A former head of the Mossad spy agency said that in 2011 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the country’s military to prepare to strike Iran at short notice, prompting the spy chief to check whether the premier had the authority to begin a process he was sure would lead to war.
Tamir Pardo made the revelations in an interview with Keshet’s “Uvda” (Fact) investigative reporting show, scheduled for TV broadcast on Thursday evening.
The events unfolded at a time when Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak were concerned that the opportunity to hit Iran’s nuclear facilities was slipping away, as the sites would become so well-protected that any attempt to bomb them would be rendered ineffective. Israel feared that Iran was close to producing nuclear weapons, a development it had long vowed to stymie.
Pardo said that Netanyahu instructed then-IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz to prepare the military so that it would be ready to carry out an attack on Iran within 15 days of being ordered into action. That order, Pardo explained in a promo for the interview, carried enormous significance, leading him to contemplate resigning rather than participate in an attack.
“It’s not something that you’re permitted to do just for practice,” he said of the request to put the military on a war footing. “If someone does that then it has two [possible] purposes: One purpose is that he really means [to attack] and the other option is that he is sending a signal, that someone out there should know.
“It’s possible that someone in the United States would hear about it in one form or another, and that would motivate him to do something,” Pardo said.
“In matters like these you have to believe people, they are the pilots,” Pardo said of the political leadership. “So when he [the prime minister] tells you, ‘Begin a countdown process,’ you understand that he isn’t playing games with you. These things have tremendous implications.”
Pardo, who was selected by Netanyahu to lead the Mossad and took over at the beginning of 2011, recalled that he began to look into whether the prime minister had the authority to order measures that could lead to war.
“I made inquiries about everything I could do. I checked with previous Mossad chiefs. I checked with legal advisers. I consulted anyone I could consult in order to understand who is authorized to give instructions about the whole issue of starting a war,” he said.
Among the people he spoke to was the attorney general at the time, Yehudah Weinstein. At some point, Pardo admitted, Netanyahu became aware of his activities.
“In the end, if I get an order and if I get an instruction from the prime minister, I am supposed to carry it out,” he said. “I need to be certain if, God forbid, something goes wrong, even if the operation fails, that it shouldn’t be a situation that I carried out an illegal action.”
Asked if a strike on Iran was tantamount to starting a war, Pardo said, “Certainly.”
In the end, Pardo and Gantz both objected to Netanyahu’s plan and the prime minister dropped the instruction, he said, but not before Pardo had considered taking drastic measures.
“When the political leadership gives an instruction, you have two options,” he said. “One option is to carry it out; another option is to hand over the keys. I’m glad I didn’t have to make such a decision — not that it didn’t go through my head.”
Barak, the defense minister at the time, has said that both he and Netanyahu were eager to strike Iran in 2010 and 2011 but were blocked by the chief of staff and by ministerial colleagues.
In 2012 Uvda reported that in 2010 security chiefs refused to prepare the military for a strike on Iran.
Earlier this year, journalist Ronen Bergman, in his book “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” reported that Netanyahu’s repeated threats to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities caused such “panic” in the US that the Obama administration rushed to accept an Iranian proposal to open negotiations on a nuclear deal.
Rejecting heavy criticism from Israel, world powers eventually signed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran, lifting heavy sanctions on the Islamic Republic that had been in place for years, in exchange for the freezing of much of its nuclear program.
On May 12, 2018, US President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal, declaring that sanctions would be reimposed until the agreement is altered to place further restrictions on Iranian nuclear armament and long-range missile development program.
Pardo’s term as chief of Mossad ended in 2016, and the spy agency is now headed by Yossi Cohen.