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Israeli Chief of Staff Undercuts PM on Iran—Then Retracts

Posted By P. David Hornik On April 27, 2012 @ 12:46 am In Daily Mailer,FrontPage | 13 Comments

“Israel Army Chief Says He Believes Iran Won’t Build Bomb”… “Israel’s top general says Iran unlikely to make bomb”… “Israeli general: ‘Rational’ Iranian leaders not pushing nuclear bomb”…

Those headlines—from the New York Times, Reuters, and CNN respectively—are typical of a media firestorm kicked up on Thursday by an Independence Day interview that Israeli chief of staff Benny Gantz gave to Israel’s left-wing daily Haaretz.

The reports contrast Gantz’s allegedly pacific statements with recent hawkish statements by his boss, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

In an interview to CNN on Tuesday, Netanyahu said sanctions were “certainly taking a bite out of the Iranian economy, but so far they haven’t rolled back the Iranian program or even stopped it by one iota…so if the sanctions are going to work they better work soon.”

On whether Iran’s nuclear program is for civilian purposes: “They said it’s for medical isotopes. Right? That’s why they’re developing ICBMs to carry medical isotopes to Europe or Israel or the United States.”

And on Iranian rationality: “When it comes to a militant Islamic regime I wouldn’t be too sure, because unlike, say, the Soviets, they can put their ideology before their survival. So I don’t think you can bet on their rationality.”

And in a Holocaust Remembrance Day speech last week, Netanyahu said Iran was “feverishly working to develop atomic weapons….”

Now, what did Gantz say, and was it indeed seriously at odds with Netanyahu’s words? If so, it could be of significance. The fact that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, another Iran hawk, did not order a strike on Iran while Gantz’s predecessor as chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, was in office has been attributed to the fact that Ashkenazi and other security chiefs at the time were Iran doves who opposed a strike.

Gantz begins his interview to Haaretz by saying: “If Iran goes nuclear it will have negative dimensions for the world, for the region, for the freedom of action Iran will permit itself.” Later, regarding American and Israeli perceptions of the threat, he says: “We aren’t two oceans away from the problem—we live here with our civilians, our women and our children, so we interpret the extent of the urgency differently.”

So far, then, no great daylight between Gantz and Netanyahu.

The daylight grows, though, when Gantz addresses the urgency issue at greater length:

Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. 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.

The first part of that somewhat muddled utterance is, no doubt, different from saying as Netanyahu did that “if the sanctions are going to work they better work soon” and that Iran is “feverishly working to develop atomic weapons”—and from Barak’s recent warnings that Iran is fast reaching a “zone of immunity” from Israeli attack. Indeed, Gantz says there’s time to spare until the end of the year. But beginning with “We’re in a period when something must happen”—Gantz sounds closer to Netanyahu and Barak’s perceptions.

Gantz appears most at odds with the prime minister and defense minister, though, when he says Iran

is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile…. If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance [the program] to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken…. 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. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.

Again, Gantz himself qualifies his statement at the end. But undoubtedly his words are a “money shot” for all those—starting in the media but hardly ending there—who want to undercut Netanyahu and Barak’s message, discourage an Israeli attack, and rest in the comfortable delusion that the mullahs are reasonable folk not too different from us.

In short, not much of an Independence Day gift from the chief of staff to the Israeli people—or to the cause of truth and realism in the face of a dire threat.

Nor is it hard to imagine Netanyahu flying off the handle in response. That surmise seems validated by the fact that later on Thursday, amid the Independence Day festivities, Gantz gave an apparent damage-control interview to AP in which he said—intriguingly—“that other countries have readied their armed forces for a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear sites….”

Gantz, says AP, “did not specify which nations might be willing to support or take direct action against Iran. Still, his comments were one of the strongest hints yet that Israel may have the backing of other countries to strike the Islamic Republic to prevent it from developing nuclear arms.”

The report goes on to say that Gantz “denied” being “at odds with Israel’s political leaders…saying there was no internal disagreement over Iran’s aims.”

As Israel steps into its 65th year of independence, let’s hope top Israeli officials can avoid tossing morsels to the media wolf-pack—and are more or less in sync on the most crucial issue facing the country.

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