How Benjamin Netanyahu’s Allies Twist the Truth on Iran
“A lie,” Winston Churchill once said (some say it was Mark Twain), “gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.”
As Exhibit A, I submit Martin Kramer’s August 24 blog post on the Commentary website, in which he lambasted me for a claim I never made, namely that Israel’s military and intelligence establishment is endorsing the Iran deal that Prime Minister Netanyahu has been fighting to kill. Kramer, who is president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, referred readers to a “real expert,” nuclear proliferation scholar Emily Landau of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies, who had taken me “to the woodshed” in an August 3 blog post at the Times of Israel. She argued that the people in Israel who know what they’re talking about all agree with Netanyahu on the main issue, that the deal is a bad one. Where they disagree is over his strategy of fighting it in Congress and battling the administration, which she said is not the important issue. And she noted that retired generals who didn’t deal with the Iran nuclear portfolio aren’t necessarily “authoritative” judges of the issue.
I offered a partial reply in my August 28 column, which was headlined “Don’t Fall for ‘Netanyahu Derangement Syndrome’ on Iran Deal.” I pointed out that in the articles they attacked me for, a July 23 column on dissent among ex-generals dissenting and an August 21 piece on a leaked IDF Military Intelligence report, I had said essentially the same thing they were saying: that Israeli military reviews of the Iran deal are decidedly mixed, but that the professionals mostly disagree with Netanyahu’s full-tilt war with the White House. It should be noted that Israel’s military and intelligence professionals have been, with few exceptions, sharply critical for several years of Netanyahu’s portrayal of the deal as an existential threat comparable to the Nazis.
My larger point was that for us here in America, Netanyahu’s scorched-earth battle against the deal is precisely the point, both because it undermines Israel’s relationship with the U.S. government, which is Israel’s most important strategic asset, and because it’s causing havoc within the Jewish community. I also pointed out that both Landau’s August 3 piece and Kramer’s August 21 piece awkwardly coincided with breaking news that reinforced my original claim: that there was substantial disagreement with Netanyahu on the issues that count, keeping a level head and maintaining relations with the White House.
By the time I replied, Kramer’s piece had taken on a life of its own, thanks to the magic of the Internet. It was endorsed, shared and retweeted by some well-respected pundits, including Rob Satloff, the head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who tweeted that it was “elegant,” and journalist Shmuel Rosner in his column in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal.
Kramer, for his part, greeted my reply with a gleeful Facebook post, somehow claiming I had now “scampered down from the branch,” admitted that I was wrong and acknowledged that in fact the generals’ views of the issue are mixed.
If you’re following this so far, you might be sharing my amusement at the silliness of their harangues, and perhaps my wonderment that a guy who plays so loose with reality can be a college president. But maybe that’s part of the job description.
The main reason I’ve called you here today, though, is to respond to several substantive points raised by Landau, Kramer and now Rosner.
1) Landau played games with a meeting in Jerusalem in January between a group of visiting senators and the director of the Mossad, Tamir Pardo. Bloomberg had reported that Pardo told the senators a bill before Congress at the time to enact new sanctions against Iran would undermine the nuclear negotiations then underway in Vienna. Landau noted that the Bloomberg report was denied by the Mossad “within 24 hours.” She proceeded, oddly enough, to speculate on what Pardo had meant by the statement which had been denied — “meaning this perhaps as a positive development” that would shake up the talks, perhaps drive Iran to walk out and then return, leaving the international negotiators “on a stronger footing.”
“We don’t know,” she wrote, “but that did not stop J.J. Goldberg from writing” that Pardo told senators that imposing new sanctions “would undermine the nuclear talks.” “No footnotes, no reference to Pardo’s denial, just stated as fact.”
I confess I always forget to include footnotes in my newspaper articles. As for an online link to my source, I neglected it, mainly because it was my third reference to that January meeting between Pardo and the senators. As I reported on April 6 and again on April 20, Pardo’s briefing was described in the Washington Post by one of the visiting senators, Lindsey Graham. He said he learned at the briefing “that the Israelis thought that legislation calling for imposing new sanctions could hurt the negotiations.” The link I provided to the Washington Post story is now broken, but a Post reporter who’s been covering the debate told me the Graham quote had come from an Associated Press story that can be found here.
2) Landau claimed that ex-generals aren’t necessarily authoritative sources on the Iranian threat. “There are Iran experts, nuclear experts, and Iran nuclear experts, who have been following every detail for years — these individuals have vastly more relevant credentials to discuss the ins and outs and implications of the Iran deal than the ex-head of the Shin Bet.” That’s a reference to Israel’s domestic security agency, which doesn’t deal directly with Iran.
Anyway, Landau complains, relying on “security figures” without checking on their expertise “has more than a whiff of chauvinism, and can lead to dangerously skewed results.” She wishes Israel would behave like Congress and call in think tank experts to testify. In Congress, of course, committee chairs get to cherry-pick professors who’ve reached the conclusions the majority party wants. Israel’s cabinet is stuck consulting the gentlemen — yes, they’re all men — who work with live intelligence and are responsible for the life and death decisions over the country’s fate. That would be the heads of the IDF, IDF intelligence, the Mossad and the Shin Bet.
The ex-Shin Bet chief she’s dismissing is presumably Ami Ayalon, one of the seven ex-generals I’d quoted in the story she was disputing. He’s one of the three who called the deal a good one for Israel. She conveniently left out three other ex-generals I’d quoted who speak with a bit more authority. One, who stated that the deal was a net positive for Israel, is Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, who was IDF’s chief of arms technology and now chairs both the science ministry’s R&D council and the Israel Space Agency. Another was Ehud Barak, who served from 2009 to 2013 as Netanyahu’s defense minister and closest cabinet ally on the Iran issue. He thought the deal was a “bad deal” but that Israel “can live with whatever happens” and that “the most important thing we need to do right now is restore working relations with the White House.”
The third, whose views echo Barak’s, was Amos Yadlin, who was chief of Military Intelligence, responsible for assessing the Iran threat during those years, and is now Landau’s boss as head of the Institute for National Security Studies. Dangerously skewed results.
3) Kramer, too, wondered where I got my information. He was quite exercised about a Military Intelligence report to the prime minister that I discussed. It presented both positive and negative aspects of the Iran deal. I had reported that a week earlier there had been press accounts of “trepidation within the military” as officers “feared retribution from the prime minister’s office if their mixed assessment were to be exposed,” given Netanyahu’s insistence that the Iran deal must be seen and portrayed as an unmitigated disaster. The mindset within the intelligence corps seemed to me to make the delivery of the mixed assessment rather more dramatic.
To document the “trepidation” I linked to an August 10 Haaretz story by military correspondent Amir Oren. Kramer dismissed the Haaretz story, saying Oren and his paper “never stop grinding their axes against the prime minister.” In any case, he said, even Oren acknowledged that the heads of the intelligence corps were “falling in line” with the prime minister, which somehow proves that they weren’t reluctant to do so and didn’t feel pressured. Besides, Kramer wrote, if any lower-ranking officers felt otherwise, Oren didn’t offer names, so maybe they don’t exist. “Yet Goldberg would have us believe that these same two generals [the heads of the corps] have just delivered an assessment that blows away Netanyahu’s case against the deal.”
Well, first of all, nobody suggested that the intelligence assessment “blows away Netanyahu’s case.” It was described in numerous press accounts as qualifying the prime minister’s view, offering opportunities alongside the threats. The assessment said the negatives outweighed the positives; Kramer is correct that I neglected to mention that. In a print column important things get cut for space. Second, the trepidation that Oren had described August 10, preceding the delivery of the assessment, had initially been reported several days before Oren’s story by Alex Fishman in the August 7 Yediot Ahronot weekend supplement. I didn’t link to it because it wasn’t on line. I figured the Haaretz account would have to suffice.
4) Finally, my friend Shmuel Rosner questions the reliance by me and others on “a few Israeli dissenters” such as Ami Ayalon, simply because they used to be military officials. It seems particularly odd to him, even “dishonest,” given that “the same writers and activists who currently use the views of military officials against the Israeli government would be the first ones to warn against adhering to the views of military officials when they disagree with other government officials.”
“For example,” Rosner writes, “when former Chief of Staff Moshe Yaalon opposed Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza, you could hardly find people on that end of the spectrum supporting the view of the military professional against the one of the politician.”
That’s not the point. When Yaalon opposed the Gaza disengagement in 2005, he did so alone. His dissent didn’t demonstrate that the collective view of the military was against leaving Gaza. The fact that he and a handful of retirees were opposed only showed how isolated they were. That doesn’t make their views invalid. But to the extent that the military and intelligence agencies are responsible for assessing the situation on the ground and knowing what is and isn’t safe — and hold Israelis’ lives in their hands — their combined wisdom is worth considering. If most doctors think smoking is unhealthy, it’s worth paying attention. Combined expertise means something.
In the current instance, Ami Ayalon is getting quoted because he was the first one I reached by phone when I noticed how the veterans were lining up, and he was then interviewed in the Daily Beast by Jonathan Alter, making him the public face of that viewpoint. If he were alone, though, Ayalon would prove nothing. Indeed, the fact that Ayalon thinks the deal is a good one proves nothing. What’s significant is that dozens of ex-generals and spymasters have spoken out individually and jointly, not in defense of the nuclear deal but against Netanyahu’s scorched-earth campaign against the White House. They include a former head of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission, the current head of the Israel Space Agency — the outfit in charge of missile development — and numerous ex-heads of Military Intelligence and the Mossad.
By contrast, fewer than a half-dozen of their colleagues have spoken out in support of the prime minister’s strategy. Any ex-generals who support the prime minister’s actions are just as free to speak up as ex-generals who oppose it. Where are they?