Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities in 2010 and 2011, but was prevented from doing so, first by his army chief of staff and then by ministerial colleagues, Netanyahu’s former defense minister Ehud Barak said.
Barak, who supported Netanyahu’s desire to hit Iran, was speaking in recordings broadcast on Israel’s Channel 2 on Friday night. The material apparently comes from conversations related to a new biography of Barak being written by Danny Dor and Ilan Kfir. The former defense minister, who was also previously prime minister and chief of staff, attempted to prevent the broadcasting of the recordings, but Israel’s military censors allowed Channel 2 to play them.
Barak said he and Netanyahu on more than one occasion sought to order an Israel Air Force attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but were scuppered first by chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2010, who said the IDF was not ready for the operation, and then by fellow cabinet ministers Moshe “Bogey” Ya’alon and Yuval Steinitz, who did not support the idea. Ya’alon is the current Israeli defense minister. Steinitz is the minister of energy and Netanyahu’s point man on Iran. Barak has retired from politics.
The strikes were planned to take place because Netanyahu and Barak anticipated that Iran would enter a “zone of immunity”, in which its facilities were so well-protected or developed as to render an attack on them either a short-term solution or even futile. Netanyahu maintains to this day, however, that Israel will act alone if necessary to prevent Iran attaining nuclear weapons, and has been a leading critic of the P5+1 deal with Iran that curbs but does not dismantle its nuclear program.
Initially, it was Ashenkazi who was opposed to an Israeli strike, in 2010, Barak said in the tapes, which meant that discussion of such a move could not advance:
“Ultimately, you need the IDF chief,” Barak said in the recordings. “The IDF chief has to say that there is operational capability. We gathered in a side room, just a small group; there were 30 people in the discussion and in this case we had a very small group – the prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, chief of staff, the head of Mossad, the head of Military Intelligence, the head of the Shin Bet [domestic security service]. In this forum we actually wanted to know what the situation was. The answer [from Ashkenazi] was not a positive one… when he was pushed into the corner.”
Without the backing of the head of the army, Barak said, there was no way that the issue could be raised for a full cabinet discussion.
“He created an untenable situation,” Barak said of Ashkenazi. “You cannot go to the Cabinet when the chief of staff says to you, ‘I’m sorry but I told you no.'”
When Ashkenazi was succeeded by Benny Gantz as head of the IDF in February 2011, Gantz indicated that an operation was feasible.
That year, Channel 2 said, a meeting was held at the Mossad headquarters. Barak indicated that he and Netanyahu sensed they would have a majority supporting a strike in the “forum of eight” senior ministers, and could then take it to the full Cabinet. Ministers Benny Begin, Dan Meridor and Eli Yishai were opposed to the operation, as were the heads of Mossad, the Shin Bet and almost the entire IDF top echelon including Military Intelligence. It seemed that Ya’alon and Steinitz were in favor, but it emerged at that meeting that this was not the case.
“Gantz said the capability was there, you know all the limitations, everything, all the risks,” Barak said of that 2011 meeting. “Bibi [Netanyahu], me and [Yisrael Beytenu leader and then-foreign minister Avigdor] Lieberman supported the operation and were ready to present it to the forum of eight… Bibi was supposed to ensure [the support of Ya’alon and Steinitz] … At a certain stage of the consultations, Bibi said they were in favor, it’s okay.”
“Then we held a discussion on it in the forum of eight,” Barak continued. “We went there after Bibi told the two of us — Lieberman and me – that Bogey and Steinitz supported [the operation]. The chief of staff lays it all out — all the difficulties, the complications, the complexities and the problems including the possibility of losses — and you see Bogey and Steinitz crumbling in front of your eyes. Either Bibi did not do his preparation or he had misunderstood what constitutes a yes.”
Barak said Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin made a powerful presentation at this meeting setting out his opposition.
Ultimately, the plan was shelved.
Netanyahu has continued to insist that Israel has not ruled out a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
In the recording, Barak lashed out at the two ministers, who he said are now the most hawkish when it comes to dealing with Iran. “It’s the same Bogey and Steinitz who today, if you ask the public, are the most militant on attacking Iran.
“If they hadn’t changed their minds,” Barak said, “there would have been a majority of five or six and then we may have convened the full cabinet to take a decision and there would have been an operation.
Barak expressed outrage that the recordings had been released and tried to prevent them from being aired, Channel 2 noted. The station stressed, however, that the contents of the recordings had been approved for broadcast by the military censor.
Steinitz said it was grave that such material was broadcast and had no comment on the specifics, while Ya’alon said he had no comment on what he called biased and skewed material.