Over the past few months, much of Israel’s top security brass has stepped down—the chief of staff (Gabi Ashkenazi), the head of military intelligence (Amos Yadlin), the head of the Mossad (Meir Dagan), and the head of the Shin Bet or internal security (Yuval Diskin).
It’s no accident. True, the MI chief’s term had run out; but the chief of staff and the head of the Mossad had wanted to stay on for another year. As for the head of the Shin Bet, he wanted to get a new post as head of the Mossad—and was passed up.
Why the palace putsch? According to a slew of media reports, confirmed this week by a major columnist, the issue is Iran. These four men’s superiors—Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak—are said to have a hawkish disposition toward Iran’s nuclear program. The four are said to have a more dovish disposition—at least when it comes to a direct Israeli aerial attack on the program (ex-Mossad chief Dagan indeed stunned many by coming out openly and strongly against such a move).
Hence, at least in three of the cases, their early retirement by Netanyahu and Barak.
While the purportedly Gaza-bound flotilla—whose size and ability to cause harm appear to be shrinking by the day—and the hoary Palestinian issue keep getting more attention, the Iranian issue concerns survival and is incomparably more important. This week Iran test-fired fourteen missiles, unveiled what it called an underground missile silo, and said its missile program was for defense against “U.S. targets in the region and the Zionist regime.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that was only the tip of the iceberg—that “Iran has…been carrying out covert ballistic missile tests and rocket launches, including testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload in contravention of UN resolution 1929” (which forbids Iranian use of ballistic missiles).
Against this backdrop the words of the abovementioned Israeli columnist, Aluf Benn—veteran, well connected, left-of-center but nondoctrinaire, and fair-minded—are of particular interest.
According to Benn, ex-Mossad chief Dagan (publicly, as noted) and ex-Chief of Staff Ashkenazi (privately) have been proudly claiming that, over the past couple of years, they stopped Netanyahu and Barak from mounting an attack on Iran. Such an attack, they say, would have failed and, moreover, gotten Israel into a regional war it may not have been able to win.
Dagan and Ashkenazi claim they were able to foil such plans, in part, by recruiting ex-MI chief Yadlin and ex-Shin Bet chief Diskin to their side, along with (purportedly nonpolitical) President Shimon Peres.
“But,” says Benn,
there is a different version, which is no less convincing: the defense establishment did not manage to fulfill the instructions of the political echelon and failed. Now it is presenting its failure as having been exhibiting responsible behavior on a national level.
Those instructions “enjoyed the support of the cabinet…but [were] not translated into any action.”
Why not? Benn, pulling no punches, says that “as far as the politicians are concerned, [Chief of Staff] Ashkenazi failed in his task. He was asked to prepare a military option, and instead prepared excuses.”
Benn concludes on a gloomy note: “Now, Israel is twiddling its thumbs, the defeated U.S. is pulling out of Iraq, and Iran is expediting uranium enrichment and [its] economy is flourishing in spite of the sanctions.”
That gloomy message was reinforced by another Israeli media report this week. It concerns, in fact, ex-MI chief Yadlin, who stated that “the only existential threat to Israel in the year 2011 and in the years that follow, is Iran.” Somehow that “only” lacks consolatory power. Yadlin, as noted, is said to have been among the four top-brass opponents of a strike, though some reports have described him as ambivalent on the matter.
According to Yadlin’s further statements, at least “ambivalence” is warranted—namely, that “if Iran succeeded in obtaining nuclear weapons, additional Middle Eastern countries would subsequently become nuclear-armed,” and that “a nuclear-armed Iran would be much more aggressive than the Islamic Republic currently is today.”
The article goes on to mention a Wikileaks cable saying that, by late 2009, Israeli Military Intelligence “held the view that by 2012 Iran could build one nuclear bomb within weeks or an arsenal within half a year.”
For the citizen without access to intelligence, it is not easy to say what Israel should do about this problem. But between the evil of a risky war and the evil of letting Iran go nuclear, logic indicates that the latter—which entails the materialization of a direct existential threat—is the greater one.
Some say Israel could cope with Iranian nukes through a combination of advanced missile defense and deterrence. Even if that were true—and it is a very shaky proposition—the prospect of a regional nuclear arms race would seem to be intolerable. A 2012 date for Iranian nuclearization (a Rand Corporation analyst puts the date even earlier—now) precludes waiting and hoping for a more realistic U.S. president.
Hence it’s to be hoped that, by clearing out the nay-sayers and replacing them with more amenable officials, Israel’s prime minister and defense minister are keeping their options open.
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