Since Israel lacks an opposition shadow government, the Knesset has a quasi-official, ministerial security committee - a kind of parliamentary review for the strategic moves of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.
For the members of the committee, it's an opportunity to relive their past roles. The panel includes former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni (Kadima ), former Finance Minister Roni Bar-On (Kadima ) and former Defense Minister Amir Peretz (Labor ), and is headed by former Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz (Kadima ).
The four, who are at odds with each other as well as with the government, are an important milepost in the journey taken by government decisions on the way to implementation. Netanyahu and his ministers would not dare initiate a major military operation without checking public opinion, which this panel helps to do.
Last month the four met with Netanyahu and Barak. Only the six participants know exactly what was said during this tough, closed discussion.
This week, Netanyahu and Barak were photographed alongside the army's latest toy, the Iron Dome missile-interception system. The photo was designed to claim ownership; the pair also wanted to state indirectly that the Iron Dome could be used not just against Palestinian Grad missiles, but also against Iranian Shahab weapons.
On April 16, 2001, almost exactly 10 years ago, the first Qassam missile was fired from Gaza at Sderot. Now Iron Dome is live, after years of development, trial and error. Last summer, after it intercepted a Grad in a trial run, top IDF officers celebrated tensely; in the following months, it intercepted 120-millimeter mortar shells. These tests went smoothly, but the system's operational cost is still a problem. Moreover, in the future, Hamas will obtain shells and missiles that can evade Iron Dome, and the game will continue.
Up until Iron Dome, the public felt completely helpless in the face of reports that hostile groups had accumulated thousands of rockets along Israel's northern and southern borders. The anti-missile missile has now intercepted eight out of nine rockets, indicating that the interception rate for missiles, including Scuds and Shahabs, will be 90 percent to 100 percent. The public can live with the small uncertainty this leaves.
If Iran is attacked by the U.S., Saudi Arabia or Israel, Israel will be blamed; conversely, Iran will take the blame for any long-range surface-to-surface missile fired at Israel. Israel must weigh the utility of a military strike on Iran versus the cost of a reprisal. If Shahab missiles (loaded with conventional warheads ) can be intercepted, this tips the scales somewhat in favor of those who support attacking Iran.
In the meantime, the argument about Iran's nuclear program crosses party lines and security force branches. Neither the Defense Ministry, the IDF nor the Mossad has a consistent stance. Different people have different views. Neither Netanyahu nor Barak appear to hold consistent positions. Those who favored a shock-and-awe attack on Iraq's supposed nuclear program are likely to oppose a similar campaign against neighboring countries in the Persian Gulf.
Last year, two camps seemed to evolve: a hawkish alliance of Netanyahu and Barak, and a moderate camp consisting of President Shimon Peres and former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan was considered to be aligned with Peres and Ashkenazi, while his successor, Tamir Pardo, is not known to have a strong opinion on the question. Should he veer conspicuously from his predecessor's relatively moderate position, he will surprise many. Top IDF officers also endorse Dagan's stance. This is not acquiescent appeasement; nor does it categorically obviate a move to eliminate Iran's nuclear program. Instead, it asks "how" and "when," and considers establishing a regional Middle East defense network.
Netanyahu took an aggressive stance 20 years ago, as a low-ranking deputy minister, when he tried to persuade Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to send the IDF to attack Iraq after it bombarded Israel with Scud missiles.
In January 2008, U.S. President George Bush came to Jerusalem to meet Ehud Olmert and Barak, in response to what The New York Times and other news outlets called an Israeli attempt to obtain American consent for an attack on Iran. Publicly, Bush projected a tough veneer; privately he vetoed proposed attacks. "That fellow really frightens me," he said, referring to Barak.
Then in June, Barak met Barack Obama, then a U.S. presidential candidate. Barak proposed that Obama play it cool, ignore the pressure, find an experienced adviser and learn from him about where Iran's nuclear program stands. Then, Barak counseled, Obama could ask this adviser for a professional assessment of a strike on Iran's nuclear program.
Since then, almost three years have passed. Obama continues to equivocate. This is the year before a U.S. presidential election. So was 2007, when the Syrian reactor was bombed; at that time, Bush was facing the end of his second term (whereas Obama currently is seeking a second term ). Obama has also been part of the Western campaign in Libya, an affair that has yet to end. This summer, after Egypt holds elections, Cairo is likely to form a government less friendly to Israel than the current military administration. Cairo could then signal to Washington that it opposes any use of force against Iran, and it might also launch its own public effort to go nuclear.
One of the missing elements in these considerations is IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. Last year, Gantz seemed to be on Ashkenazi's side, but he is now the army's commander. Iran tops his list of enemies, ahead of Syria/Lebanon; the threat posed by Tehran is more ominous than anything from Gaza, or any new Egyptian administration. In recent months, Barak has tried to cultivate good relations with Gantz and has lavished praise on Ashkenazi, Peretz and others for their roles in developing Iron Dome.
After the 1991 war, as deputy chief of staff and as chief of staff, Barak had reservations about the wisdom of investing in the Arrow anti-missile system. Decisions regarding the future should not be based on the alarm the Scud attacks caused the public, he said; Israel would be better off focusing on attack capabilities that would quickly end a future war. As defense minister and prime minister, after military campaigns such as Operation Grapes of Wrath (in Lebanon ) in 1996, Barak did not make anti-missile systems a priority. In the Second Lebanon War in 2006, he noted the public's response to the thousands of rockets that struck Israel.
When he returned as defense minister, Barak assembled a group of experts, including Uzi Rubin, Aryeh Herzog and David Ivry, to study the anti-missile issue. He then ordered that a project first proposed by a Rafael Advanced Defense Systems team in 2004 be taken up in earnest. This project had been accepted in principle in 2005; and as defense minister in 2006, Amir Peretz worked to promote it despite the opposition of some top IDF officers and defense officials.
On the eve of Passover, 15 years ago, then-Prime Minister and Defense Minister Shimon Peres decided to respond to Hezbollah's Katyusha missile attack on Kiryat Shmona by launching Grapes of Wrath. Barak was then foreign minister, and Netanyahu, as opposition leader, profited from the operation's inconclusive result. This week, in Gaza, Netanyahu effectively agreed to a contemporary version of the understandings that were forged at the end of Grapes of Wrath - a ban on strikes by either party against the other's civilian targets, and thereby indirectly endorsing strikes against military targets. The best explanation for Netanyahu's current willingness to accept a stalemate situation is that he is encouraged by Israel's newfound ability to intercept missiles; also, Netanyahu views Gaza as a secondary theater, and his focus is Tehran.
Menachem Begin attacked Iraq's nuclear reactor despite the protests of opposition leader Peres, but only after Deputy Prime Minister Yigael Yadin withdrew his opposition. And Begin enjoyed public credibility that Netanyahu and Barak currently lack. Netanyahu and Barak have to pass a tough hurdle - they have to persuade Livni, Peretz, Bar-On and Mofaz to join the government (an unlikely prospect at the moment ), or at least to support the government's strategic policy. Right now, with Avigdor Lieberman facing indictment, it is unlikely that the prime minister and defense minister can rally government support for their position on the Iranian issue.
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