The statements upon leaving office by former Mossad head Meir Dagan, which were interpreted as a warning against an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear installations, point to an intense debate in the top ranks of the political-military leadership: to strike or not to strike?
Embark on a pre-emptive war, which will result in serious damage to Israel's home front, or rely on the international community to foil the threat? It would appear that the disagreement has still not been decided and a military option remains "on the table."
Should the history of Israel during the past two years be read differently, as a struggle between the activists who sought the bombing of Iran and the moderates who asked the action be thwarted? The temptation is great. The Iranian story merges together diplomacy, strategy and politics, foreign relations and friction at the top.
On the aggressive side of the equation one can find, along with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Netanyahu considers an Iranian nuclear bomb an existential threat to Israel and the Jewish people. Barak is concerned that Israel will find itself in a strategically inferior position. The political alliance between them has been based since its first day on the joint vision of foiling Iran's nuclear efforts, which would provide Israel with several more years of regional superiority.
On the sides of the moderates were the heads of the defense and intelligence branches: IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, Mossad head Dagan, Military Intelligence Chief Amos Yadlin and the head of the Shin Bet, Yuval Diskin.
To all is attributed the view that the Iranian threat is serious but a military strike is not the right way to foil it. In their view, initiating a war will only bring disaster upon Israel.
The home front will suffer, many will be killed, the economy will be paralyzed and Iran will gain international legitimacy to rebuild its destroyed installations and gallop on toward nuclear capability.
The U.S. administration is on the side of the moderates. Since the day he took office, President Barack Obama has suspected that Netanyahu would surprise him with a strike against Iran. Therefore he made sure to put Israel under close supervision.
Last spring the debate heated up. Ashkenazi got President Shimon Peres and the has-beens Amnon Lipkin-Shakak and Uri Sagi on his side, and got the prime minister's promise that his view would be heard.
This had a fatal impact on his relationship with the defense minister, who embarked on efforts in the media to appoint Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant as Ashkenazi's successor. The impression is that Galant is more aggressive on Iran and will not block Netanyahu and Barak, who are eager to go into battle.
In the eyes of the politicians, the generals fear committees of inquiry. All large-scale wars since the Six-Day War led to the replacement of the military top brass, if not to the outright change in government.
Thus Ashkenazi is taking sure steps and covering himself, just like Eli Yishai after the Carmel fire. After all, the army and intelligence are not warning of what may happen in Iran, but of the damage that may befall Tel Aviv, which will stir public anger and demands to investigate, remove and dismiss.
Barak believes that the public wants video games and operations like at Entebbe, and is not ready for a long and painful war. On the other hand, as far as the generals and the intelligence chiefs are concerned, Netanyahu and Barak are trying to appear "nationalist" and aggressive, knowing full well that nothing will happen and that they can blame the lack of action on the military brass.
2010 went by without a war with Iran. In the winter no one goes to war because the clouds limit air force operations. But in 2011, a conflict is brewing. The new Mossad head, Tamir Pardo, like his predecessor, prefers economy of force. But his standing in these matters is one of adviser.
Yadlin is working on a book and Ashkenazi will retire next month and has still not said a thing in public on Iran.
Meanwhile there is a political problem. Labor is slipping out of the coalition and Netanyahu fears losing Barak from his side. Barak's expected successor in a narrow right wing government will be Moshe Ya'alon, who is considered to be a moderate on Iran. This is why the prime minister is working so hard to keep Labor in the coalition.
The Iranian nuclear program continues despite the sanctions. And in Israel the debate continues, as the heads of the defense establishment remind us. What is clear is that to date Iran has managed to deter Israel against military action, through its rockets and missiles deployed in places outside its borders. In that way, the enemy achieved strategic balance without a single nuclear bomb.
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