Israeli public, politicians split on Iran (with advantage to skeptics)

Posted: November 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, Polls, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off

The lack of national consensus makes an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities unlikely, yet the escalating threats could create a dangerous dynamic in the longer run ● Public discourse is lacking a serious debate on the consequences of the attack

After months and years in which it has been kept in back rooms or limited to hints and remarks the true meaning of which was understood only by a few people, the Iran debate is suddenly so public that at times it’s hard to make any sense of it. Never has the possibility of a war – a war! – been debated so openly in Israel. Haaret’z top headline today (Thursday) was a poll showing the Israeli public split – 41 in favor and 39 opposing – on a possible Israeli strike against Iran nuclear facilities. According to those numbers, ultra-Orthodox Israelis are particularly keen on the attack (do they know something the rest of us don’t?) and a surprising 21 percent of Israeli-Palestinians are in support.

Some people find the idea of polling such issues bizarre (next – a reality show?) , but history has shown that when left alone to decide in secret on such issues, politicians and generals don’t exercise better judgment than the man on the street. Knowing that the public’s eye is on them, the military and political chiefs in Tel Aviv might be a bit more careful. I agree with Larry Derfner – a public debate on Iran is generally a good thing, and we should be happy that most of the Israel press is engaging in it. Unsurprisingly, it was the pro-Netanyahu tabloid Yisrael Hayon that had a quote in its top headline criticizing public statements made by ex-Mossad chief against the attack, reminding that Israel’s (former) chief spies are sworn to secrecy.

I was buying coffee near my home on Thursday when a siren sounded; I had a vague memory that a civil defense drill was due to take place, but people around me were genuinely concerned. Later, I read that the Home Front Command told reporters that the drill was scheduled a long time ago – just like the Air Force maneuver on the other side of the Mediterranean – yet one can’t help thinking that if Israel is not planning to attack Iran, it wants things to at least to be seen that way.

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It’s not clear whether Israel has the military capability to seriously damage the Iranian nuclear program, but an attack, some people argue, will send a message to the entire Middle East that Israel will act against any country in the region that attempts to develop a nuclear weapon. Even if this won’t stop Iran, such an attack might deter other countries in the region, and prevent the nightmare scenario of an all-out nuclear arms race. Some also hope that the possibility of Israeli attack might strengthen international pressure on Iran, or promote more effective sanctions.

But deterrence is a double-edged sword; it is meant to prevent the need to use military force but sometimes it ends up actually leading to it. It’s easy to see why: You start by threatening to use force if your national interests are jeopardized, and after a while, you have no choice but acting upon your threats in order to make sure that they are seen as credible in the future. This is the real danger of the current game Israel is playing: While I doubt if there is a real desire to attack in the political system or the military right now, as time passes the urge to strike is likely to grow, if only in order to prove to other countries that Israel’s threats are credible.

As for now, it seems that the “Iran Skeptics” camps still has the upper hand in the national debate: in the eight-minister cabinet that constitutes Israel’s top decision-making forum, four ministers are reported to oppose the attack (according to Haaretz those are Benny Begin, Moshe Ya’alon, Eli Yishai and Dan Meridor), three are considered in favor and one’s position is unclear, though it has been reported that he is leaning towards the opposition (that’s Finance Minister Yuval Shteinitz). Reports suggest that the military and Mossad are also not very enthusiastic about the idea, and as I mentioned, there is the very public campaign launched by the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, with the silent support of former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and former head of Shabak (the Shin Bet internal security service) Yuval Diskin, though it should be noted that none of the three hold any formal role in security establishment right now.

Finally, the latest development is the criticism against Netanyahu’s push for attack, voiced by Kadima’s Tzipi Livni. This is pretty rare – the political tradition in Israel has it that the opposition does not question the government’s security decisions, certainly not in public, and never in advance. Livni wouldn’t have spoken if she had felt that she is alone on this issue.

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One thing that is missing from the public debate on Iran is a serious consideration of the consequences of an Israeli attack. The Iranian response – both direct and by proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas – could be pretty tough, and if it actually causes great damage or result in a large number of civilian casualties, Israel might see itself as being forced to retaliate. Therefore, the correct framing of the question isn’t an attack on Iran, but a possible war with Iran and its regional allies. An escalation of this sort might result in drawing the United States and other countries, probably against their will, into the fight. Again, the consequences for all parties involved – Israelis, Palestinians, Iranians, Lebanese and maybe Syrians – could be terrible.

The fact that Natanayhu is far from enjoying a national consensus behind him on Iran, even before a single shot was fired, makes me think that maybe an attack is not around the corner, at least for the time being.


In the Bizarre US debate, head of Mossad, IDF chief, would have been “anti-Israeli”

Posted: June 4th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, The Right, The Settlements, the US and us | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Former head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, has called this week for the Israeli leadership to accept the Arab peace initiative. He has also ruled out an attack on Iran. According to almost every news source in Israel—from centrist Yedioth to Haaretz—Former head of Mossad coordinated his messages with former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazy and former head of Shabak, Yuval Diskin. All three are concerned from Netanyahu’s poor judgment.

It is important to note that Dagan is (or was?) a member of the Israeli right – his first dip in politics was as a leader of a public movement objecting a withdrawal from the Golan Hights.

However, in the strange US debate on Israel, all three security officials would have been deemed anti-Israeli. Andrew Sullivan nails on his Daily Beast blog:

So, Mr Romney, has the former head of the Mossad just thrown Israel under the bus? And Mr Bret Stephens, is Dagan an “anti-Israel” head of the Mossad? Or was the hysteria of the last month entirely manufactured to prevent an Obama second term and buoy Netanyahu’s support at home? There is no strategy for Israel in the AIPAC mindset. Just knee-jerk defensiveness and a major role in leading Israel to self-destruction.

(One thing Sillivan might have gotten wrong in his post: when Dagan speaks of the Saudi plan, I believe he is talking about 67′ borders with land-swaps, but in a 1:1 ratio.)

Check out also the Emergency Committee for Israel’s flip-flopping on Netanyahu’s speech – serving as another prove that when a Republican says “pro-Israeli”, he actually means “pro-Likud”, “pro-settlements” & “pro-occupation”


Idea of an Israeli attack on Iran losing popularity?

Posted: May 8th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us, war | Tags: , , , , , | Comments Off

Mossad head dismisses thoughts of a military strike on Tehran’s nuclear facility as “the most stupid idea I ever heard” and even Defense Minister Barak sounds less confrontational than ever

Last summer, American journalist Jeffrey Goldberg published a cover piece in the Atlantic which claimed that Israel all but made up its mind to attack the Iranian nuclear facilities if Tehran would not bring its nuclear program to an end. Goldberg also hinted that since such an attack is almost inevitable, it might be better if the US initiates it, due to its superior air power:

…What is more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran

(…)

I have interviewed roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers about a military strike, as well as many American and Arab officials. In most of these interviews, I have asked a simple question: what is the percentage chance that Israel will attack the Iranian nuclear program in the near future? Not everyone would answer this question, but a consensus emerged that there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July.

At the time, I had the feeling that Goldberg’s article reflected only one position in the Israeli political and military establishment. I got the sense that Goldberg, for his own reasons, chose to ignore a substantial camp of “Iran skeptics,” and I even wrote so.

In the last few months, several senior Israeli officials made their opposition to such an attack public. Most notable of them were the former Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, and the departing chief of Mossad, Meir Dagan, which held unofficial conversations with proxies and journalists on these issues.

On Friday Meir Dagan went much further. Answering a question in a public appearance, he called the thought of attacking Iran “the dumbest thing I ever heard.” Even more surprising was a quote from Defense Minister Ehud Barak—usually regarded as a supporter of a military strike on Iran—who said that Iran has no intentions of launching an attack on Israel, thus hinting that a preemptive attack is unnecessary.

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Some people might think that the public comments against an IDF strike are actually an indication that the plan is very much alive, and maybe even being discussed right now. According to this reasoning, Dagan’s and Barak’s statements are either part of a deception plan, or a last attempt to influence the debate regarding the attack.

While we can’t rule out these options, I believe that these statements reflect an actual decline in the support for a military move against Iran among Israeli decision makers. The success of the Stuxnet virus attack and the public rift between the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader Khamenei, which could have effects on Iran’s foreign policy, make the risks involved in the attack not worth taking. Furthermore, the failure of Barak and Netanyahu to appoint a chief of staff that would support the strike on Iran makes it harder for them to form a consensus in the Israeli leadership in favor of the attack. As if to prove this point, two other former heads of Mossad backed Meir Dagan for expressing his opinion publicly.

With such heavy weight against an attack on Iran, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was always a very passive and careful politician—he is the only Israeli PM since 92′ who didn’t initiate or get involved in a major military operation—is not very likely to send the Air Force to an operation that might end in terrible failure.

UPDATE: Intelligence correspondent Ronen Bergman wrote in Yedioth that Dagan said pretty much the same things in a press conference a few months ago, but then the censorship didn’t allow the papers to publish his comments regarding Iran. This time, the former head of the Mossad talked in a large enough forum to get his message out.