There’s a deep crack emerging in the veneer of wall-to-wall support offered by Israel’s political leadership to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his war against the Iran nuclear agreement.
The crack has a name you might recognize: the Israeli security establishment. You know — the folks whose job it is to identify and address threats to Israel’s safety. A small but growing group of high-power ex-commanders has been speaking out in media interviews and op-ed essays in the past few days, saying that Netanyahu has got the Iran issue wrong.
It’s not yet what you’d call an avalanche of dissent. But against the pro-Netanyahu unanimity among the politicians, coalition and opposition alike, the skepticism emerging from the security community stands out in striking relief. As unanimous as the politicians are in backing the prime minister, the generals and spymasters are nearly as unanimous in questioning him. Generals publicly backing Netanyahu can be counted on — well — one finger.
Many of the security insiders say the deal signed in Vienna on July 14 isn’t as bad as Netanyahu claims. Some call it good for Israel. Others say it’s bad, but it’s a done deal and Israel should make the best of it. Either way, they agree that Israel should work with the Obama administration to plot implementation, rather than mobilize Congress against the White House.
All agree that undermining Israel’s alliance with America is a far greater existential threat than anything Iran does.
Who are these critics? They include a former chief of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, who now heads Israel’s main defense think tank; a former chief of arms technology, Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, who now chairs both The Israel Space Agency and the science ministry’s research and development council; a former chief of military operations, Israel Ziv; a near-legendary architect of Israeli military intelligence, Dov Tamari; a former director of the Shin Bet domestic security service, Ami Ayalon, and a former director of the Mossad intelligence agency, Efraim Halevy. And there are others.
The list would be longer if we included security figures who spoke in favor of the Lausanne framework agreement in April, which was the basis for this deal, but haven’t addressed the new agreement. And we’re not including anyone who retired with a rank below brigadier general. We’re just discussing the architects of Israeli defense.
The roster should also include a onetime chief of military intelligence, Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and prime minister named Ehud Barak. He was Netanyahu’s defense minister from 2009 to 2013 and helped develop his Iran strategy. In a television interview the day the agreement was signed, Barak said he wouldn’t criticize his old boss or tell him what to do. But he did just that.
Barak called the nuclear deal a “bad deal” that legitimizes Iran as a nuclear threshold state. He predicted that Iran would have a nuclear weapon within a decade. But, he said, Israel “can live with whatever happens there. We are the strongest state in the Middle East, militarily, strategically, economically — and diplomatically, if we’re not foolish.”
Again contradicting Netanyahu, Barak said: “The most important thing we need to do right now is restore working relations with the White House. That’s the only place where we can formulate what constitutes a violation, what’s a smoking gun and how to respond.”
In part, that means Israel “cannot position itself as a political player in the American Congress. Individuals can certainly speak to Americans they know personally and explain to them why this is a bad agreement from Israel’s viewpoint. That’s legitimate. But Israel as a state operating within the internal framework of another friendly state — that’s problematic.”
Israel, Barak said, is “not in an apocalyptic situation. We are not in Europe 1938” — an implied jab at Netanyahu’s frequent invocation of the Allies’ appeasement of Hitler at Munich — “and not Palestine 1947,” when newborn Israel faced five Arab armies alone.
That’s the generals’ central theme: Don’t panic. “We need to be calm,” said Yadlin, the former military intelligence chief, in a Ynet online interview.
“The agreement isn’t good, but Israel can deal with it.” Instead of “blowing off steam,” he said, Israel should be talking with the United States to prepare responses to violations.
By contrast, Ben-Yisrael, who has twice won the Israel Prize for contributions to Israel’s weapons technology, told Walla! News that the Vienna agreement is “not bad at all, perhaps even good for Israel.” True, Iran still calls for Israel’s destruction. But, he said, from the nuclear perspective — which is what the negotiations were about — “it prevents a nuclear bomb for 15 years, which is not bad at all.”
Halevy, the former Mossad director, elaborated on Ben-Yisrael’s point in a scathing Ynet op-ed. From the start, Israel “maintained that the Iranian threat is a unique, existential threat.” It wanted the international community to address the threat, and it did. “That was the only goal of the biting sanctions against Iran,” he wrote.
Now, he stated, the government tries “to change the rules of the game and include additional demands from Iran in the agreement, like recognizing Israel and halting support for terror.” By threatening to block an agreement that addresses Israel’s “existential-cardinal” goal because it doesn’t address other, nonexistential issues, Halevy wrote, Netanyahu raises the suspicion that he doesn’t want a deal at all.
It’s impossible to say for certain whether the dozen or so ex-generals and spymasters who have spoken out are representative of the broader security community. But there are hints. Netanyahu has replaced top personnel repeatedly, but each new cohort takes the same stance: opposing precipitate action; denying that Iran represents an existential threat, insisting that Iran’s leadership is rational and responds to negotiation and deterrence.
Last January, the Mossad’s director, Tamir Pardo, told a group of senators that imposing new sanctions on Iran, something Netanyahu favored, would undermine the nuclear talks. Now, recent news reports say, Netanyahu has ordered all personnel to avoid discussing Iran, presumably to silence Pardo and his colleagues. It’s also reported that the military set up a task force to prepare a list of requests from Washington to help Israel cope with the new Iranian reality, but that Netanyahu had forbidden any such discussion, arguing that it effectively condoned the nuclear deal.
Israel’s military has a long history of approaching big issues pragmatically, avoiding ideology and big theories. Over the past six years, this has caused steadily mounting tension between the security services and Netanyahu, who is as ideological a prime minister as Israel has ever seen.
On the Palestinian issue, the military often seems to turn up on one side of Israel’s ideological divide, though not for ideological reasons. On Iran there hasn’t been a side with which the military can line up. Sources close to the Knesset say lawmakers with doubts about current policy are silent, fearing attacks on their patriotism. The uniformed personnel have been shut down. And so, as Netanyahu approaches a fateful showdown in Washington, the old veterans are out there on their own.
J.J. Goldberg is editor-at-large at the Forward. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).