Is Israel bluffing on Iran, or already committed to war?

Thursday, May 3, 2012 | by ron kampeas

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in recent months have been more explicit than ever about the likelihood of an Israeli strike on Iran to keep it from obtaining nuclear weapons capability.

A number of current and former top military officials are now suggesting that the duo has gone too far, turning what was meant to be a calculated bluff into a commitment to a strike that could accelerate Iran’s nuclear program and engulf the region in war.

Are Barak and Netanyahu merely posturing, or are they really intent on waging war?

Barak marked Israeli Independence Day last week with a speech dismissing the likelihood that Iran will succumb to diplomatic pressure to end its suspected nuclear weapons program. He said that while the likely success of an Israeli military strike was not “marvelous,” it was preferable to allowing Iran to press forward.

Israeli military chief Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz walks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at an arrival ceremony for freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, October 2011.   photo/yossi zeliger-flash90-jta
Israeli military chief Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz walks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak at an arrival ceremony for freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, October 2011. photo/yossi zeliger-flash90-jta
A week earlier, Netanyahu had made a searing Holocaust Remembrance Day speech in which he likened Iran to Nazi Germany and stressed his commitment to Israel’s self-defense.

Such posturing is not novel: Israel, like other parties to longstanding conflicts, for years has used brinksmanship to ward off actual warfare. Statements from its military ending with the threat “we will know how to respond” are routine.

The target of such pronouncements is not only Iran but also the international community, said Steve Rosen, a former foreign policy director for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who maintains close ties with some of Netanyahu’s top advisers. Western leaders are likelier to isolate Iran when they are faced with the real prospect of Israel going it alone, he said.

Eitan Barak, a Hebrew University expert on international relations (and no relation to the defense minister), described the tactic as one of brinksmanship.

“There is a possibility that Barak is saying in a closed forum, ‘The military option is not on the table, but let’s say it in public in order to keep this position of brinksmanship,’ ” the professor said.

The problem might be that the “closed forum” now encompasses only Barak and Netanyahu, he said.

“If this is a diplomatic game, the game should be stopped when you discuss this with people like the Mossad and the Shabak,” he said, using the Israeli acronym for the Shin Bet internal security service.

Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, on April 27 said he believed that Barak and Netanyahu are serious in contemplating an attack on Iran — and are driving Israel into a strike that likely would have severe consequences.

“They create a sense that if the State of Israel does not act there will be a nuclear Iran,” Diskin said. In fact, he continued, “after an Israeli attack on Iran, there may well be a dramatic acceleration of the Iranian nuclear program.”

Diskin concluded by saying, “I do not have confidence in the current leadership of the State of Israel that could bring us into a war with Iran or into a regional war.”

Diskin’s attack was the bluntest so far on Barak and Netanyahu, but he is not alone.

Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, last year delivered similar warnings, and the current military chief of staff, Lt.-Gen. Benny Gantz, last week said he believed the Iranian leadership was rational and that the country did not pose an existential threat to Israel.

Rosen noted that many of the critics now speaking were either disgruntled or may entertain political ambitions.

“A lot of them feel snubbed,” he said. “There’s a cadre of security professionals who feel that their views were not adequately taken into account.”

Dagan wanted to stay on as Mossad chief and Diskin had ambitions of replacing him. Ehud Olmert, a former prime minister who over last weekend joined the chorus criticizing Netanyahu, is a longtime rival of Netanyahu’s who is facing a corruption trial in Israel that could bury his comeback prospects.

David Makovsky, a top analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was not unusual for the military establishment to exercise greater caution than the political establishment, noting such tensions surfaced in 1981, before Israel took out the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq.

“This will be decided by the political echelon, and the security establishment will weigh in, but they won’t necessarily be decisive,” Makovsky said.

None of the officials criticizing Barak and Netanyahu has broken with the Israeli consensus that an Iranian bomb is something to be prevented and not accommodated or “contained.” But the concern now is that Barak and Netanyahu are no longer bluffing, said Avraham Sela, a research fellow of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace who served as an intelligence officer under Barak when he was military chief of staff in the 1990s.

He noted that in the ‘70s his former commander and Netanyahu were both members of the General Commando Squad, and had preserved from that training the tendency to play one’s cards close to one’s vest.

Barak “remains that commando officer, which means I don’t know to what extent he is calculating and to what extent he is willing to take the risk of such an operation,” Sela said.