The Osirak nuclear reactor, Iraq
The Osirak nuclear reactor, Iraq. Photo by Israel Air Force
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Daniel Bar-On
Tzachi Hanegbi. Photo by Daniel Bar-On
AP
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, talks to former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, in the Iranian parliament, May 2012. Photo by AP

Former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon thought Tzachi Hanegbi should be prime minister. He believed that someone who had been environment minister, public security minister and justice minister was made of the stuff of government leaders. But Hanegbi’s criminal entanglement and his political mistakes squelched his rise to the top. He lost precious years, left for Kadima and now has returned to Likud. During that period he became an expert on the Iranian issue, which he had also handled as the minister in the Prime Minister’s Office in charge of the secret services ‏(2004-2006‏) and as chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee ‏(2006-2010‏). For seven consecutive years, the level-headed MK learned everything there is to know about the nuclear challenge.

I met Hanegbi at his home in Mevaseret Yerushalayim, at a cafe in the Jerusalem hills and in the lobby of a Tel Aviv hotel. He tells me about his sons, his diet and politics. No, he is not upset at the failure of the maneuver to split Kadima, which he cooked up over a month ago. No, he does not believe that he will become prime minister in the coming years. But he is pleased to return to Likud and hopes to become part of the Likud leadership. He believes that in the final analysis, it will be Likud that divides the country. Because Hanegbi is afraid that Israel will become binational, he is willing to give the Palestinians most of the territories in Judea and Samaria and evacuate dozens of settlements. But because he doesn’t think that in the present decade, there will be a Palestinian partner for genuine peace, he does not consider the matter feasible at this point in time. What is feasible now is Iran. What is important and urgent is Iran. According to Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel will be forced to deal with Iran in the near future.

Tzachi Hanegbi, there now appears to be a wall-to-wall consensus that an attack on Iran at this time would be an irresponsible gamble by two irresponsible leaders: Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

I disagree that there is a consensus on this subject, and I disagree that the approach you are formulating in this way is the right one. I have to ask myself whether I accept Israel’s existence under a nuclear Iran as something possible. The answer is negative. Therefore, I prefer to prevent a nuclear Iran. I believe that Israel has the operational capability to prevent Iranian nuclearization. It is clear that every preventive operation is only a postponement. Accordingly, the concept must be one of permanent prevention. If, after being confronted with smoking nuclear facilities, the Iranian leader decides to rehabilitate them and renew the nuclear project, we have to possess the ability and the readiness to act again. The toolbox of permanent prevention has to include mental readiness and operational preparedness to carry out another military act of prevention in the future. We have to look at this like a long hurdles race. The prevention that is on the agenda needs to be part of a series of preventive moves − Israeli and international − that will continue a great many years into the future.

What is the justification for a policy of permanent prevention? This is an extreme suggestion with grave implications.

The justification is Israel’s classic security concept, which says that in order to protect ourselves and deter others, we have to maintain a significant qualitative advantage over any coalition of enemy states. That strategy proved itself in the past. Thanks to it, since 1973 we have not had to cope with a large-scale conventional war. For almost 40 years, we have not been attacked in a manner that created an existential threat. Our enemies have stopped viewing us like a network of spider webs that can be blown off the face of the earth with one breath. They have learned that we are not a passing episode like the Crusaders, the Turks and the English. But when the Middle East goes nuclear, we will find ourselves in a different situation. After Iran goes nuclear, so will Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and Syria, and maybe Libya and Iraq, too. The result will be an almost total paralysis of Israeli leaders in the face of threats and provocations. We will live under a constantly growing cloud. Israel will be neutralized, paralyzed, hesitant and lacking in deterrent capability. Our life will become intolerable.

Israel’s leaders over the generations have vowed to prevent that impossible state of affairs. I think that today, Israel’s leaders are duty-bound to uphold the oath without any inhibitions. That is the principled, moral commitment of the country’s leaders to their nation.

What you are saying is that the Begin doctrine is still valid and has to be implemented in regard to Iran.

The Begin doctrine is valid for any number of reasons. The first reason is the scenario I have just described to you: a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will place very heavy millstones on every Israeli leader and reduce to the minimum their freedom of action. The second reason is the inability to maintain in the Middle East deterrence based on MAD − mutually assured destruction. There are not many Russians around us and not even any Chinese. Most of the neighboring regimes are characterized by religious fundamentalism or total instability. Hence the third reason: In this turbulent region there is a high probability that significant nonconventional capabilities will leak from states to terrorist organizations. The cumulative result of all of the above is that if Iran goes nuclear and our neighbors go nuclear, Israeli will become a Middle East dishrag. It will be susceptible to abuse and harm, its inhabitants’ lives will be made miserable, and it will not be able to respond appropriately and crushingly. It is our duty to prevent that situation from coming about. What guided Begin and what guided his successors must now guide us as well. When the dangers are terrifying, it is our obligation to act in order to avert them, and not place our fate in the hands of a horrific reality.

Are your considerations exclusively geostrategic, or do you really imagine that Iran would make direct use of nuclear weapons against Israel?

The Iranian leadership is fundamentalist. It makes decisions on the basis of a burning hatred for the Jews, to which it has been giving expression for decades. Iran thinks that one of its historic missions is to remove the Zionist abscess from the map. As such, drawing on their fanatic truth, the Iranians are definitely liable to decide that they are ready to pay the price of a nuclear confrontation.

Rafsanjani said a decade ago that the Iranian nation − which at the time had a population of 70 million − would be able to withstand a nonconventional confrontation against six million Jews, who in the end would disappear from here. People who think rationally and humanely find it difficult to understand such thinking, but that is how a fanatic consciousness works. There are fanatics who are personal suicide bombers and are ready to sacrifice themselves to kill 10 Jews in a mall, and there are fanatics who are national leaders and are ready to pay the price of the death of millions of martyrs in order to wipe out the hated entity of infidels. After all, what did we see here between 2001 and 2004?

We saw that more than 1,000 Israelis were murdered by little Ahmadinejads who came from Judea, Samaria and Gaza to fulfill a divine commandment. Just as good people among us did not understand those Palestinians, so too they do not understand the Iranians. I am trying to retain sobriety. I think that the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons against Israel is a possibility we have to take into account.

Fine, you have persuaded me: Iran must not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. But the computer worms will stop it or sanctions will stop it or there will be a change of regime. And if none of the above, then America. If we are nice to him, Uncle Sam will save us.

Most Israelis do not deny the dangers of a nuclear Iran. But some of those who are dealing with the issue continue to advocate utopian solutions. They believe there are alternatives on the shelf, and all we have to do is take them. Unfortunately, those alternatives were imaginary two years ago and today they are complete fantasies. But it’s hard to shed fantasies. Those who believed in utopian solutions have become addicted to them and refuse to abandon them.

You mentioned a secret war? I will not refer to Israel, but I will refer to a report in The New York Times about an American cyber war. In the light of the fact that thousands of centrifuges are presently revolving on their axes in Natanz and at Fordow, it is absolutely clear that if there was a secret war, it had an expiry date. If a hidden hand was at work here, its success was perishable. What was the purpose? To stop the Iranians from getting the bomb. But we know today that the Iranians have already gone 99 percent of the way toward a bomb. In other words, even if there was a secret war conducted by non-Israelis, it is only of minor relevance today. If there was a hidden hand, time got the better of it.

You mentioned sanctions? I don’t know of many cases in history in which sanctions had a concrete effect on a determined leadership. If the sanctions had begun 10 years ago, you might have been able to challenge me and put the matter to a serious test. But as of this moment, no crippling sanctions have been imposed on Iran. The non-crippling sanctions that were imposed in July are such that the Iranians can cope with − with the help of Russia, China and India. So this is a story of too little and too late. It is absolutely obvious that the sanctions will not achieve their goal in time.

You mentioned regime change? The Iranian opposition was crushed three years ago under the boots of the Iranian troops. It didn’t have much of a chance from the start, but today a change of regime is not on the cards. It is certainly not relevant in the months that remain until the brink of nuclearization.

You mentioned an American operation? America undertook to prevent a nuclear Iran. We know what Iran is and we know what nuclear is, but the question is what “prevent” means. I have not heard an American commitment to a military operation. I have heard highfalutin and amorphous statements that do not assure Israel that it will not be abandoned at the last minute.

Obama’s America has done important things regarding Iran and has helped Israel a great deal. But Obama’s worldview diverts attention to East Asia, opposes American military intervention in the Middle East and seeks to avert confrontations that have a high price. Nor do I see a commitment by the Republicans to a last-resort use of force that will prevent the Iranians from manufacturing a nuclear-weapons system. The prospect of the use of force in Iran by the United States under a future Republican administration is less than 10 percent; the prospect of the use of American force in Iran under Obama is zero.

If you are right, Netanyahu is right: What we are seeing before our eyes is terrible weakness of the West, which recalls the weakness of the West in the 1930s.

Two years ago, I met Henry Kissinger in New York. A secretary of state always remains a secretary of state and is cautious in what he says, but one thing he did say still reverberates in my mind. Nuclear weapons in the hands of Iran will be a moral defeat of the West, Kissinger said. He was right. After all, in 2003, when the Iranian assessment was that the United States was determined, they halted their nuclear project. But afterward, they saw that things were not all that terrible, because Bush was denounced and pilloried and the Republicans lost and Obama came along with the very romantic idea of engagement. To this day the Iranians have not responded to his engagement proposal, as Abu Mazen did not respond to Olmert.

What do the Iranians see happening now? Comic meetings that take place in Istanbul or Baghdad or Moscow. In every such meeting cocktail glasses are raised and a few words are spoken for the record and everyone breathes a sigh of relief and they all hurry home in first-class airline seats. So the Iranians’ conclusion is that they can go on with the game as though nothing concrete will happen to them. The result is that here we have a problem that is not only related to security and policy, but is also a moral problem. There is a similarity between what we are seeing now and the mark of Cain with which the West was branded before the Second World War, when it failed to stand up courageously to dictatorship, fascism and Nazism. The question Israel faces is whether we will be a part of this moral failure or will defy it.

You are saying a terrible thing: that we are completely alone.

If my skeptical assessments concerning other alternatives are correct, the day is not far off when we will have to decide whether we come to terms with a nuclear Iran like everyone else, or cope with it on our own. Alone. I hear the prime minister and the defense minister saying that time is short. They believe that after a certain moment an Israeli attack will no longer have an effect on the Iranian nuclear project. I am not now in possession of the details, but I maintain that Israel’s leadership cannot be dragged into a situation in which time slipped through their fingers. In a highly complex world, they have to define the last minute at which it will still be possible to use the military option.

Do you rely on Netanyahu and Barak in terms of being capable of this? Aren’t they messianic? Aren’t they driven by an insane conception of reality and by irrelevant considerations?

I think that a great injustice is done to Benjamin Netanyahu by trying to paint his considerations as being nourished by what [former Shin Bet chief] Yuval Diskin described as “messianism.” Messianism is perceived as something false. The false messiahs induce people to follow them to perdition out of a caprice. But on the Iranian issue, Netanyahu is clean and true. He is absolutely committed to his inner truth. As a person in politics, I can attest that almost everyone in politics almost always thinks about his interests and ambitions and dreams. That’s how it is, we are human creatures.

The power of true leaders stems from their ability to prefer the state interest over their personal interest and to be ready to pay a high price for a move they believe in and initiate. That carries a tremendous force. It is where the leader is superior to the politician and the statesman to the functionary. But regrettably, very few people are imbued with that strength, which Menachem Begin, for example, possessed. Netanyahu possesses that strength. On the Iranian issue he is exactly like that, and I think we are very fortunate that at this time the country is being led by someone who understands the scale of the danger that is looming and has the determination to deal with it.

I don’t know what he will do. I am not sure he already knows what he will do. But I do know that if he reaches the conclusion that Israel’s interest is to act to prevent Iranian nuclearization, he will act. Mo media, party or popularity considerations, no consideration of personal survival will deter him.

But [former Mossad head] Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin are serious people, and they are telling us that the prime minister and the defense minister are off the wall. The serving military leadership is whispering to us they it does not have confidence in the leadership. And so too the country’s president; and the Americans. Your opinion is a minority opinion, almost a lone opinion.

I worked for many years with Diskin and Dagan. If the censors would permit me, I would tell you about their amazing achievements and about their enormous contribution to Israel’s security. Even their families do not know, and will never know, what those two dear people did for us all. But that is also precisely why I am disturbed by what they said. They violated a lengthy and proper tradition under which the heads of the defense establishment preserve the close intimacy that existed between them and the leaders they worked with, even after they retire. They have lent a hand to a culture of violating restraint. Because of the campaign they launched we have seen phenomena here which attest to a failure in our resilience as a society that seeks life. I cannot complain about a nation that feels worried. That is natural. My family is worried, too, and my friends are worried. There is not a conversation I take part in that doesn’t start with the question of what lies ahead. But it is inconceivable for there to be petitions here calling on pilots to refuse an order, petitions signed by people who have never taken part in a serious discussion of this complex issue. It is out of the question for a charming singer, the conductor of the Osaka Philharmonic and a poet to dictate to the government the right policy in the Iranian case. These phenomena are occurring because people have been stuffed with apocalyptic fears that were completely out of place. They are occurring because a campaign is underway here that is trying to thwart the Israeli preventive effort. I can tell you that Prime Minister Sharon told me that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable. And I can say for a fact that Prime Minister Netanyahu is today giving expression to Sharon’s stance with the greatest strength. Bibi has a commitment that his predecessors did not have and that few of his colleagues have. Netanyahu and Barak impress me as being determined to prevent a nuclear Iran.

You didn’t answer my question about the current military leadership. If the two political leaders see things correctly, why are they so alone? Why are they perceived as suspect and hallucinatory and warmongers? Why doesn’t anyone in the army’s top ranks take their side?

The mandate received by a major general does not require him to be a leader of the country. The role of the senior army officers is to train the forces under them for missions decided by the elected government. They are also obliged to present to the political leadership professional problems that exist in their sphere of activity. In the Iranian context, they are obliged to say if we do not have sufficient intelligence information to carry out a successful attack, or whether our planes cannot meet the requirements of the mission. But beyond that, they do not have to offer an opinion about a decision that is supposed to be made by the government. Neither the commander of the air force, nor the director of Military Intelligence, neither the chief of staff nor the head of the Mossad has the broad political and historic worldview that is required of a leader. The decision about Iran is perhaps the most difficult and complex that has been made here since the state’s establishment. The only person who is meant to make it is the leader who is committed to the history of the Jewish people and is ready to spare the Jewish people a harsh future, even if he pays a steep political price for that.

Aren’t you concerned about a repeat of the scenario from the first Lebanon war? Aren’t you concerned that if we go into battle without domestic legitimacy and without international legitimacy, we will become entangled in a war that will be perceived as a war of choice and will tear us to pieces?

I am calm on that score, because in my opinion, if all else fails and Israel has to launch a preemptive attack, the results will be very satisfactory. When the apocalyptic forecasts that are predicting endless destruction and death fade away, there will be a sigh of relief from the public and people will evaluate what happened realistically and proportionally. I do not think we will find ourselves in a situation in which the public at large will feel that a mistaken policy dragged us to the edge of the abyss.

Aren’t you concerned about the Iranian reaction? A regional war? Thousands of civilians killed?

I have an in-depth knowledge of the Iranians’ capabilities, and I do not think they have any special surprise up their sleeve. If Syria initiates an attack on Israeli population centers, we will have to push Syria 50 years back. Given that Syria is incapable of defending itself, I do not see that as an option. I also do not see a regional war, and I do not see thousands of people being killed. I don’t think we should talk about numbers of killed, but about values. The leading value is whether Israel has the strength and the backbone and the inner resiliency to defend itself against an existential danger.

The writer David Grossman will tell you that you are a warmonger. You are about to sacrifice hundreds of living people to the Moloch.

I am certain that the intentions of Grossman and his friends are just as good as the intentions of the prime minister and the defense minister. However, what Grossman has to factor into his considerations is that the only existing alternative today to an Israeli preventive strike is a nuclear Iran. A nuclear Iran will exact from us a very heavy price in human life. A nuclear Iran is liable to lead to the use of nuclear weapons. To my great regret, Grossman is ignoring these facts. He is not coping with their implications and not taking into account what is liable to occur here if we do not act. I am sorry to have to say that there are good people among us who want to believe in the good-heartedness of our neighbors and in their pure rationality, even if the reality proves that this belief is no more than romanticism.

Still, what you are recommending is extremely cruel. People will be killed, people will lose their lives.

I have not been privy to secrets for the past 20 months, so I am not recommending anything. But I am proposing to the State of Israel to continue on the same path that its leaders shaped for the country upon its establishment, which has preserved our sovereignty and enabled the country to prosper.

Avoidance of an operation essential to our existence due to concern about casualties is an unforgivable mistake. An approach of self-deceit and hesitation is irresponsible. My assessment is that some of the fears are exaggerated.

America prefers partnership with countries that fight for their existence and do not expect the Marines to come their rescue against the Indians. The risk to the home front is far lower than the risk [Prime Minister David] Ben-Gurion assumed when he established the state and went open-eyed into the War of Independence.

But even if the difficulties prove to be great, we must not flinch. When we place on the scales the danger of accepting a nuclear Iran and the risks involved in an attempt to prevent a nuclear Iran, the result is clear. Israel must do all it is capable of doing to prevent a nuclear Iran.