Exactly three years ago I climbed the narrow stairs to the second floor of a suburban Tel Aviv villa to conduct a wide-ranging interview with a senior official. Israel’s national security adviser greeted me in shorts and a short-sleeve shirt and sandals, sat down at his desk and began firing in all directions. At the time Dr. Uzi Arad said that the Netanyahu government had inherited “scorched earth” from its predecessors.
“Annapolis − hopeless,” he said firmly. “The disengagement − hopeless. But worst of all is the progress Iran has made toward going nuclear. I’m not saying that nothing was done but ... what was done was done too late, too slowly and not forcefully enough. It’s a crying shame. From 2003-2007, it would have been a lot easier to stop Iran. The Iranian program was further behind and Iranian strength wasn’t what it is today. But what were we busy with in 2005? The disengagement. What were we busy with in 2007? Annapolis. We mustered all our resources for useless moves. We wasted our diplomatic resources on nothing. If the same energy, determination and tenacity we applied to the disengagement had been devoted to preventing Iran from reaching the point of no return, it wouldn’t have got there ... If things turn out badly, it will have been a lapse of historic magnitude.”
This time, too, Arad greets me in the same sort of outfit: shorts, short-sleeve shirt, sandals. As he stands at the top of the narrow stairs, the bright NATO emblem on his shirt glows from afar. But this time when he sits down at the desk, he is much more relaxed and much less pensive than he was three years ago. Having since been cleared of allegations made by the Shin Bet security service that he leaked state secrets, Arad picks up at the point where our last interview ended, and explains why he was right.
The Iranian nuclear challenge was first identified in the mid-1990s, he tells me. In 2002, the enrichment facility in Natanz was discovered. But Israel did not focus enough on the most serious strategic challenge it has ever faced. Ariel Sharon did not grapple head-on with Iran and just hoped the problem wouldn’t end up on Israel’s doorstep. Ehud Olmert was up to his ears in his own troubles. Both wished to believe that some unseen hand would solve the Iranian problem for them. Both also thought that it was a lot more politically “sexy” to deal with the Palestinian issue.
In their defense, Arad continues, it can be said that during their time, the sword wasn’t yet hanging right over our neck. But the result was that, in 2003, there was no one telling the Americans that instead of going after Iraq, they should go after Iran. In 2005, there was no one to demand from the Americans that in return for Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, they should bring all their resources to bear against Iran. In 2007, there was no one to try to take advantage of the close relationship with President George Bush, to persuade him to dismantle the Iranian nuclear program during his presidency.
In the intelligence realm, there were some major achievements during the past decade. Meir Dagan did a tremendous job. But in order to seriously deal with Iran, a diplomatic effort was required alongside the intelligence effort. Because of the lack of attention and focus on the part of the country’s political leaders, there was no such diplomatic effort. And so, when Benjamin Netanyahu took over in April 2009 he truly did find scorched earth.
Bibi brought about a turning point, says the man who until a year ago was the prime minister’s close adviser. The premier understood that the Iranian issue is the most important and most urgent. Therefore, he immediately focused various elements’ efforts on Iran. He also got Defense Minister Ehud Barak to alter his approach (under Olmert, Barak did not go to great lengths to deal with the Iranian issue). By allocating funds and directing technology to cope with the Iranian challenge, Netanyahu built up unprecedented Israeli strength.
At the same time, he made an impressive effort on the diplomatic front and put the Iranian issue at the center of the international agenda. Netanyahu definitely did things that his predecessors did not do, and accomplished things his predecessors did not.
But still, according to Arad, there are two vital moves that Netanyahu did not make. Firstly, he did not get the internal decision-making mechanisms to work as well as they could have in weighing all the alternatives so that Israel would do an optimal job of meeting the Iranian challenge. And secondly, he did not subjugate all other Israeli interests to the supreme interest of creating a close strategic partnership with the United States versus Iran.
Wait just a minute, I tell Arad. I need some clarification here. Anyone with eyes in his head could have seen that in order to get Barack Obama to take effective action against Natanz, Netanyahu had to offer him Yitzhar. What you’re telling me is that Netanyahu never offered Obama Yitzhar [settlement].
Even though he views a nuclear Iran as akin to Auschwitz, the Israeli prime minister was apparently not ready to rescue Israel’s citizens from this Auschwitz by means of the simple deal of settlements for centrifuges. Netanyahu did not make the necessary move of initiating a settlement construction freeze in exchange for a uranium enrichment freeze.
Arad doesn't admit that there ever was such a simple deal, but puts forward the following argument: The Iranian challenge is the supreme challenge. The pivotal player that will determine whether we succeed in grappling with this challenge is the United States. In any scenario and any situation, in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, we’ll need the diplomatic, economic and military resources of our allies. And during the Netanyahu years, the American commitment to stopping Iran from going nuclear has deepened. In vital areas, there is now close cooperation between the two countries. But in the end, if we arrive at the crossroads of whether or not American military action is used against Iran − it will be a presidential decision. The president will also determine what kind of oversight there is in Iran after a strike. Therefore Israel had an interest and has an interest in making every effort to win the U.S. president’s goodwill.
Did the quarrel with the president over settlement construction help to achieve such goodwill? Did the fact that Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and adviser Dennis Ross have had to repeatedly deal with the matter of this or that neighborhood whose name no one remembers serve or damage the cause of the struggle with Iran? Israel dealt with Iran as if there is no Palestine, and with Palestine as if there is no Iran. Given the result, this was not a wise policy. If the prime minister believes that Yitzhar is more important than Natanz − then fine. But if he thinks Natanz is Auschwitz, logic requires him to sacrifice Yitzhar to block Natanz.
What you’re saying here is quite fascinating, I tell Arad. Essentially, what you’re describing is a decade-long lapse. On the one hand, Israel had governments that didn’t deal with the Iranian challenge because they were focused on the Palestinian issue. And on the other, we now have a government that is focusing on the Iranian issue but not handling it properly since it is unwilling to pay in Palestinian currency. Various Israeli leaders, with differing worldviews, have failed in the past and are failing in the present because they are not harnessing all of Israel’s resources to contend with the life-or-death threat hanging over us.
Arad answers me with a question. Some people ask if the Iranians are rational or not, he says. But the question is if Israel is rational. He is optimistic. He believes that if we act wisely, we can stop Iran from going nuclear, and that even if Iran does go nuclear we’ll be able to deal with it. He also believes that the likelihood of an American military operation against Iran is increasing all the time. It’s not up to 40 percent yet, but it’s gone beyond 20 percent and maybe even 30 percent.
But the thing that is hard to understand is actually the way that Israeli is operating. For it’s abundantly clear that the path to Tehran goes through Washington. It’s clear that only the United States can ensure for the long-term that Iran does not go nuclear. So it is obvious that our central objective must be to achieve an unshakable American-Israeli partnership on the issue. We don’t want to have the kind of tension there was between Ben-Gurion and Kennedy, but rather the kind of closeness that Eshkol had with Johnson; Golda with Nixon; Rabin with Clinton. So it’s very hard to understand what’s been going on here in the past few years. You can’t be apocalyptic on the one hand and behave as the Israeli government did toward Obama on the other.
The round-cheeked, firm-jawed man in the NATO shirt sitting across from me has been accused in the past of being a Dr. Strangelove. But the truth is that the veteran nuclear strategist, who grew up on Kibbutz Shamir, is very far from being a Dr. Strangelove. He believes that in dealing with Iran, Israel must focus not just on prevention but on deterrence. He believes that the deterrence effort has to come from the Americans. He is worried about the possibility that a hasty Israeli action will spur on the Iranians, fire up the Arabs and endanger Israel’s economy.
Arad also warns against likening a nuclear Iran to the perpetrator of a new Holocaust. He is convinced that Israel has the capacity to withstand any Iranian scenario. He does not think that life with a Shiite nuclear bomb will be totally different than life with a Soviet bomb. The former National Security Council head understands both supporters and opponents of a strike on Iran, and does not say who is right. But the greatest strategic virtue, he counsels, is caution. Not hysteria or adventurism, but caution. Not to gamble, he says. Not to put all the eggs in one basket. Not to undertake an action whose success is not guaranteed.
Can we rely on our decision makers and sleep well at night, I ask. Arad thinks one can never sleep entirely soundly or blindly trust in anyone. And yet, the current political echelon is among the best we’ve had, he says. The combined experience of Netanyahu, Barak, Ya’alon, Mofaz, Meridor and Begin is invaluable. This is a group of serious people having serious discussions and exercising careful judgment. But it is not certain these leaders are being presented with all the alternatives. It’s not certain they are being given a full diplomatic-security picture. It’s not certain they haven’t already determined to some degree a particular way of dealing with the Iranian nuclear issue.
This summer is critical. At this sensitive point in time, Arad will not say anything that would give away state secrets or harm the strategy that the Israeli government has chosen. But when the archives are opened someday, it will be very interesting, he says. The tough question that will be asked is this: In the face of this fateful challenge, did Israel do the most and the best it could do? Time will tell.
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