Israel’s Top General Says He Doubts Iran Will Try for the Bomb

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Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images

Israel 's Chief of Staff Lieutenant Benny Gantz, right, and US military chief Martin Dempsey arrive at a ceremony at the Rabin military base in the Mediterranean city of Tel Aviv on January 20, 2012.

The Israeli military chief of staff says he doubts Iran will try for a nuclear weapon, but that persuading its leaders against the option requires a credible threat of attack.  Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, who heads the Israel Defense Forces, made the remarks in an interview with the Hebrew language daily Haaretz, offering a far more nuanced assessment of the Iranian threat than the near- apocalyptic warnings put forward by the political leaders Gantz answers to.  At points the contrast was striking. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently painted Iran’s leadership as messianic zealots who might launch a nuclear war to bring about the next phase of their religious vision — exclaiming “This is not true!” when a German interviewer suggested the the Iranian regime while “vile” has not shown itself  as “suicidal.”  Gantz, however, says:  “I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.”

Though the general goes on to add that nuclear capabilities “in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous,” he consistently paints the Iranian issue in far more deliberate and measured terms than Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak, who take turns making headlines by comparing the Iranian threat to the Holocaust and warning that the time to strike it is running short.  Acknowledging “the potential for an existential threat,” Gantz sounds an almost avuncular reassurance:  “But despair not. We are a temperate state. The State of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.”

The general, who took command of the IDF last year, also offers an explanation for the sense of mania that has come to surround the issue, especially from an Israeli political leadership that portrays itself as poised to order an airstrike.  “The military option is the last chronologically but the first in terms of its credibility,” Gantz points out. “If it’s not credible it has no meaning. We are preparing for it in a credible manner. That’s my job, as a military man.”  But when asked if 2012 is the decisive year — as both Barak and Netanyahu have repeatedly warned,  offering variations on the notion that, as Iran moves crucial nuclear facilities into reinforced bunkers beyond the reach of Israel’s bombs, “the window to act is closing” — the general again counseled restraint. He said the threat must be measured on its own terms rather than the calendar.

“Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is,” Gantz told the newspaper. “This is a critical year, but not necessarily ‘go, no-go.’ The problem doesn’t necessarily stop on December 31, 2012. We’re in a period when something must happen: Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only or the world, perhaps we too, will have to do something. We’re closer to the end of the discussions than the middle.”

His own assessment was that Iran’s religious leadership will not move to revive the military side of its nuclear program.  Absent underground bunkers, he said, “the program is too vulnerable, in Iran’s view. If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.”

Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst at a Tel Aviv consulting firm, welcomed Gantz’s remarks as a challenge to the “exaggerations and hysterics” of Israeli politicians. “This is a clear contradiction to Netanyahu’s publicly stated opinion that Iran is ‘feverishly working to develop atomic weapons to [destroy Israel,]'” Javedanfar says, quoting the prime minister’s speech at least week’s Holocaust Day ceremony.

As chief of the IDF, Gantz heads the most revered institution in an Israeli society that polls show most Israelis see as divided.  In a position described as professional above all, Gantz is seen as particularly apolitical because of how he came to the job: He was the fallback choice of Barak after the minister’s favorite candidate was tainted by a political soap opera.  Gantz spoke to Haaretz and other Israeli news outlets to mark IDF Remembrance Day, the annual memorial day that began Tuesday night and flows directly into Independence Day.  Both holidays are traditionally occasions for both self-assessment and congratulation. Haaretz headlined with Gantz’s observation that the increasingly tough array of economic and diplomatic sanctions on Iran appear to be bearing fruit.

Israeli president Shimon Peres agreed in an interview with the daily Ma’ariv.  “The answer is that a variety of steps must be taken, not just one: economic sanctions along with diplomatic sanctions, and moral pressure must be applied and Iran must be described correctly—and the final option should be kept for last,” Peres said.  The two-time prime minister has been embraced by President Obama, who sees in the center-left octogenarian a popular Israeli politician who projects a more patient approach than Netanyahu.  Peres returns the esteem, saying he believes Obama’s promise to prevent an Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

“I don’t remember an American president who went so far in his public announcements,” Peres said. “And aside from that, I cannot fathom an American president who would allow the Middle East to fall under the control of the ayatollahs. It is tantamount to handing the American economy over to Iranian control.”

“And I believe that in foreign policy it is better to talk like a lion in a sheep’s skin rather than a sheep in a lion’s mane,” the Israeli president later added. ” It’s a matter of taste. I think it is more effective to understate.”