Is the IDF Chief Joining the anti-Netanyahu Camp Over Iran?

Not that Benny Gantz is suddenly becoming a pacifist, but his assessment of the Iranian leadership lacks the urgency you often hear from Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

As Amos Harel notes today in his interview of the IDF Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz has been careful in all of his public appearances when referring to the Iranian nuclear threat and the possibility of an Israeli military strike. That being said, it is hard to ignore the fact that some of the things Gantz said in the interview are almost clashing with recent statements of his ultimate boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most significantly Gantz said that: The pressure is starting to bear fruit. Both on the diplomatic level and on the level of the general sanctions.

Benny Gantz - Ron Alon - 26/4/12
Ron Alon

Which is hard to reconcile with Netanyahus recent criticism of the P5+1 talks with the Iraniansin which according to him they were given a five-week freebie. Unlike Netanyahu who devoted his Holocaust Remembrance Day speech last week to comparing the Iranian threat with the German mass-murder of six million Jews, Gantz is trying hard to ratchet down the rhetoric.

Asked whether 2012 is also decisive for Iran, Gantz shies from the term. "Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. This is a critical year, but not necessarily 'go, no-go.' The problem doesn't necessarily stop on December 31, 2012. We're in a period when something must happen: Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only or the world, perhaps we too, will have to do something. We're closer to the end of the discussions than the middle."

If they have a bomb, we are the only country in the world that someone calls for its destruction and also builds devices with which to bomb us. But despair not. We are a temperate state. The State of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria."

Not that the general is suddenly becoming a pacifist. He is serious about preparing the IDF for a possible strike making it clear that the military option is the last chronologically but the first in terms of its credibility. If it's not credible it has no meaning. We are preparing for it in a credible manner. That's my job, as a military man." But his assessment of the Iranian leadership lacks the urgency you often hear from Netanyahu and Ehud Barak.

"The program is too vulnerable, in Iran's view. If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."

So why is the cautious general seemingly opening up a front with the prime minister?

I can think of four possible explanations, all, or a combination of them, equally plausible.

1. Gantz has not given on-record interviews for fifteen months, from before he was suddenly selected as the next IDF chief of staff, after Yoav Galants real-estate dealings came to light. One imagines that in such a high-pressure job, one accumulates a major pile of resentment and frustration that would cause even the most prudent officer, when he finally allows himself to speak, to say a few things he may regret later.

2. Gantz is an Israeli patriot and conscientious officer. He feels that he has to supply the Israeli public with the most accurate assessment of the Iranian situation he can, and if that clashes with the prime ministers version, then so be it.

3. Gantz is not acting on his own. He has the backing of senior past and present figures in the defence establishment and political leadership who are concerned that Netanyahu and Barak are about to go overboard with Iran and jeopardize Israels national interest. President Shimon Peres certainly seems to think so if the contrast between his and Netanyahus speeches I highlighted here on Holocaust Day is anything to go by. Their backing has emboldened Gantz to put forwards his narrative.

4. There is no real difference between Netanyahu and Gantz on Iran – Netanyahu is simply sticking to his bad cop role, keeping up the pressure on Barack Obama before the next round of talks, by ramping up the rhetoric. Gantzs Independence Day interviews are targeted for the local Israeli audience and therefore can be allowed to be less drastic.