Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom hinted Monday that political considerations may have been behind Defense Minister Ehud Barak’s decision to slam the IDF in a television documentary excerpted Sunday and being transmitted in full on Monday.
“It may be in some people’s interest to raise the Iranian threat to the top of the agenda ahead of the upcoming elections,” said Shalom.
Barak is fighting an uphill battle to retain his Knesset seat in January’s elections as head of his breakaway Atzmaut (Independence) party, which he formed last year when splitting from the Labor Party.
Responding to questions over events that took place in 2010, Barak charged that then IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi had failed to prepare the army for a strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, and thus refused when ordered by Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to have the IDF ready to strike within hours if necessary.
In an interview with Channel 2’s “Uvda” (Fact), Barak charged that Ashkenazi didn’t object in principle to the political echelon’s order to prepare a strike, or out of concern that a so-called “P Plus” alert could precipitate war — as sources close to Ashkenazi told the program. Rather, Barak said, the military chief had responded to the order by saying that the requested state of high readiness could not be implemented due to the fact that the army had not prepared an attack plan and thus lacked the operational capability to carry out an effective strike on Iran.
The report and Barak’s comments raised eyebrows Monday, with former military and intelligence officials criticizing him for publicly voicing views that could damage Israel’s deterrence.
“I don’t know who was behind the story coming out, but it smells bad,” said former IDF intelligence chief and current Labor Party member Uri Sagi. “The decision-making process at the time was disturbing and it is disturbing that this is coming out now,” he added.
Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom asserted that Barak’s statements had not harmed Israel’s security because they described the situation two years ago and did not reflect Israel’s current state of readiness.
According to the Channel 2 program, Netanyahu and Barak ordered their security chiefs in 2010 to have the military ready to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities within hours if necessary, but were rebuffed by Ashkenazi and to the then-head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan.
Dagan reportedly retorted that the order, if followed, might lead to a war based on an illegal decision. And Ashkenazi, reportedly declaring that such an attack would be “a strategic mistake,” also warned that the very order to prepare for a strike might set in motion a deterioration into war even if Israel didn’t actually choose to launch one.
Netanyahu and Barak chose not to insist that the security chiefs follow their orders, the program indicated.
The dramatic events unfolded at a meeting of “the forum of seven” most senior ministers with the security chiefs in Jerusalem, “Uvda” claimed. The full documentary was being broadcast on Monday; short excerpts were screened on Sunday night.
The report cited sources close to Ashkenazi and Dagan – who since stepping down from their respective posts have both been outspoken in their opposition to a strike on Iran – to the effect that as the two men were leaving the meeting, Netanyahu “matter-of-factly” instructed them to initiate the “P Plus” code, which is essentially a readying of the military to imminently launch an attack.
Ashkenazi and Dagan reportedly vehemently objected to the order.
“This isn’t the sort of thing that you do unless you’re certain that you’ll end up launching an operation,” Ashkenazi was quoted as saying. “It’s like an accordion that makes music even if it is merely handled.”
According to the sources quoted by the report, Ashkenazi meant that the “P Plus” alert would cement “facts on the ground” that could trigger a chain of events that would culminate in war – whether or not Israel actively decided to pursue military conflict.
Dagan, the report said, was even more ardent than the chief of staff in his dissent.
“You may end up going to war based on an illegal decision,” the former intelligence chief was quoted as saying. “Only the security cabinet is authorized to make such a decision.”
Later, Dagan would say that “the prime minister and the defense minister tried to steal a war – it was as simple as that.”
Ashkenazi, according to sources quoted by “Uvda,” fiercely denied that there was lack of readiness in the ranks of the IDF.
“Barak is not telling the truth,” the former chief of staff was quoted as saying. “I did prepare the option. The army was ready to attack, but I also said that attacking then would be a strategic mistake.”
But Barak had a different recollection of the events.
“The assumption that if the chief of staff doesn’t recommend a course of action, that that action isn’t operationally feasible, is baseless,” the defense minister – himself a former chief of General Staff – maintained in the “Uvda” interview. “A chief of staff must create the operational ability, he needs to tell us [the government] whether we have the operational ability to do something, and he even needs to give his recommendation, but [the government] is free to choose [a course of action] that contradicts his recommendation.
A “P Plus” state, Barak said, was by no means an indication that war is imminent.
The report did not make clear why Barak and Netanyahu chose not to insist on pushing forward with their decision, in the face of the objections from Ashkenazi and Dagan.