Despite White House claims, Israel’s security chiefs are split on Iran deal

Obama administration keeps hailing defense officials’ ostensible backing of nuclear accord loathed by Netanyahu; but the picture is far more nuanced

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

US Secretary of State John Kerry quotes a Washington Post article, which cites Israeli ex-security personnel who supposedly support the Iran nuclear deal, during a Senate hearing on July 23, 2015. (Screen capture: RollCall)
US Secretary of State John Kerry quotes a Washington Post article, which cites Israeli ex-security personnel who supposedly support the Iran nuclear deal, during a Senate hearing on July 23, 2015. (Screen capture: RollCall)

Since US Secretary of State John Kerry waved a printed Washington Post article during a Senate hearing last month, which cited several former Israeli security heads supporting the Iran nuclear deal, there has been a sense that those former defense chiefs were indicative of the entire establishment.

The Obama administration’s official Twitter account for the Iran deal has tweeted no less than 13 times in the three short weeks since it was signed about the support former Israeli defense chiefs have given to the agreement.

“Why the former chief of Israeli intelligence supports the #IranDeal,” reads one such tweet.

“Bad deal? Leading Israeli security experts say otherwise,” states another.

Some news outlets have also begun generalizing on the entire Israeli defense establishment, based on the comments of just a few former officials.

“As unanimous as the politicians are in backing the prime minister, the generals and spymasters are nearly as unanimous in questioning him,” J.J. Goldberg wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward. “Generals publicly backing Netanyahu can be counted on — well — one finger.”

That is, at the very least, an exaggeration. And the truth is not that black and white.

The White House’s 13 tweets as of this writing refer to just four high-ranking Israeli security figures, only one of whom gives clear-cut approval for the nuclear deal. Comments by the rest are far more nuanced and reserved or, in the case of one, deal more with domestic politics than the accord itself.

Some for, some against

Last month, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service and one-time Labor MK Ami Ayalon told the US news website the Daily Beast that the nuclear accord signed in Geneva by the world powers and Iran was “the best option” in curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear capabilities.

“When negotiations began, Iran was two months away from acquiring enough material for a [nuclear] bomb. Now it will be 12 months,” Ayalon said.

Ami Ayalon in 2008 (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)
Ami Ayalon (Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

Though Ayalon, also a former Israeli Navy chief, is learned and experienced on issues of Israeli security, the Shin Bet is an internal security service, which deals mainly with terror threats in Israel proper, the West Bank and Gaza — not with international threats like Iranian nuclear armament.

Efraim Halevy, the director of Israel’s overseas intelligence agency, the Mossad, from 1998 to 2002, has also been touted as a supporter of the deal struck between the P5+1 — the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom; plus Germany — and Iran.

“I think the United States scored a great success in creating this international coalition to face down the nuclear threat which threatens the world at large,” Halevy told the American National Public Radio on Friday.

Efraim Halevy (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Efraim Halevy (Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

However, Halevy stressed in the interview, and repeated elsewhere, “The agreement has weaknesses, no doubt.”

In a Channel 2 news interview, Halevy added, “There are problems with the inspections. There is the problem that after 10-15 years, there is the option for Iran to make a nuclear bomb.”

He added that aspects of the deal “will require a great deal of work to follow up [on Iran’s activities], not just for the United Nations, but also for intelligence services around the world.”

Several other of the former senior Israeli intelligence officials touted by supporters of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action — the agreement’s official title — as firm believers in the accord have also made nuanced statements on the issue.

Former head of IDF Intelligence Amos Yadlin, also name-checked by Kerry and the White House, told Israel Radio when the framework of the Iran deal was released in April that it can’t be called a “bad deal,” adding that the deal was an opportunity “to set back the Iranians by many years.”

Since the release of JCPA, however, Yadlin has said that though Israel’s “security situation will improve” over the next five years since the Iranian nuclear program will be “reduced” and subjected to greater inspection, it is incumbent upon the defense establishment to use those five years to prepare for a possible military intervention against Iran — not exactly a ringing endorsement of the accord’s US-hailed capacity to block every Iranian path to the bomb.

Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan was also included in the White House’s campaign to convince opponents that the Israeli defense establishment supports the deal. Dagan’s statements, however, have been far more critical of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than favorable toward the JCPA.

Ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan speaks at an anti-Netanyahu election rally in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015 (screen capture: Channel 10)
Ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan speaks at an anti-Netanyahu election rally in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, March 7, 2015 (screen capture: Channel 10)

Though Dagan warned against a resort to the military option in a 2011 speech, saying Israel would “have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program,” in the four years since, his comments have been mostly condemnations of Netanyahu, famously calling the prime minister’s March speech before Congress “bullshit.”

In addition to the intelligence and defense figures with a more nuanced or ambivalent view of the Iranian nuclear deal, who see its potential benefits, many more have been forthright and clear in their condemnation of it.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, March 10, 2015 (Ohad Zwigenberg, Pool)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, March 10, 2015 (Ohad Zwigenberg, Pool)

Both Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and former prime minister Ehud Barak have denounced the deal in no uncertain terms.

Ya’alon criticized the entire negotiating process, saying after the agreement was signed that it was a lesson in “how not to conduct negotiations.”

Barak, who like Ya’alon served as both defense minister and chief of staff of the IDF, encouraged the country to be calm, but warned, “It is very likely that Iran, walking in the footsteps of North Korea and Pakistan, will become a nuclear state sometime in the next decade.”

“It’s a bad deal,” Barak added on the day the deal was signed.

Former prime minister Ehud Barak (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Former prime minister Ehud Barak (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Director general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry, Ram Ben Barak, a former deputy commander of the Mossad and a candidate for the top spot in the clandestine organization, similarly attacked the deal.

In particular, Ben Barak bemoaned the fact that Iran is allowed to continue to develop advanced centrifuges that can enrich uranium at a rate 20 times greater than the current one.

“Anyone who needs that sort of centrifuge is after a covert installation that he can hide, so that he requires 1,000 rather than 20,000 centrifuges,” he told Israel Radio.

Pressing on

Though there is a range of nuanced opinions in the Israeli defense establishment about the merits of the deal, a growing consensus is also emerging that, good or bad, the JCPA will not be stopped.

‘The deal between the coalition and Iran has become a fait accompli’

Dozens of former high-ranking Shin Bet, Mossad and IDF officials signed a petition, which was released on Monday, calling for Netanyahu to come to terms with the deal and shift his energies towards preserving Israel’s security.

The petition, written “from the viewpoint that the deal between the coalition and Iran has become a fait accompli,” called for Netanyahu to mend the relationship with the United States government.

Renewed and strengthened ties to America, the petition stated, would allow Israel to focus on “tracking the implementation of the agreement.” Shared intelligence would give Israel an early warning if Iran violates the accord and allow Israel to evaluate with the US the appropriate response, it said.

The group, which includes former deputy director of the Mossad Amiram Levin and ex-chief of the Atomic Energy Commission Uzi Eilmann, wrote that improved US relations would afford Israel more leeway in negotiations with the Palestinians and allow for a greater connection with Sunni countries to combat radical forces in the region.

Other than an expressed interest in preserving the State of Israel and the need for American support in doing so, however, the past and present security establishment lacks any concrete consensus on how to go about it — despite the Obama administration’s claims to the contrary.

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