After a summer of stoking media speculation that Israel would bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities before Americans go to the polls in November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak appear to be dialing things down. Netanyahu on Monday repeated his new message that war can be avoided, at least for now, if the U.S. is willing to publicly declare a clear “red line” that, if crossed by Iran, would trigger a U.S. military response. Since President Barack Obama last spring clearly stated that he would order military action if Iran moved to build a nuclear weapon, there would be nothing new in reiterating such a position — except, perhaps, that it could be spun, together with a series of largely symbolic gestures reportedly being weighed by the Obama Administration to placate the Israelis, as a enough of a concession to allow Netanyahu and Barak to clamber down from the limb on which their war talk has left them. It has been nothing short of astonishing, in fact, how isolated on the Iran issue Israel’s saber-rattlers-in-chief have become over the summer, not least among Israel’s own defense and security establishment. [Update: Netanyahu’s troubles in sustaining his case for war appeared to deepen, Wednesday, with reports that he’d abruptly canceled a meeting of his security cabinet after some of the contents of its briefings by Israeli intelligence agencies were leaked to the Israeli media, which reported that Israeli intelligence saw no cause for alarm beyond ongoing concern over the findings of last week’s IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear work — a conclusion that undermined the Prime Minister’s more alarmist assessments of Iranian progress.]
Netanyahu and Barak’s bellicosity has ignited a remarkable degree of opposition among Israel’s defense and security chiefs, who are reportedly unanimous in opposing an attack on Iran at this stage. Not only that, the public outpouring of opposition to a military strike among recently retired senior Israeli military men and security chiefs has included an unprecedented barrage of attacks on the strategic competence and even the mental stability of Netanyahu and Barak. Describing a recent public interview given by Gen. Uri Sagi, a respected senior IDF officer who served under Barak, analyst Shai Feldman notes:
“Sagi questioned, for the first time publicly, whether Israel can rely on the judgment and mental stability of its current leaders to guide it in time of war. Listing a number of past strategic errors made by Barak and hinting at Netanyahu’s ascribed tendency to traverse rapidly between euphoria and panic, Sagi expressed grave doubts whether Israel’s current leaders can take the pressures and stress entailed in managing a major military confrontation.”
Former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, in April, accused Netanyahu and Barak of harboring “messianic feelings,” and questioned their competence to lead Israel into a confrontation. Even opposition leader Shaul Mofaz, the former military chief of staff who served in a unity government as Netanyahu’s deputy from May to July and who opposes attacking Iran, told Army Radio that he found Netanyahu “confused, stressed out and unfocused” when the two men met last week.
Such unflattering portrayals of the key political decision makers by respected security men hardly help Netanayahu and Barak convince the public of the case for war, and opinion polls continue to find a majority of Israelis opposed to attacking Iran without U.S. backing. Even President Shimon Peres, known as the father of Israel’s nuclear, uh, ambiguity , recently publicly opposed a strike without U.S. backing. It was clear, Peres said, that Israel lacked the military capacity to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, and needed to coordinate its actions with Washington. The White House, of course, has left no doubt of its opposition to a unilateral Israeli strike at this stage. Last week, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey warned that an Israeli strike could, at best, briefly delay Iran’s nuclear progress, but at a cost of unraveling the international sanctions coalition, and of spurring Iran to actually build a nuclear deterrent — an option it has not yet decided to pursue despite steadily acquiring the capacity to do so. “I don’t want to be accused of trying to influence,” Dempsey said in London last week, “but I don’t want to be complicit if they choose to do it.”