What Do Israel’s Leaders Really Think About Iran?

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Israel bombing Iran could, indeed, be a spectacularly stupid idea, but does the Israeli public really need to hear that? That not-in-front-of-the-kids message seemed to be the gist of Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak’s criticism of Meir Dagan, recently retired head of the Mossad intelligence agency, who last week warned publicly that the idea of Israel attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities was “the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard”.  Barak on Monday expressed doubt about the veracity of Dagan’s reported remarks (although the man himself hasn’t yet contested them), but added, “if we are to deal with these matters responsibly, then it is not right to share these thoughts – even if they are legitimate – with the public.”

Two of Dagan’s predecessors in the Mossad job didn’t agree, and raced to endorse Dagan’s view — and also his right to open such a potentially cataclysmic question for public discussion.  Dagan had previously annoyed his boss by making public his assessment, on his last day at the Mossad, that Iran would not have nuclear weapons before 2015, and that covert action and sanctions are the most effective response. And he warned that while an air strike could not be guaranteed even to destroy Iran’s facilities, which are scattered and in some possibly concealed, the consequence of such as strike would be that “There will be war with Iran.  This is one of the things we know how to start, but not how to end.”

Dagan’s views are plainly at odds with the line that his political bosses are putting out: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, has made a habit of putting forward alarmist assessments of Iran’s capabilities and apocalyptic warnings of Israel’s own intentions in response. Even some in Washington are unconvinced. A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable from the Tel Aviv Embassy, published by WikiLeaks, includes the following in respect of meetings between U.S. Defense Department officials and their Israeli counterparts:

“Israel continues to offer a worst-case assessment of the Iranian nuclear program, emphasizing that the window for stopping the program (by military means if necessary) is rapidly closing. General [Yossi] Baidatz argued that it would take Iran one year to obtain a nuclear weapon and two and a half years to build an arsenal of three weapons. By 2012 Iran would be able to build one weapon within weeks and an arsenal within six months. (COMMENT: It is unclear if the Israelis firmly believe this or are using worst-case estimates to raise greater urgency from the United States).”

If so, Dagan’s assessments weren’t exactly helping. But even  Barak,  himself reportedly  in the bomb-Iran camp within Israel’s cabinet, has shown a willingness to publicly differ with Netanyahu on the implications of  the Iran threat. Netanyahu, as opposition leader, in 2006, told a group of foreign ambassadors visiting Israel, “The year is 1938 and Iran is Germany.” That, as Fareed Zakaria pointed out was preposterous hyperbole. Germany in 1938 was by far the most powerful military nation in the world. “Iran has an economy the size of Finland’s and an annual defense budget of around $4.8 billion,” wrote Zakaria. “It has not invaded a country since the late 18th century.”  In the geopolitical tableau of 1938, Zakaria told a TV interviewer, Iran would be Rumania.

Not that Bibi Netanyahu pays much heed to the assessments of Fareed Zakaria. He’s still insisting that Iran represents a mortal threat to the Jewish State. On Holocaust remembrance day on May 1, Netanyahu warned that Iran is “openly working to destroy the Jewish state” and is “arming [itself] with nuclear weapons in order to realize those ambitions.”

But the message that a nuclear-armed Iran spells doom for Israel is too much even for Barak. Last October, the defense minister said bluntly that “I am not among those who believe Iran is an existential issue for Israel.” That was because Israel’s own military capacity meant that despite Iran posing a major geopolitical challenge, it did not threaten Israel’s existence.  “Israel is strong, I don’t see anyone who could pose an existential threat.”

Days after Netanyahu’s Holocaust remembrance speech, Barak reiterated his message, in an interview with Israel’s Haaretz  newspaper,  that even if Iran built a nuclear weapon, it would not drop such a bomb on Israel.  Barak’s point: Even if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would be unlikely — as long as its leaders had not lost their minds — to court obliteration by Israel’s massive (but unacknowledged) nuclear arsenal, with its second-strike capacity via submarine, by attacking the Jewish State. Barak believes that the suggestion that an Iranian bomb would destroy Israel is dangerous, because it could prompt a brain-drain of Israel’s best and brightest.

Not that Barak opposes bombing Iran: Even if he believes Iran wouldn’t attack Israel, the Defense Minister sees the development of an Iranian nuclear weapon as changing the regional balance of forces by removing Israel’s overwhelming military advantage, thereby emboldening enemies such as Hamas and Hizballah and giving Iran greater scope to support their proxy warfare without fear of Israel’s wrath.

Barak and Bibi reportedly agree is on maintaining the option — and the belief, in the West  that Israel maintains the option– of unilateral military action. (The Iranians don’t believe that Israel would bomb them, but they do believe that the Israelis are waging a sustained covert war, through computer viruses and assassination of scientists, against Iran’s program. If so, that would have been Dagan’s department.)  That belief keeps pressure on Western capitals to do more to pressure Tehran. And it also helps the Israelis put Iran, rather than the Palestinians, at the top of the agenda when the U.S. and other Western countries are dealing with Israel.

The Israelis may even be feeling a heightened sense of urgency in putting Iran back on the table because the Arab Spring has, in fact, weakened the U.S.-Israeli position on Iran — and has helped drive what Barak warned was a “diplomatic tsunami” heading for Israel in September, in the form of diplomatic support for Palestinian statehood regardless of Israel’s preferences. Where President Hosni Mubarak, for example, had been a pivotal Arab figure in the U.S.-led campaign against Iran and also against other enemies of Israel such as Hamas, the regime that replaced him, more mindful of Arab public opinion, has   moved to normalize ties with Tehran and with Hamas.

While Barak may be sending what amount to mixed messages as a result of the dual concerns to keep pressure on Iran but also to avoid spooking Israelis into fleeing, Dagan may be addressing a second danger posed by Netanyahu’s apolocalyptic talk: In a state whose national identity is constructed on the ashes of the Holocaust, telling the public that Iran’s nuclear program represents  a latter-day Auschwitz actually paints Israel’s own leadership into a tactical corner, creating an expectation of decisive military action among its own citizenry. Dagan appears to believe that initiating a war with iran as potentially causing more problems for the Jewish State than it solves. That’s a position shared by outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.  And the current assessment of U.S. intelligence is that while Iran continues to assemble, under the rubric of its energy program, the means to build nuclear weapons, it has not yet taken a strategic decision to go ahead and build such weapons.

But with Netanyahu due in Washington shortly, unlikely to be bringing with him any offer likely to be accepted by the Palestinians as a basis to restart peace talks, it’s a safe bet that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about Iran’s nuclear program in the coming weeks than we had been during the Arab Spring.