Israeli Warnings on Iran War Are More Than Empty Threats

The shortcomings in Netanyahu and the cabinet's functioning put the ministers' collective and personal responsibility into focus. They can't just abandon such a fateful decision to Netanyahu and Barak alone.

Amir Oren
Amir Oren
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Amir Oren
Amir Oren

The War of Independence, the Six-Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the Iran War. That's the sequence Defense Minister Ehud Barak laid out at the Herzliya Conference on Thursday in a speech on Israel's fateful decision.

All for the better, it has been suggested, that behind the wheel as successor to David Ben-Gurion in 1948, Levi Eshkol in 1967 and Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan in 1973 is military leader Barak and his assistant on prime ministerial matters, Benjamin Netanyahu. Barak has been quoted as saying, ignoring the law and the cabinet, that "at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us - the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us."

The immunity zone that Iran is constantly moving closer towards is meant to limit the possibility of a strike against its fortified and dispersed nuclear infrastructure. The Israeli argument is a global innovation in the theoretical justification for preemptive wars. The intended victim usually strikes preemptively when hostile preparations to act are discovered.

The precedents of Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 teach us that the desire for wider security margins made Israel attack while a nuclear capability was still being acquired. Barak's comments suggest an argument for acting even earlier, at the phase of developing a capability to acquire a capability.

This declared policy is what worries U.S. President (and presidential candidate ) Barack Obama and his defense secretary, Leon Panetta. It was also last Thursday that Panetta expressed reservations about a possible Israeli attack in the coming months. Politically, Obama needs an immunity zone from an Israeli attack until the U.S. elections in November, while Netanyahu and Barak's immunity zone is just the opposite.

According to Panetta, the two Israeli leaders want to attack in the coming months. During those months, however, electoral considerations would prevent Obama from reacting strongly to an attack. This contradiction strengthens as the electoral prospects of Netanyahu's ally, Newt Gingrich, dim as he tries to become Obama's Republican challenger or even a president who would consent to an Israeli operation.

Barak's declarations are blatant, provoking Iran and inviting it to attack first. They provide a rationale for uniting the Israeli people and the defense establishment around such an operation, which is highly controversial. The timetable that has been presented clearly sacrifices the operational need to conceal the intention to attack in favor of convincing the enemy and the world of the seriousness of the warnings. In this way, Barak is taking a page from Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's book in 1973.

Sadat wasn't believed until he actually started the Yom Kippur War, and Barak's credibility was eroded when his declarations were revealed as an ever longer string of empty rhetoric. This was seen, for example, in his commitment to leave the government if Ehud Olmert didn't quit after the release of the Winograd report on the 2006 Lebanon war. It's also apparent in his announcement a year ago that he would propose to the cabinet appointing Yair Naveh acting IDF chief of staff for 60 days.

Skepticism about Barak's declarations is well-founded, but this time skepticism could be a costly mistake. Panetta portrayed Barak and Netanyahu as seeking to go to war with Iran this year. They are preparing the political ground. Barak broadly hinted about linking up with Netanyahu to strengthen an American-style two-party system, led by a prime minister with strong powers. Then there's the prospect that Netanyahu could move up the elections to give himself freedom of action, an immunity zone, during the months between the dissolution of the Knesset and the election.

Barak and Netanyahu are speaking in a l'etat, c'est moi manner, but Section 40 of the Basic Law on the Government says "the state may only begin a war pursuant to a government [cabinet] decision." The two of them, the eight-member inner cabinet and the 18-member security cabinet don't have the authority to launch a planned war, as opposed to a hurried response to a surprise attack or a rush to use "means in the hands of the Prime Minister's Office," as the Defense Ministry's legal adviser put it in a 2003 Knesset debate.

The shortcomings in Netanyahu and the cabinet's functioning regarding the Carmel fire disaster, and in Netanyahu, Barak and the cabinet's functioning regarding the May 2010 Gaza flotilla - both of which the state comptroller has examined - put the ministers' collective and personal responsibility into focus. They can't just abandon such a fateful decision to Netanyahu and Barak alone.

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