Outgoing Mossad chief Meir Dagan did an exceptional favor to Israeli citizens by revealing his insights on the subject of Iran: that an Israeli attack against Iran, in anything but a last-resort situation - in his words, one in which the knife is at our throat - would be an act of utmost irresponsibility; that most of the recently retired leaders of national security organizations share this opinion; and that he has fears regarding the judgment of the elected political leadership on these questions. By doing so, Dagan dramatically challenged the accepted rules of the game in Israel regarding what is permitted and forbidden to people in his position to say publicly after their retirement.
Until now an inflexible code of discourse, backed by tradition, was common here - to the effect that those leaving the defense establishment must keep mum regarding their thinking and experience in the spheres of their official activity. This code of discourse has been especially prevalent concerning sensitive matters of national security, such as Israel's policy on prevention of nuclear proliferation, and specifically regarding the wisdom of an Israeli attack on Iran. On these issues, the top national security professionals, past and present, have always been expected to remain silent.
Although the question of the military option against Iran has (almost ) nothing at all to do with the policy of nuclear ambiguity, according to the accepted code of Israeli public discourse, the consequences of discussing the rationale of either a military operation against Iran or Israeli nuclear policy would be the same. In both instances, Israel - certainly its decision makers but the public as a whole too - must accept the restrictions of the policy of ambiguity.
The practical result is that there has been no genuine public discussion in this country regarding the rationale of a possible attack on Iran. When it comes to decisions on this issue, decisions unlike any we have had to grapple with in the past, the political leadership is given almost total freedom of thought, decision and action. Those in the know - in other words, all the senior defense establishment officials, both present and past - are expected to hold their tongues. The national interest demands ambiguity, and ambiguity means silence. And so, although an attack against Iran means a war the likes of which we have never known, a war in which the home front will become the battlefield and there is no way of knowing how it will end, the public has entrusted the duo of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, backed by members of the septet of key ministers in the cabinet, with the absolute right to decide. But is this code of discourse wise and correct?
Those who think so claim that a public debate about Iran will of necessity lead to a decline in ambiguity about Israel's intentions, thereby damaging state security in two ways: It will undermine the credibility of Israeli deterrence vis-a-vis Iran; and it will undermine the willingness of the international community to act firmly against Iran.
The first argument is clearly groundless: There is no evidence that threats of an Israeli attack have deterred Iran, or even significantly influenced the way in which that country is planning its nuclear program. It's true that, in general, the present leadership in Tehran does not want war, or even conflict with the international community, but this does not stem from any implied Israeli threat. In any event, Dagan's words probably have not caused any change in Iranian plans.
The second argument may contain an iota of truth, but it is exaggerated and biased. If in the not-so-distant past there was a certain fear in the world that Israel, particularly under Netanyahu's leadership, was liable to attack if the pressure on Iran were to be weakened, this fear is gradually disappearing. First, the sanctions against Tehran have been reinforced, and their results are already evident. Second, there is today an almost wall-to-wall Western consensus that a military operation against Iran will achieve exactly the opposite of its objective: Instead of distancing Iran from the bomb, it will only bring that country closer to it. We can reasonably assume that, under normal circumstances, it is inconceivable that Israel would challenge such an international consensus on its own.
What is seen by many in Israel as a clever policy of ambiguity vis-a-vis Iran is seen in the world as a dangerous and arrogant approach that is meant to conceal a bluff. The general assessment among experts is that Israeli talk of a military option is mainly empty words. Not only does Israel not have the military capability of striking at Iran over a period of weeks, not to say months, on end, but also such a foolish war would not only fail to improve Israel's situation - it would actually cause it mortal harm. Unless it finds itself in a genuine emergency situation, Israel does not have a genuine military option.
The problem is that Benjamin Netanyahu is liable to be tempted to think otherwise. Netanyahu is seen by many people, both in Israel and abroad, as a leader who can astonish with his decisions, a leader who could try to lead his cabinet into dangerous and fateful decisions. Meir Dagan did us a favor when he revealed that he too shares these concerns.
Avner Cohen is a professor and senior fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and author, most recently, of "Israel and the Bomb" (Columbia University Press ).
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