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.”
That message seemed to resonate with reports that the Pentagon was scaling back U.S. participation in a joint military exercise in Israel next month. Thus the emerging narrative, according to some Israeli analysts, of a political leadership whose insistence on launching a war of choice has cost it the confidence of its own security chiefs, its president (and possibly its public), and also of its most important strategic ally. That’s not a comfortable position for any Israeli political leader, and Barak appears to have backtracked even before any new “red line” statement from Obama. Not known for the consistency of his statements — he earned the nickname “Mr. Zigzag” during his tenure as Prime Minister — the Israeli Defense Minister who just weeks ago was painting himself as “the decision maker” on the verge of scrambling the jets, is now reportedly opposed to bombing Iran before the U.S. election.
Netanyahu appears to be holding out for a declaration of U.S. red lines. The New York Times reports that the Obama administration is currently debating options to placate the Israelis, even if by rhetorically repackaging a number of existing plans for military exercises and tighter sanctions. The Israeli prime minister plans to attend the U.N. General Assembly session in New York later this month, where he is expected to meet with President Obama on the sidelines.
The Israeli prime minister’s supporters will paint whatever statements and gestures emerge from the White House as a victory for his strategy of relentless saber-rattling. Netanyahu’s problem, though, is that Obama’s red line — preventing the Iranians from acquiring a nuclear weapon — is not the same as the Israeli red line, which insists that Iran can’t be allowed to maintain the nuclear infrastructure that it already has, even though that infrastructure falls within the limits of what is permissible for NPT signatories, because it can be repurposed to create weapons-grade materiel. And as last week’s IAEA report confirmed, Iran is gliding past Israeli red lines while carefully avoiding approaching U.S. limits.
The U.N. agency reported that Iran had doubled the centrifuge capacity at its underground Fordow plant which the Israelis complain makes that capacity immune to their air power. Those centrifuges, now numbering 2,000 with the target of 3,000 to be reached later this year, are not yet spinning, and remain under IAEA scrutiny. While they expand Iran’s capacity to produce 20% enriched uranium, the top concern of Western powers because of the reduced time-frame for converting it to weapons-grade material, Iran has also converted a substantial proportion of its stockpile of that material into fuel plates that would be useless in any dash to weaponization. That appears to reflect care to avoid moving towards Washington’s red lines, despite failing to comply with its IAEA and UN Security Council obligations.
But it could also reveal something about the nature of Iran’s program: Many analysts have long suspected that Iran’s goal is not to build a nuclear weapon at this stage, but to achieve the sort of breakout capacity enjoyed by countries such as Japan, which remains within the terms of the Non Proliferation Treaty but has put nuclear weapons within easy reach should the government deem it necessary for reasons of national security to build them. That’s an outcome the Israelis strenuously reject, and Western powers won’t easily accept while Iran remains non-compliant with its NPT obligations. If Tehran was willing to cooperate with the IAEA and accept enhanced guarantees against weaponization, however, the Western consensus may begin to shift.
For now, the U.S. looks likely to persuade Israel to sit on its hands while sanctions and other pressures on Iran mount. Indications thus far, however, are that even if those measures succeed in pressing Iran to compromise, such compromise as are offered are unlikely to involve the capitulation on the issue of uranium enrichment that the Israelis demand. So, even if a war before November is looking increasingly unlikely, it’s probably a safe bet that war talk will be revved up again come spring.