Israel's Security Insiders Split on Iran

Never-Before-Seen Rifts Over Wisdom of Unilateral Strike

Facing Split: Benjamin Netanyahu faces an Israeli security apparatus that is split like never before over the possibility of a unilateral strike on Iran.
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Facing Split: Benjamin Netanyahu faces an Israeli security apparatus that is split like never before over the possibility of a unilateral strike on Iran.

By Ben Lynfield

Published August 26, 2012, issue of August 31, 2012.
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With the looming prospect of an Israeli unilateral strike against Iran, the national debate has seen an urgent onrush of warnings from past and present members of Israel’s usually taciturn national security establishment.

That reflects a profound change in the country’s political culture, analysts say. And it presages further public questioning of future security decisions.

Read the Forward’s snapshot of where prominent Israeli security types stand on the Iran issue.

“It is unprecedented to see people who were serving in such senior positions in the very recent past expressing themselves like this,” said Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “Usually in the past there was a level of reliance on the decisions made by the government.”

It’s not that objecting to military operations or questioning their management, per se, is something new for Israel. Such dissent was evident in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in two wars in Lebanon (1982 and 2006), and in the controversy over the quelling of the two intifadas (beginning in 1987 and 2000, respectively). But in all of those cases, the debate arose during or after the fighting, never before it was launched, as is happening with the current controversy over whether to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Among the factors behind this change are a more open, aggressive media, the years-long period during which the decision has been hanging in the balance, and a sense that this decision will have fateful consequences for the country’s place in the region and world.

“We live in a different world,” Diskin said, “the world of WikiLeaks. The whole atmosphere has changed because there is a change in technology and culture, and Israel is definitely a part of this. But I don’t think we will be seeing criticism of this scope, because this issue is existential in nature.”

Not everyone is pleased with the change. Ephraim Kam, a senior analyst at the Institute for National Security Studies, in Tel Aviv, deplores it. He warned: “If we want to create pressure on the Iranians and on the Western governments to continue the pressure on the Iranians, this discussion is harmful. If everyone becomes convinced that because of the discussion, Israel will not attack, then the pressure on Iran and the West diminishes.”

Still, Kam predicts that the phenomenon of a broad public debate by former security establishment personnel will be repeated in the future on other issues.

“There is still military censorship, but in the past it was stricter and it is today more permissive,” he said. “Forty years ago, if people started talking about what we were about to do, the censor would stop it. Today there are a lot of news outlets; the competition between them is very aggressive, and everything is open.’’

Yaron Ezrachi, professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University, believes that the security establishment pillars speaking out augurs well for Israel’s still-developing sense of civil society. “It is one of the most brilliant moments of Israeli democracy,” he said, “and it reflects Israeli developments since last summer’s [socioeconomic] protests, and the idea that criticism of the government can make a difference.”

But with the ultimate decision on whether to strike held tightly in the grip of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, can any of this cacophony make a difference?

“I do not rule out the possibility that this attitude on the part of a large part of the public, especially the defense establishment, can affect the decision makers,’’ Ezrachi said.

Contact Ben Lynfield at

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