Benjamin Netanyahu has gotten himself in a real pickle as he prepares his nation for a showdown with Iran. He’s staked his career and Israel’s credibility on his vow to stop Iran from reaching nuclear weapons capability, no matter what it takes, with or without outside help. Israelis have learned from bitter experience, he says, that in the end they can trust only themselves.
Now, with autumn approaching and Netanyahu’s announced deadline just weeks away, it turns out that Israelis haven’t learned that at all. Despite three years of non-stop speechifying and arm-twisting by Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, opposition to a unilateral attack on Iran is at an all-time high. The public is opposed by two to one, polls show. The 14-member security cabinet and 8-member inner cabinet are both split down the middle. Nobody’s budged in year. Several ministers who appeared in mid-August to be moving toward Netanyahu’s position, including Moshe Yaalon and Eli Yishai, were even more opposed by month’s end. In late August Netanyahu sent his national security adviser to meet with Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, hoping the aging sage would change Yishai’s mind, but he got nowhere. Yosef reportedly offered to sign onto the Iran crusade if Netanyahu would halt efforts to draft yeshiva students.
Netanyahu’s biggest problem, though, is with his top generals and spymasters. They’re more or less unanimously opposed. A year ago only a few retired service chiefs were speaking out, notably ex-Mossad director Meir Dagan. Last December, in an utterly unprecedented series of events, active-duty service chiefs began publicly challenging the prime minister. The first was incumbent Mossad chief Tamir Pardo, who said in a speech in December that Iran was “not necessarily an existential threat” to Israel. In April, incumbent military chief of staff Benny Gantz told Haaretz in an interview that Iran’s leaders were “rational people” and probably wouldn’t risk the consequences of assembling a bomb.
By early August a long list of active-duty commanders were letting it be known that they opposed Netanyahu’s war plan, including all those most directly involved: air force chief Amir Eshel, military intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet director Yoram Cohen.
Netanyahu reacted poorly: He said in a background press briefing in early August that he was “tired of all the power-point presentations” his generals were showing the cabinet to discourage a military strike. He said the generals were just “covering their butts” for fear of facing commissions of inquiry and losing their jobs if the operation went badly.
If Netanyahu hoped to whip the generals back into line, he miscalculated. Beyond the nonsensical idea that retired generals fear for their jobs, the brass saw Netanyahu sabotaging the military by accusing its commanders of cowardice. The insult wasn’t just personal. In saying Israel’s military was weak he was recklessly undermining Israel’s deterrence.
Netanyahu’s failure to win support for a raid puts him in a terrible bind. On one hand, he has essentially committed himself to attacking. Having laid the gun on the table, he has to pull the trigger or risk damaging his and Israel’s credibility. That’s catastrophic for a country surrounded by enemies and dependent for its survival on credible deterrence.