Netanyahu and Barak
A worker hangs a poster of Benjamin Netanyahu over one of Ehud Barak in Jerusalem, 2009. Photo by AP
Text size

At an event a few days ago, I asked two Israelis whose opinions I respect, both can be described for lack of a better word as ”knowledgeable,” whether they thought an attack on Iran was imminent. I was surprised by the divergence in their vehement answer. “No way, it’s not going to happen” said the first. ”Bibi and Barak just don't have the guts to go all the way.”

“Of course there’s going to be an attack,” answered the second without a doubt, “it’s already happening, all the pieces are in place. This is for real.”

I can't divulge any details that may give away their identity, but I can distinguish between the two. The one who believes Israel will not strike is the more experienced. He has been on close terms with the prime minister and defense minister for years, even before both of them began their respective political careers and has had a front-row seat to Israeli decision-making for over a quarter of a century. The second is junior by decades but his assessment has one advantage, he is currently on the inside, taking part in various operational aspects of Israel’s campaign against Iran.

It strikes me that this distinction is true of other observers I have heard from in recent months. Those who have a rich experience of Israel’s political, military and diplomatic processes are generally more skeptical, at least when speaking off-record, than younger men and women who are currently involved and probably better informed.

Since no-one knows for sure what Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak will decide come the moment of truth, perhaps they don’t even know for sure, it is instructive to look at the past decisions of both men.

Out of the last sixteen years, since Netanyahu was first elected prime minister in 1996, him and Barak have lead the country for exactly half that time, in the remaining eight years, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert were prime ministers. During this period, Israel embarked on four major military offensives – Operation Defensive Shield in the West Bank in 2002 was under Sharon and the Second Lebanon War, Operation Cast Lead in Gaza and the bombing of the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007, a much smaller and secretive operation than the other three but by far of the greatest strategic importance, were all decided upon by Olmert.

Putting aside the justification or wisdom of any of these offensives, the fact that neither Netanyahu nor Barak ever took a comparable risk is significant. Indeed, according to various account and the autobiographical fragments so far published by Olmert (if they are to be trusted), Barak as defense minister at the time was against both the strike on the Syrian reactor and expanding Operation Cast Lead.

This would seem to bolster the voice of experience and the opinion that Israel’s leaders are bluffing and Netanyahu and Barak do not actually want to order a strike on Iran. As Haaretz’s military commentator, Amos Harel, wrote yesterday, we have been here before, almost a year ago.

Between the end of last October ‏(moments after the completion of the prisoner-exchange deal for Gilad Shalit’s release‏) and the middle of November, Iran was the only issue on the press’ agenda. Of course, there wasn’t an attack, and experts explained that the operational “window of opportunity” for a bombing had closed. Iran’s wintry weather seemingly made a strike on its nuclear facilities more difficult.

... And this time around? Israel, at least metaphorically, has once again been revving its engines. The world, yet again, is concerned. Panetta was sent back here at the beginning of August... American objections, along with the hesitance expressed by Israeli security professionals ‏(Israel Defense Forces command and the Mossad‏) concerning an attack at the present time, are again making it hard for Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to decide on military action.

But Amos also sounds a word of caution –

“...these recent developments have only tightened the squeeze Netanyahu and Barak have found themselves in: After setting the bar of public opinion on Iran so combatively high, they’re obligating themselves to realize their threats.”

The experienced skeptics indeed have a sound base for their opinion, the Bibi-Barak duo have yet to match words with action. But since an unprecedented amount is being said and done in preparation for an attack, the bluff could well materialize into a concrete action and experience give way to a new reality.