Prime Minister Benjamin 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 in 2012, before economic sanctions against the regime had taken their full toll, according to the author of a new book on Israel’s espionage and security agencies.
The Israeli prime minister’s bellicose rhetoric, his preparations for an attack, and his approval of the Mossad’s continued assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists, thus prompted the very deal he has so bitterly opposed, said Ronen Bergman, whose “Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations,” is published in the US next week.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, best-selling author Bergman, a veteran Israeli military and intelligence affairs correspondent, said that “the threats by Netanyahu to attack caused the opposite result. Instead of the Iranians coming to the negotiations, totally crippled (by economic sanctions), in say 2014, they got to the talks, half-crippled, in 2012.” And this, in turn, he said, led to the nuclear deal whose terms Netanyahu has so relentlessly and bitterly criticized.
In its bid to thwart Iran’s nuclear program, the Mossad, under its chief Meir Dagan, conceived a multi-point program. This, said Bergman, comprised: political pressure; sanctions; prevention of exports of dual-use equipment to Iran; encouraging the opposition to the regime; and other secret measures – including sabotage such as the Stuxnet computer virus, “and the whole issue attributed to the Mossad of assassinating nuclear scientists.”
Bergman said former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden told him that “the one thing that was most effective was that someone was starting to kill the scientists” — though Hayden, he stressed, took care not to attribute those killings to Israel or anybody else.
These measures helped slow but failed to stop the program, Bergman writes in the book. So Israel, under Netanyahu, spent $2 billion on preparations for “an all-out air attack, supported by commando forces, in the heart of Iran” and for “the anticipated ensuing war against the Radical Front” — Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. In September 2012, he further writes, Netanyahu placed the IDF and Mossad at “0 plus 30” — as in 30 days from a full-scale attack on Iran.
In retrospect, it is far from clear that Netanyahu intended to carry out such an attack. Bergman, who said he interviewed 1,000 people for the book, told The Times of Israel that Netanyahu’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, who did want to go through with the air strike, today does not believe Netanyahu really intended to attack. Other sources, Bergman writes, assess that Netanyahu “only wanted to make Obama believe that he intended to attack, in order to force Obama’s hand, to steer him to the conclusion that America would inevitably get embroiled in the war anyway, so it would be better for the United States to carry out the attack itself, in order to control the timing.”
If so, said Bergman, this proved a colossal miscalculation. “What really happened, by the way, is that the Americans were so panicked. Of course, Obama never even thought of attacking,” Bergman said in the interview. Rather, the US president began negotiating with the Iranians. Bergman said that Dagan’s successor as Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo, had told Netanyahu that he risked pushing the Americans to act, but not necessarily in the direction he wanted, and that this is precisely what happened.
In the book, Bergman writes that Pardo, returning from a trip to the US in spring 2012, “warned Netanyahu that continued pressure on the United States would lead to a dramatic measure, and likely not the one that Netanyahu hoped for. Pardo himself believed that another two years of economic and political pressure would probably make Iran surrender under favorable conditions and give up its nuclear project entirely. But Netanyahu refused to listen to him, ordering Pardo to continue with the assassinations, and the IDF to continue its preparations for an attack.”
In December of 2012, Bergman writes, “the Mossad was ready to eliminate another scientist, but just before it went ahead, Obama, fearing Israeli action, agreed to an Iranian proposal to hold secret negotiations… It is reasonable to assume that if the talks had begun two years later, Iran would have come to them in a considerably weaker state…”
At the end of 2012, Bergman elaborated in the interview, “the Mossad found out that the Americans, behind Israel’s back, had started secret negotiations with Iran. Because of that, Netanyahu accepted Pardo’s recommendation to stop all aggressive activity against Iran. Pardo thought, and in that sense Netanyahu accepted his view, that Israel could not move aggressively against Iran, even clandestinely, when the Americans had a political discourse.”
If Netanyahu had not panicked the Americans, the sanctions would have been in place for longer, and the regime would have fallen “or at least been significantly crippled,” Bergman said.
“Towards the end of 2012, I had a meeting with the head of Tsiltsal, the unit in the Mossad which was responsible among other things for crippling the Iranian economy,” Bergman recalled. This official, said Bergman, detailed a series of economic sanctions, that if approved by the US, were expected “to take down the Iranian economy by mid-2013 and create havoc in Iran.” But, added Bergman, “all this was stopped because the US entered into the negotiations.”
Bergman, who took his book’s title from the Talmudic counsel, “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first,” traces Israel’s policy of “targeted assassinations” by the Mossad and other arms of government, “in both peacetime and wartime,” and calculates that Israel “has assassinated more people than any other country in the Western world” since World War II, with at least 2,700 such operations.
Designed in large part to stave off full-scale wars, Bergman argued in the interview that the potency of these killings has also sometimes tempted Israel’s political leaders “to believe they can achieve their goals with intelligence and special operations, and not by turning to statesmanship and political discourse.”
In many respects, therefore, he writes, the book chronicles “a long string of impressive tactical successes, but also disastrous strategic failures.”