“Have the prime minister and defense minister sealed a deal between them, one on one, to attack the nuclear reactors in Iran?” So asks Nahum Barnea, commonly described as Israel’s senior and most respected political journalist, in an article leading the top of the front page of today’s Yediot Ahronot. He writes that growing rumors to that effect have created a quiet but urgent buzz within Israel’s political and military elites. They’re also troubling foreign governments, which “have a hard time understanding what is going on here”: a fateful decision that could “seal the fate of the Jewish state” for good or ill, and yet near-total silence on the topic in the public arena.
Barnea writes that the question of whether or not to attack divides Israel’s leadership into four camps. One camp says the benefits would be slim and the risks “insane,” given Iran’s ability to bombard Israel with deadly missiles from Lebanon, Gaza and Iran itself and touch off a regional war “that could destroy the state of Israel.” This camp says it’s better to focus on international sanctions, bearing in mind that if they fail and Iran does acquire nuclear weapons, “it won’t be the end of the world” — while an Israeli attack just might be.
The second camp says there’s no rush. Iran is still at least two years away from a weapon, which leaves plenty of time to let other options play out, reserving a military attack as an absolute last resort. Barnea quotes a senior American diplomat who told him Israel should back renewed negotiations on international inspections. If and when Iran turns out to be lying, an Israeli attack will have a lot more international understanding and support, which could be crucial in determining how well Israel survives the ensuing onslaught. Some Israeli cabinet ministers subscribe to this view, and suspect that the growing pressure for an immediate attack stems from “outside motives, whether personal or political.” More on that later.
The third camp consists of the heads of the military and intelligence community: IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz, military intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi, Mossad chief Tamir Pardo and Shin Bet chief Yoram Cohen. All four, he writes, are opposed to the military option, just like their predecessors: respectively, Gabi Ashkenazi, Amos Yadlin, Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin. The difference is that the current chiefs are all new in their posts and lack the standing, experience, self-confidence and temperament to “bang on the table” and restrain Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak, as their predecessors repeatedly did.
Finally, he writes, there are “the Siamese twins,” Netanyahu and Barak, who appear to be in a distinct minority, yet have the power to make the final decision. Netanyahu, he writes, has been warning since he entered office that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the new Hitler and a new Holocaust is looming. “There are those who describe Netanyahu’s passion on the topic as an obsession,” Barnea writes. “All his life he’s dreamed of being Churcill. Iran offers him the opportunity.” As for Barak, he looks at Israel’s past attacks on nuclear installations in Iraq and (“according to foreign reports”) Syria, and figures the pattern has been set. It’s not just a strategy, he writes, it’s a legacy. Moreover, some cabinet ministers suspect Barak is driven at least partly by personal motives: with no party or constituency behind him since he left Labor, he may see a military triumph as his best ticket to a continuing role in politics.
For more details on the increasingly urgent debate on Iran inside the Israeli brass—and the role it played in the sweeping changeover in the senior command engineered by Barak and Netanyahu over the past year, here’s some of my own coverage of the struggle from August 2010, December 2010, January 2011, May 2011 and June 2011.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).