Ahmadinejad - Reuters
Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad Photo by Reuters
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"Everyone knows what Israel did to Syria back in '06, '07," Maj. Gen. Edward Bolton, director of Cyber and Space Operations at U.S. Air Force headquarters, told a professional conference in Maryland in early April. "Syria had the biggest, they thought the best, Russian-made, Soviet-made air defense system. Israel turned them [off], flew in, and then bombed a North Korean-built nascent nuclear facility."

Is the Iranian nuclear project more like Syria's or Iraq's? That, in effect, is the gist of the controversy dichotomizing the Israeli defense establishment today. Maj. Gen. (res. ) Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, has appointed himself the outspoken representative of one of the two camps. No one is in favor of Iran possessing nuclear weapons, nor does anyone delude himself into believing that it will be possible to deter Iran from striving to attain such weapons - as opposed to deterring it from using them. The issue that is splitting the military top brass is the price of each of the alternatives - an offensive operation that will inevitably draw an Iranian response, or forgoing a pre-emptive attack in the hope that other measures, or others' measures (mainly American ) will suffice.

Dagan, former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and others who share their view are no less opposed to the Iranian nuclear-arms project than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Their experience with Netanyahu has taught them to be suspicious of him: He might have ulterior motives, he might put conclusions ahead of analysis and maybe he aspires to the role of glorious supreme commander.

Netanyahu's partner, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, is trying to convince the Obama administration that Israel is getting ready to attack, in the hope that, if this is the case, the American president will prefer to do it by himself for his own purposes. Ashkenazi and Dagan, who oppose an attack on Iran, were a pain to the prime minister and the defense minister while they were in active service and have found ways to continue being a pain even after their retirement.

The way Israel handled the Syrian nuclear project, which Bolton referred to, was by making do with the use of force without much further public ado. Efforts were made not to shame Syria, and even if the Syrian ruler did not forgive Israel and recorded the incident in his open notebook, from a distance of four years, it is just one more page inside.

This was not the case with the Iraqi nuclear project. Prime Minister Menachem Begin, for selfish political considerations, on the eve of the Knesset election, violated the government's decision not to link Israel publicly with the bombing of the reactor outside Baghdad in June 1981. When the operation ended in complete success, Begin lost little time in bragging about it. Saddam Hussein, who was then in the first year of an eight-year war against Iran, waited a decade and paid Israel back in the form of 40 surface-to-surface missiles, some of them aimed at Dimona. He had no nuclear weapons at the time, but the chemical and biological weapons he was known to possess were enough to cause panic - justifiably - among Israel's citizens and leaders in 1991, as well as a dozen years later.

American prop

The dispute in Israel over Iran's nuclear program is a mirror image of the dispute that played out here over the Israeli nuclear project 50 years ago, when the country's political and security leadership - already embroiled in the Lavon affair and soon to be torn apart over the issues of the territories and peace - fought a bloody battle over the strategic and financial aspects of the investment in Dimona. In very simplistic terms, it was David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Dayan and Shimon Peres vs. Levi Eshkol, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin. Dimona vs. the Israel Defense Forces, Paris vs. Washington, the Sinai Campaign vs. the Six-Day War.

The two most critical dimensions of the dispute, then and now, are the regional and the international. What influence will an Israeli action (or failure ) have on the Arab and Muslim world, and how will the great powers react? Dimona, which is referred to in the declassified General Staff discussions dating back to the 1960s, was included in the Sinai tradeoff: Ben-Gurion agreed to go to war against Gamal Abdel Nasser, whose ouster France sought, hoping to stifle the Algerian independence movement, in exchange for French arms for the IDF plus assistance in nuclear development. De Gaulle's return to power eroded the influence wielded by Ben-Gurion and his loyalists - Peres, Dayan and their confidant Zvi Zur, the last chief of staff appointed by Ben-Gurion. The new duo to take the helm of the defense establishment, Eshkol and Rabin, identified the supreme importance of America. American Phantom warplanes were heavier and clumsier than French Mirages but more vital in an era of increased Soviet involvement and the growing need for an American political and economic prop.

A week after the end of the Six-Day War, Eshkol and Rabin exchanged public messages. They were published in the IDF journal Ma'arakhot, which was used by the chief of staff in that pre-television period as an outlet for messages intended against rivals both internal and external. Rabin, whose hesitation contributed to Eshkol's weakness, was one of those responsible for delaying the government decision to go to war until the defense portfolio was transferred from Eshkol to Dayan. After the war, the two - the prime minister, who in the four previous years had also served as defense minister, and the chief of staff - had an interest in playing up their prominent role in a "brilliant and unprecedented victory in our history," as Eshkol put it. The victory was theirs - not Dayan's and not Ben-Gurion's.

This is what prompted Eshkol to write that "now we are reaping the fruits" of his joint years with Rabin - years of strengthening, organizing and renewing. Rabin reminded him, in a clear swipe at the architects of the Sinai Campaign - Ben-Gurion, Dayan and Peres - how much more difficult 1967 was than 1956. In the Sinai Campaign, Israel fought alongside two powerful partners, France and Britain, against one Arab country, Egypt, against which a surprise attack was launched only in the Sinai territory and almost only on land. In June 1967, a war was fought "in the air, on land and at sea, amid the desert dunes, in inhabited cities and on steep hills. It was not we who chose the time for the war, and it did not take the enemy by surprise. We fought alone and we fought against all our neighbors."

Rabin emphasized the word "alone" in part because his collapse on the eve of the war followed a sharp rebuke he received from Ben-Gurion for his having entangled Israel in a war situation without a great-power rear. In the two weeks between his collapse and the outbreak of the war, it turned out that in Washington, contrary to prevailing fears, such a rear did in fact exist.

Rabin's task, in moving from the chief of staff's bureau to the Israeli embassy in Washington the following year, was to entrench American support. As a state envoy, and irrespective of his skeptical stance about Dimona in the formative years of Israel's nuclear capabilities, Ambassador Rabin worked to obtain Phantoms and also to ward off attempts to tame Israel into joining the nuclear anti-proliferation regime.

Stoppage

The major achievement, of course, belongs to Golda Meir, who met with President Richard Nixon in September 1969. In that meeting, Nixon swept aside a decade of effort to monitor Dimona and agreed to allow Israel to proceed with its clandestine activities. In Rabin's next incarnation, as prime minister, he divulged - according to American documents - to an American guest an important detail about Nixon's decision: It was a deliberate shutting of the eyes. This information was included in a secret cable from the U.S. ambassador to Tel Aviv, Malcolm Toon, in November 1976, a few days after President Gerald Ford's election defeat to Jimmy Carter.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, on his way out of office, read in Toon's cable what happened when a delegation of U.S. senators, headed by Abraham Ribicoff, submitted a request to visit Dimona. The request was politely turned down, angering the senators - led by the former astronaut John Glenn - who were against nuclear proliferation (and therefore also against the sale of nuclear-power reactors to Israel ).

In a late-night meeting with Rabin, Senators Ribicoff and Howard Baker pressed him to allow certain members of the delegation, namely Glenn and Baker, to visit Dimona. The request is causing me problems, Rabin said, but added that he would consult on the matter and give his reply in the morning. Toon, who was at the meeting, was briefed by Ribicoff about the subsequent developments. Rabin called him the next day to say that he could not comply with the request without the authorization of the cabinet and perhaps also the Knesset. He promised to explain the matter to Baker separately. Rabin said that "he felt strongly that to air this proposal in the cabinet would simply invite trouble, and certainly if the Knesset were to be informed, there would be serious criticism of the government's change in a long-standing policy against any visits by outsiders to Dimona."

Rabin told Ribicoff that the decision to stop visits to Dimona in 1969 had been made at the initiative of the United States. Toon's cable to Kissinger noted that Rabin had taken part in the Nixon-Meir meeting as ambassador to the United States, together with "you [Kissinger] in your capacity as special assistant to the president for NSC [National Security Council]." Kissinger, according to the American document, had suggested to "the president that further American inspection visits to Dimona would be unwise. The reason you had proffered was that if 'something should develop at Dimona' the Americans could be accused of complicity. This would be an undesirable turn of events which would evoke serious criticism of the Nixon administration. The president had concurred in your reasoning, and it was decided then that there would be no further visits to Dimona."

Toon says he told Ribicoff that this account was new to him, "although Rabin as a direct witness should know what he is talking about. My understanding was that we had terminated our inspection visits to Dimona in 1967 because our experts had felt that the Israeli restrictions on such visits made them almost useless." Toon went on to reassure Kissinger: "I believe both Ribicoff and Baker will keep lid on above, but I felt you should be informed in detail as to exchanges here in event there should be leaks." The absence of a cable in response suggests that Kissinger did not deny Rabin's account, as relayed to Ribicoff who relayed it on to Toon. The declassification of the cable, courtesy of the U.S. State Department, provides public confirmation of the policy of turning a blind eye to the Israeli nuclear project.

Epidemic

Israel did not suffice with this: It also wanted an open American eye on the Arab, Iranian and Pakistani nuclear programs. The countries of the Middle East were effectively left to choose between close ties with Washington or development of nuclear programs. That was the choice given to Anwar Sadat in the 1970s. Egypt under Sadat and his successor, Hosni Mubarak, did not put huge amounts of money into nuclear development despite declarations that it could not accept what its spokespeople termed an Israeli monopoly on nuclear military capabilities in the region.

This situation could soon change. A new Egyptian leadership - under Amr Moussa, for example - could adopt a harder line and reverse the prevailing equation: If President Barack Obama continues to accept an Israeli nuclear program, Egypt, too, will renew its nuclear efforts. Cairo will take into account an American threat to stop aid to the country. It will be a weak threat because the Americans can not easily forgo Egypt. Looming in the background is an alternative power, China, which has been expanding its naval interests relentlessly.

Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia could all potentially go nuclear. There will be no American force, and certainly no Israeli one, to prevent this. It would present an impassable challenge to Israel, which is adamant about preventing any Muslim nuclearization in the region. A shock-and-awe operation against Iran's nuclear facilities, however successful in a narrow and specific context, would not be effective in the face of a regional nuclear epidemic.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will retire in another three weeks. He has three conditions for a war: that it be necessary ("the sword on the neck," in Dagan's terms, in contrast to Menachem Begin's "war of choice" in 1982 ), brief and undertaken with partners. In Israel, "not alone" means not without America. But Obama has decided to cut $400 billion from the defense budget within a dozen years. The national debt is as dangerous, he believes - also for his reelection - as the Iranian nuclear project.

Dagan and Ashkenazi did not undermine Israeli deterrence vis-a-vis Iran. They are just hampering efforts by Netanyahu and Barak to maneuver America. When the two meet with outgoing CIA director Leon Panetta, after he assumes his new post as secretary of defense, or converse with his successor at the CIA, David Petraeus, the million-dollar question will be hanging in the air: "Mr. Prime Minister/Defense Minister, have you already persuaded Meir/Gabi?"