Israel's calls for a tough stance on Iran are falling on near deaf ears

In light of the signs of progress in talks between the big powers and Tehran and the U.S. president’s extreme wariness toward military engagement, Netanyahu's warnings against the Iranian threat are barely acknowledged by the world.

Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly. October 1, 2013.
Netanyahu addresses the UN General Assembly. October 1, 2013. / Photo by AP
By Amos Harel
Published 18:06 18.10.13

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s tragedy is that, even though in many ways he was right − and still is − about the threat inherent in a nuclear Iran, that isn’t helping him in his current attempt to reach out to the international community. His bombastic style is his undoing. The constant tone of self-congratulation ‏(“We are the ones who warned ...,” “We are those who identified ...”‏), the comparisons of himself to Churchill, the frequent references to the Holocaust, the disregard for Israel’s own military might ‏(even nuclear, according to foreign sources‏), and the refusal to progress in negotiations with the Palestinians, to the chagrin of Europe and the United States − all this makes it difficult for Israel’s assertions on Iran to be heard and acknowledged by the world.

This week, in an article in the daily Yedioth Ahronoth, Dov Weissglas, who was Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau chief, spoke of the ineptness surrounding Israel’s recent campaign on the nuclear issue. Weissglas noted the timing of the announcement in late September of the arrest by the Shin Bet security service of an Iranian spy in Israel and media coverage of the mid-air refueling exercise carried out by the Israeli air force over Greece, which were accompanied by veiled threats aimed at Tehran. He quoted his former boss’ constant caveat to his people: Just make sure they don’t make fun of us.

The long profile of Netanyahu in last weekend’s edition of The New York Times describes him as an isolated, semi-enigmatic figure. This seems to be the prevailing sentiment among Israel’s friends in the West, which the Israeli government’s campaign of pressure and hints can do nothing to allay.

This week, there was real confusion. When the air force held a wide-ranging exercise, planned many months ago, it was again interpreted as a threatening message in light of the new round of talks that began in Geneva this week between Iran and the six world powers. When the entire system moves so awkwardly, the Israeli media are liable to rely on an outdated message box by mistake.

Israel’s leadership, not represented in Geneva, can only wait for the result from afar, in the hope that the West doesn’t hurry to give its shirt away in the talks. At this stage of the drama, Israel’s job is clear: to be the town crier, who issues warnings and, just to be sure, waves around the threat of military action − although its level of credibility doesn’t seem to be particularly high at the moment. Should the talks with Iran end in an agreement, it’ll be tough figuring out how much of the prime minister’s anticipated displeasure stems from the details of the agreement and how much from simply the playing-out of a predetermined role.

According to a hefty pile of foreign publications, Netanyahu did consider an independent Israeli strike on Iran in the summer and fall of each of the last three years, 2010-2012. In hindsight, it seems the most dramatic period regarding such a decision was last year. The choice during the summer of 2012 really seemed to be between bombing or the bomb. Netanyahu, to go by his many public statements at the time, seriously thought the option of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities without an American green light was preferable to the alternative: Iran continuing to make progress toward a bomb. He also had a seemingly tempting window of opportunity. Acting in the three months before the American presidential election could have presented the Obama administration with a done deal and made it difficult for the president to confront Israel directly, if he didn’t want to risk losing Jewish votes.

But Netanyahu, as it turns out, decided not to attack. The Israeli media were abuzz with the rumor that then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak had defected from the pro-bombing camp at the last minute, leaving Netanyahu by himself. ‏(Some say Barak never really wanted to attack Iran; he claims to have always supported an attack and has vociferously denied having had any change of heart.) We also know that the leaders of all the branches of the defense establishment were leery of attacking without coordinating with the United States. At the time, one press report stated that an Israeli attack was likely to delay the Iranian nuclear-bomb program by merely two years.

But most importantly, there was the problem of America’s disapproval. As in previous years, an aerial convoy, which took place between August and October of last year, brought us a bevy of senior administration officials, headed by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Their message was clear: Do not act alone, and absolutely do not act before the election.

Israel folded, and now the possibility of its launching an attack seems even less likely than a year ago. Its military threat will come back to the table next spring for what would seem to be its last hurrah − if talks between the six powers and Iran end without an agreement.

If Israel’s military option now seems unlikely to be played out, the analogous American option has all but dissipated as well, as was made amply clear by the White House’s conduct vis-a-vis Syria for its use of chemical weapons, in early September. When Israelis try to understand America’s reluctance to engage in yet another military action, whether in Syria or down the line in Iran, they tend to explain it in terms of Washington’s overall weariness with wars in the Middle East and beyond after long and expensive campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Obama’s resistance goes deeper and seems to be connected to a fear of getting enmeshed in wars in general, much beyond any anxiety over the results of any specific conflict. While the president didn’t hesitate to use force to take out Osama bin Laden or to use drones to assassinate terrorists from Pakistan to Yemen − that seems to be the limit when it comes to the military involvement the administration is willing to undertake.

Insight from JFK

An excellent, if indirect, explanation of this appeared in an article in a special edition of The Atlantic published in September and dedicated to another American president, John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated 50 years ago next month. The historian Robert Dallek describes the dramatic confrontation between Kennedy and his generals following the failed attempt to topple Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba in the 1961 Bay of Pigs incident, the missile crisis that followed some 18 months later and the general enthusiasm of the senior military commanders over the possibility of using nuclear weapons.

Quotations cited by Dallek clearly portray Kennedy’s caution vis-a-vis using military force, and particularly his distrust of generals. Looking back on events, Kennedy reportedly told one of his advisors that he had made the mistake of believing that “the military and intelligence people have some secret skill not available to ordinary mortals.”

Obama’s insights on foreign policy are partly the result of the lessons Kennedy learned. Compared to his predecessor, Obama has had fewer problems with the generals of the 21st century. In one instance, the president was forced to dismiss Stanley A. McChrystal, commander of the International Assistance Force and of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, for having shown ‏(in comments to the press‏) disrespect for the White House, in a way that echoed Kennedy’s relationship with the military. Other senior military personnel dismissed by Obama, from CIA head David Petraeus on down, got ensnared in colorful affairs, but these had nothing to do with disagreements with the president.

And yet, when Obama now hears the daily public warnings issued by Netanyahu or reads in The New York Times about the prime minister’s favorite cigars − one can’t help but speculate that he’s remembering trigger-happy behavior displayed, for example, by Kennedy’s head of the Strategic Air Command, General Curtis “the Big Cigar” LeMay ‏(said to be the real-life inspiration for the crazy general in “Doctor Strangelove,” Stanley Kubrick’s parody of a nuclear war scenario, which can still teach us something about strategy and international relations‏).

Leaders vs. generals

Who is suffering more at the hands of his generals: Obama or Netanyahu? The prime minister had a serious conflict with the previous top brass of the security establishment, including Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and especially Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, along with then-Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin. The clash was related to disagreement over a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran − the three consistently opposed it − but was also personal in nature ‏(i.e., Netanyahu’s distancing himself from Dagan after assertions were made abroad regarding the Mossad in the assassination of Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai; Dagan and Diskin’s claim that Netanyahu reneged on his promise to appoint Diskin to succeed Dagan at the Mossad; and the fact that the prime minister didn’t intercede in the Barak-Ashkenazi morass, which came to a head in the Harpaz document affair, involving a forged document that sought to thwart the candidacy of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as chief of staff‏).

At present, with three others − Benny Gantz, Tamir Pardo and Yoram Cohen − in these key positions, appointed during Netanyahu’s term in office and with his blessing, the prime minister’s relationships seem much healthier, even though the top defense echelon is ostensibly still opposed to an independent strike in Iran.

In an essay published this week by the Institute for National Security Studies, affiliated with Tel Aviv University, Prof. Yagil Levy claims that previous Israeli prime ministers have had even-more strained relationships with the top military brass. Levy surveys the history of conflicts between chiefs of staff and governments in the last 20 years and finds egregious incidents in which the army challenged the politicians. In Levy’s opinion, Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz − who explicitly condemned then-Prime Minister Barak’s decision to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000, and later criticized Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s initial doubts regarding confronting Palestinian terrorism in the second intifada − acted much more rudely than Ashkenazi did in his dispute with Barak. Levy thinks that the balance of power between the army and the government is affected by a host of factors, such as whether the sitting government is based on the support of right-wing or left-wing parties ‏(parties on both sides need legitimacy from the General Staff, but each from the opposite direction‏).

Levy’s conclusion is that Ashkenazi didn’t reinvent the wheel: There has always been tension between statesmen and generals; at least Ashkenazi’s round with Barak wasn’t staged in the public arena. This more or less overlaps with Ashkenazi’s own claim, when challenged about his part in the Harpaz affair: that everyone did the same thing.

Has there ever been a chief of staff who didn’t at any time have a conflict with the government? The difference today is that the police investigation into the whole affair, renewed in July, is based on recordings from the chief of staff’s office, something that, in the case of his predecessors, did not exist, and hence were not available − not to external examiners, and certainly not to criminal investigators.

The new investigation will be much broader than that launched by the state comptroller’s office. It will focus not only on the ties Ashkenazi’s office had with the forger of the document in question, Lt. Col. ‏(ret.‏) Boaz Harpaz, but will also look at whether the former chief of staff was guilty of breach of trust vis-a-vis the political echelon.

A key question to be investigated concerns the relations between the chief of staff and the media: Did Ashkenazi and his people engage in a systematic campaign against Barak ‏(and, to a lesser extent, against Netanyahu‏) via the media? And where does one draw the line when it comes to criticism? It’s no secret, for example, that the late Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, who served as chief of staff in Netanyahu’s first government, was underwhelmed by how the prime minister was doing his job, and went directly into politics immediately after his military service in order to run against the premier.

In their investigation, the police and state prosecutor will be charting new legal waters that have probably never before played a role in a criminal investigation in Israel. The questions stemming from it will touch not only on the role of the army in a democracy, but also on what is permissible and what is forbidden in the relationship between the top military brass and the media, the limits of what is legitimate in a press campaign against an incumbent prime minister − and also, by contrast, the extent to which investigators are capable of delving into these connections without wreaking havoc on the freedom of expression.