Playing crazy on Iran puts Israel’s ‘special status’ at risk, warns former security chief

Israel’s behavior has been effective in spurring the US to action, says Ami Ayalon, but asking the world ‘to save us from ourselves’ jeopardizes Israel’s alleged nuclear arsenal

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Former MK and Shin Bet chief Ami Ayaon (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Former MK and Shin Bet chief Ami Ayaon (photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel has been portraying itself as crazy and unpredictable, thus forcing the United States to lead a coalition against Iran — but the tactic could also strip Israel of its alleged “special status” regarding nuclear arms, according to former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon.

Over the past several years, with Iran advancing cautiously but steadily toward a nuclear weapon and the Arab Spring raging through the region, the Israeli government has tried to figure out “how to make the US lead [on Tehran] against its will, without paying it back in Palestinian coin [concessions in peace negotiations],” Ayalon told an audience of mostly mid-level IDF officers and pilots Tuesday at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism’s World Summit held in Herzliya.

The strategy Israel chose, he said, was the assumption of a reckless demeanor, with the country threatening a military strike against the express interests of the United States and Europe, which fear such action could trigger a regional war.

“The world is being asked to save us from ourselves,” he said.

Early in President Barack Obama’s term in office there seemed to be a clear quid pro quo on the table: progress and significant Israeli concessions on the Palestinian front in return for American leadership on Iran.

In the ensuing years neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has made any major steps in the direction of a two-state solution.

Instead Netanyahu has taken a different approach: Either the United States brings Iran to its knees by way of diplomacy or military force, he says, or Israel will attack, in order to delay what it sees as the existential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The immediate results of this policy are twofold. On the one hand the prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak “are seen as crazy and that greatly enhances their deterrent capacity,” Ayalon said. To an extent this is what has helped them score the “unusual success” of pushing Iran’s nuclear program to the forefront of public discourse in the US and Europe, despite formidable economic concerns and the need to remain on diplomatically good terms with China.

On the other hand, it has created “a rift with America and especially with the Democratic administration.”

The long-term effects of the policy, though, were especially worrying to Ayalon.

The implication of not attacking once we’ve played the crazy card, he told the audience, is that Israel would be seen as a paper tiger, “and in this region paper tigers have a very low survival rate.”

Worse, a change in Israel’s status, from the region’s most “responsible adult” to a wild and unpredictable character, along with an expiration date on the world’s post-Holocaust guilt, could be a game-changer in terms of nuclear arms.

“Almost the only thing that has allowed the world to continue to relate to us as a special case has been our behavior as the responsible adult,” Ayalon said. “But when the ostensible authority figure acts crazy, then what comes up for discussion is Israel’s status as a special case.”

Without expressly referring to the UN conference on a nuclear-free Middle East to be held in the coming months in Finland, Ayalon said he feared Israel’s current behavior would lead to a slew of panels entitled “Should Israel’s Special Status Continue or Not?” And that, he said, “makes me one particularly worried citizen.”

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