone — the Iranian threat being the danger he feels he was fated to handle, the reason that circumstances contrived to make him prime minister, now.
Benjamin Netanyahu eulogized his father Benzion in April as a man who knew “how to identify danger in time,” and was prepared to “face reality head on” and “draw the necessary conclusions.” In the case of the insufficiently influential father, the danger that the Jewish leadership failed to face was the Holocaust. In the case of the son, the prime minister of a regional superpower, the danger he has the capacity to recognize, and to thwart, is a would-be genocidal, almost-nuclear Iran. “As prime minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation,” Netanyahu told AIPAC in March.
Now is not the time for Israel to strike at Iran, the former chief of the General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, opined last Thursday, completing the complement of most-recent security chiefs inveighing against an attack. “This threat that emerges in the east, and all the darkening on that horizon – we aren’t there yet.”
But allowing Israel’s window of military opportunity to shut without acting may turn out to be an act of restraint with catastrophic consequences, retort those in the better-strike-soon camp. It may turn out that Israel ought not to have trusted its security even to a president who has promised that the United States is “bound to Israel,” and that for his country Israel’s “security is sacrosanct.”
Is Netanyahu prepared to take the risk of inaction, or choose the gamble of intervention?