Israel’s military intelligence corps has given Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a surprising report assessing the opportunities and threats that the Iran nuclear deal poses for Israel.
What’s startling about the report is not its substance, which is mostly a predictable mix of standard arguments presented for and against the deal: No nukes for 10 years, which gives Israel time to develop new countermeasures, but then a quick path to a nuke after a decade; an accelerated regional arms race, plus new legitimacy for pariah Iran, but also (surprisingly) a reduced likelihood of Iran attacking Israel. The upsides aren’t perfect. The downsides aren’t unmanageable.
No, what’s remarkable about the report is the fact that it exists. Netanyahu has ordered every level of Israeli officialdom to muzzle any discussion of the deal’s possible upsides. Central to his strategy is his insistence that the deal is an unmitigated catastrophe. Orders are to depict it as so ruinous that no outcome is acceptable short of its absolute defeat.
The prime minister and his allies insist Israel is united behind his unequivocal rejection of the deal. The cowering silence of the political opposition has helped him nurture the myth. But it’s a myth.
Now comes word that his intelligence community is defying the gag order and telling him otherwise. The deal offers Israel both advantages and disadvantages, the spooks say. The disadvantages are not too calamitous for anyone to cope with them. For an outside observer, the logical conclusion is that Netanyahu’s fiery confrontation with the Obama administration is unnecessary. And destructive.
Just a week before the report was leaked, there were press accounts of trepidation within the military. Officers feared retribution from the prime minister’s office if their mixed assessment were to be exposed. Now the secret is out. The full assessment has not only been presented to the prime minister, but also leaked to the press — centrist, right-wing and left-wing news outlets alike.
In a rational world, the news would be a game-changer. Anyone working to block the deal because of Netanyahu’s warnings would feel compelled to stop and ask why the Israeli prime minister’s diagnosis doesn’t match his own intelligence — and who’s right.
In this world, though, that’s unlikely. Based on past experience, we can confidently predict that this report will be dismissed by the dominant right wing as false or irrelevant. We’ll hear that the media invented it. Or that it’s a disgruntled group of officers trying to embarrass the prime minister. Or that the Israel Defense Forces officers’ corps is a nest of left-wingers who’ve been cloning themselves since the days of Ben-Gurion. We’ll hear that IDF intelligence isn’t so hot, that they missed the signs of war in October 1973, so why believe them now?
That’s how Netanyahu’s allies and supporters on the right responded to former Mossad director Meir Dagan in 2011, when he started speaking out against the prime minister’s Iran policies. That’s how they responded to “The Gatekeepers,” the 2013 Israeli documentary that featured all six living ex-heads of the Shin Bet describing the damage to Israel from the ongoing West Bank occupation.
And last January, when the current Mossad director, Tamir Pardo, tried to warn U.S. officials against passing new sanctions that could sabotage the nuclear negotiations — first in a chat with Secretary of State John Kerry, then in a meeting with visiting senators — the reports got the full treatment. Some said Kerry invented his conversation with Pardo. Others said Pardo actually meant to celebrate the negotiations’ possible collapse, not decry it. Then the Mossad issued a forced denial that anything substantive had been said to anyone. Two months later, when the Republican senator Lindsey Graham told The Associated Press what Pardo told the senators — “that the Israelis thought that legislation calling for imposing new sanctions could hurt the negotiations” — it was already old news. The telling quote was buried at the bottom of a March 25 AP story.
Most astonishing, though, was Graham’s subsequent behavior. In the interests of protecting Israel, he pooh-poohed the value of the very nuclear negotiations that “the Israelis” had told him they didn’t want to hurt.
Disputes like these reflect a profound transformation over the past generation in the attitude of Israel’s most ardent patriots and admirers toward the military. Historically, Israel’s soldiers and covert agents were revered as the embodiment of the new spirit of Jewish sovereignty. But that was before Oslo, before the 1993 decision by the Israeli government to join with the Palestine Liberation Organization as a partner for peacemaking. Since then there’s been a gradual loss of faith.
The Oslo process grew out of a 1988 determination by Israel’s intelligence community that the Palestinians had given up hope of eliminating Israel and were ready for coexistence. Much of the right rejected that conclusion. Most were convinced the military didn’t believe it either and was simply obeying an elected left-wing government.
It took another decade, a second intifada and a withdrawal from Gaza for the misunderstanding to grow into suspicion. It’s common on the right to view Israel’s conflict with its neighbors not as a tragic clash of interests, but as a battle between right and wrong, good and evil. Seen in those terms, the give and take of negotiation can look a lot like surrendering to evil.
The military, by contrast, sees not one conflict but several, and approaches each one pragmatically, almost with a mechanic’s eye. It looks for the combination of carrots and sticks that will best achieve maximum quiet on each of the various fronts. Warfare is one tool. Diplomacy is another.
It’s no coincidence that the six years of right-wing government under Netanyahu have seen repeated eruptions of dissent from what’s called the security establishment. Netanyahu looks around and sees an Arab and Muslim world dedicated to Israel’s destruction. The military sees a pragmatic Palestinian leader in Mahmoud Abbas, and a Saudi-led Arab League with a peace initiative on the table — and now an imperfect but real opening in Iran. It believes that opportunities are being lost.
Usually the retirees voice the dissent, because they’re out of uniform and free to talk. But there are times when the disagreements seem too important to keep under wraps. The current deal seems to be one of them.
Contact J.J. Goldberg 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).