Ashkenazi denies blocking Israeli strike on Iran, says option still on the table

Ashkenazi denies blocking Israeli strike on Iran, says option still on the table

If Netanyahu had ordered him to attack, says ex-chief of staff turned politician, ‘we’d have saluted the flag’ and carried out the mission

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi, left, at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Feb. 14 , 2011. (Abir Sultan / Flash90.)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-IDF chief Gabi Ashkenazi, left, at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, Feb. 14 , 2011. (Abir Sultan / Flash90.)

A former Israeli army chief of staff dismissed the notion that he and other security chiefs prevented Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities a decade ago, and said the option of carrying out such a strike remains on the table.

In his first major interview since entering politics last month, Gabi Ashkenazi said that if Netanyahu and the government had ordered the Israel Defense Forces to strike Iran when he was IDF chief (from 2007-2011), “we would have saluted the flag” and set about the mission.

As chief of staff, Ashkenazi said his job had been to ensure that the political echelon had a “realistic option” should it choose to attack, and to give his professional advice on the merits of such an attack. But the final decision, he told Channel 12 news in a lengthy interview broadcast Saturday night, was obviously one for the elected officials, not the generals.

Declining to elaborate on behind-closed-discussions a decade ago, when it has been reported that Netanyahu and his then-defense minister Ehud Barak wanted to strike Iran, but Ashkenazi, then Mossad chief Meir Dagan and other security chiefs prevented this, Ashkenazi said he would not comment further, in part because the issue was still relevant.

Ex-chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi of Blue and White in a Channel 12 interview on March 9, 2019 (Channel 12 screenshot)

“Since Iran, and a nuclear Iran, and the possibility of a military strike against a nuclear Iran, remain relevant” and “is not behind us,” said Ashkenazi, what was discussed in classified meetings would have to remain secret.

Israel believes Iran continues to seek to attain nuclear weapons, despite having been required to dismantle some parts and freeze others of its rogue nuclear program, and to submit to intrusive inspections, under its 2015 deal with the P5+1 powers. Opposed by Netanyahu, the deal has also been castigated by US President Donald Trump, who withdrew the US from it last year.

Ashkenazi played a key role in brokering the merger last month of two centrist parties, Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, into the Gantz-led Blue and White party, which is leading Netanyahu’s Likud ahead of April 9’s elections. Ashkenazi is in fourth spot on the party’s list of Knesset candidates.

From left to right: Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz, Gabi Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon of the Blue and White party arrive to give a joint a statement in Tel Aviv on February 21, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

He derided Netanyahu’s efforts to depict Blue and White as a party of “weak leftists,” noting that it has three ex-IDF chiefs in its ranks (Gantz, Ashkenazi and Moshe Ya’alon). He also remarked that, unlike Netanyahu, “I have destroyed a nuclear reactor” — a reference to the 2007 Israeli raid on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s nuclear reactor, ordered by former prime minister Ehud Olmert and carried out when Ashkenazi was chief of staff.

He castigated Netanyahu’s policy of allowing, in the past, the transfer of funds from Qatar to Gaza’s Hamas terrorist leadership, and also faulted Netanyahu’s handling of Iran’s ongoing efforts to establish a military presence in Syria. “There is no room for the weak in this neighborhood,” he said.

On the Palestinian front, Ashkenazi neither specified support for, nor ruled out, independent Palestinian statehood, but said Israel had to seek a way to separate from the Palestinians, to move ahead “if there is a partner,” and to do so in a sober, careful fashion, always keeping security concerns uppermost.

He said the question of territorial concessions to the Palestinians was “not relevant right now,” but that he would not support annexing any West Bank territory — as some on the Israeli right urge — and that Israel had to maintain a decisive Jewish majority. Nobody in his new party, he said, “has the intention for millions of Palestinians to become citizens of Israel and vote in the Knesset,” he said.

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ashkenazi acknowledged that Blue and White has too few women high on its Knesset slate, and said its leaders wanted Orly Levy-Abekasis, of the small Gesher party, “to be in the top five.” Levy-Abekasis and Gantz negotiated on an alliance, but the talks failed, and she has accused Gantz of “lying to my face” in those talks.

Ashkenazi said Gantz would make “an excellent prime minister,” and that he, too, would have “a hand on the steering wheel.” He acknowledged calling Gantz “a jackass” in a private conversation in 2010, but said he has always been a plain-talker, that the comment was made in the context of contest over who would succeed him as IDF chief, and that he had long since cleared up the matter with Gantz.

MK Bezalel Smotrich (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

He said he made the decision to enter politics in part when, last month, Netanyahu brokered a deal on the right that brought disciples of the racist late rabbi Meir Kahane into an alliance that could see one or more of them entering the Knesset, and when Netanyahu promised the post of education minister in a future coalition to another right-wing leader, Bezalel Smotrich.

If, as he said he expected, Blue and White wins enough seats to be invited to form a coalition, Ashkenazi said its first calls to potential partners would be to the Labor Party and a post-Netanyahu Likud. Blue and White has said it will not sit in government with Netanyahu. Gantz on February 28 urged Netanyahu to resign after the attorney general said he intends to indict the prime minister in three criminal cases against him, pending a hearing.

Latest polls put Blue and White three to five seats ahead of Likud, but show Likud better placed to muster a majority coalition in the 120-seat Knesset.

Current Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Gabi Ashkenazi, visiting the Western Wall during the IDF chief of staff handover ceremony on February 14, 2011. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)
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