Netanyahu Concerned as Ever About Iran, but World Powers Will Not Allow Strike in Coming Year

The atmosphere created by Rohani's election leaves the international community with zero tolerance for an Israeli attack - at least until talks between Tehran and major world powers end.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Amos Harel
Amos Harel

This Wednesday was Iran day on the prime minister’s schedule. In the morning, Benjamin Netanyahu received a report about the incident in which four soldiers from the Golani infantry brigade were wounded in the detonation of an explosive device near the fence separating Israel and Lebanon. He then toured the “training-base city” under construction in the Negev, met with a delegation of Republican congressmen from the American Midwest and was an hour late for a meeting with a senior official from the British Foreign Office. But everywhere he went, he spoke mainly about the Iranian nuclear threat.

The prime minister warned that, despite the victory by Hassan Rohani in the Iranian presidential election in June, Tehran is accelerating progress toward nuclear weapons capability. According to Netanyahu, Rohani − who is considered a relative moderate in the West − wants to exploit a resumption of Tehran’s talks with the big powers to gain time, even as his country continues with the nuclear project. Only an explicit military threat will stop the Iranians, said Netanyahu, whose remarks coincided with a series of recent leaks about that project.

New centrifuges, which enrich uranium quickly, were installed at the Fordow site and could allow the Iranians to take the world by surprise by producing the quantity of high-grade uranium needed for a bomb, without foreign intelligence agencies noticing this development in time. ‏(Netanyahu himself referred to this explicitly for the first time this week.‏) At the same time, Tehran is stepping up work on an alternative option − plutonium production − which, according to The Wall Street Journal, could allow the country to achieve full military nuclear capability by next summer.

Netanyahu’s concern is obvious. He believes that Iran’s spiritual leader, Ali Khamenei, is using the new president to set a honey trap for the West. Rohani’s sweet talk and moderate declarations will convince the Europeans and Americans that he is amenable to a compromise.

In practice, however, it is likely that the talks between the sides will drag on, while Iran continues to move ahead, and at the end of the process Tehran will present the world with a fait accompli: either the achievement of nuclear capability and a declaration to that effect, or being so close to that threshold that no one will dare threaten the country. However, in contrast to the past three autumns, this time it is probably wrong to interpret Netanyahu’s statements as an explicit military threat per se.

The atmosphere that was created after Rohani’s victory leaves zero tolerance in the international community for an Israeli attack, at least until the conclusion of the planned year-end talks between Tehran and the big powers. The timetable for an attack would thus be deferred until next spring, when the weather in the skies over Iran’s nuclear facilities improves. That target date also coincides with the nine-month deadline set by the Obama administration for a full-status agreement following the recent resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

By next spring, it will be clear whether anything fundamental has changed in either one or both of these channels.

That, more or less, is also the opinion of Graham Allison, a leading American analyst of nuclear policy. In an article he published in The Atlantic on August 1, Allison predicted that 2013 will pass without an Iranian bomb, but also without an Israeli attack. Some had said that this would be the year for the Islamic Republic to “get the bomb or be bombed.” More likely, though, resolution of the dilemma will be put off again until next year.

The fact that the periodic rise of tension over Iran is not reflected in the behavior of the Israel Defense Forces also reinforces the assessment that an Israeli military strike against Iran is unlikely this year. The IDF remains skeptical. In a briefing with correspondents last month about the army’s new multiyear plan, senior officers explained that the structural reform in the IDF − involving the dismantling of units, a reduction in air force squadrons and a cutback in the number of tanks − can be implemented now, thanks to the emergence of a window of opportunity in the region. In other words, the IDF does not think there is a high probability of a large-scale war in the years ahead.

The plot thickens

This week, a battalion-level exercise was conducted in one of the territorial commands. The main topic of conversation among the officers who were present was neither the Iranian threat nor the tense situation along the Sinai border. It was something else entirely: the affair of the “Harpaz document.”

This past Tuesday marked the third anniversary of the eruption of the so-called Harpaz affair. It’s unlikely that the producers of the Israel Radio midday newsmagazine that day were aware of the date when they decided to interview Maj. Gen. ‏(res.‏) Yoav Galant. But Galant, who was originally thought to have played a major role in the affair, apparently remembered. The long interview dealt mainly with strategic issues, such as the unrest in Egypt and the civil war in Syria. At its conclusion, the anchorwoman, Esti Perez, slipped in a short question about the Harpaz case. Last week, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein instructed the police to reopen their investigation of the document forged by Lt. Col. ‏(res.‏) Boaz Harpaz as part of an effort to block Galant’s appointment as chief of staff. This time, the investigation will center on suspicions against former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. Perez asked Galant for his opinion.

The man who was almost chief of staff made do with a brief reply. Seemingly, he only repeated what was already known ‏(that a criminal investigation has been launched‏) and explained why he would rather not delve deeply into the subject ‏(the investigation has just begun‏). However, after urging that the law enforcement authorities should be allowed to do their job, he added, “This is an extremely grave matter ... A criminal investigation against a former chief of staff is unprecedented, certainly an investigation dealing with subversion against the elected government, including the prime minister and the defense minister, and at the same time similar activity against subordinates − whether major generals or brigadier generals.”

In two sentences, Galant wove together all the strands of the plot, which at this stage remain hidden from the public’s eyes. Galant noted not only the widely reported friction between Ashkenazi and the defense minister at the time, Ehud Barak, and not only the dispute over Ashkenazi’s objections to Barak’s intention to appoint Galant chief of staff: He also added new allegations, concerning subversion by the former chief of staff’s bureau against the elected political leadership under Netanyahu, and also reservations about the way two senior officers who were close to Galant, Moshe Tamir and Imad Fares, were booted out of the army after being found guilty of offenses unrelated to the Galant affair.

The new investigation, like its predecessor, will be conducted under gag orders. What is already clear is that it will revolve around the same source materials that the state comptroller’s report about the affair relied upon: extracts from 40,000 hours of recordings of conversations made in the chief of staff’s bureau. The recording system was installed at some point toward the end of the term of Moshe Ya’alon as chief of staff, or the start of Dan Halutz’s term in 2005, but its use was significantly expanded during Ashkenazi’s term. If the new investigation ends up blocking Ashkenazi’s lofty political ambitions − as his rivals hope it will − it will be because of the tapes. One thing already certain is that the directive to tape-record all their conversations will be on every future list of bizarre decisions made by ranking public officials in Israel. It will occupy a place of honor alongside such select developments as “Ehud Olmert befriends Moshe Talansky,” or “Ehud Barak decides to employ the services of promising adviser Eldad Yaniv.”

This week, Ashkenazi’s friend, Ilker Basbug, the former chief of staff of Turkey’s armed forces, was sentenced to life imprisonment for conspiring to topple the Islamic government in Ankara. Foreign observers viewed the proceedings as a political trial whose results were a foregone conclusion. Ashkenazi is, of course, in a completely different place: So far, no criminal allegation against him has been proved. Throughout, his line of defense has been that even if he occasionally tripped up slightly, he did nothing that many chiefs of staff before him did not do. There were no crimes, he will say, but at most ethical misdemeanors, committed in response to an annoying campaign waged against him by the responsible minister, Ehud Barak. Nor can we ignore the fact that the investigation, which will focus on the chief of staff’s tapes, misses half the picture: namely what went on at the same time across the corridor, in the defense minister’s bureau.

The five chiefs of staff who preceded Ashkenazi ‏(Barak, Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, Shaul Mofaz, Ya’alon, Halutz‏) all entered politics shortly after their retirement from the IDF. It’s unlikely that all of them were chastely virginal in terms of their contacts with politicians and journalists while still in uniform. The difference, of course, is that in Ashkenazi’s case, there are prima facie findings hidden among the thousands of hours of recordings, which will now be examined meticulously by a team of police and state-prosecution investigators.

Square one, almost

The new team will be led by Chief Superintendent Yoram Naaman, head of investigations in the National Fraud Unit of the Israel Police, who was in charge of the investigation against former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Attorney General Weinstein decided to proceed with the investigation three years too late and with pronounced unwillingness. It is hard to shake the impression that in the previous round, in which the police focused on finding the forger of the document ‏(Ashkenazi’s confidant Boaz Harpaz admitted to playing that role, in the investigation‏), the police went about their work superficially and sloppily. Now, we are almost back to square one.

The State Prosecutor’s Office and the fraud unit investigators will continue to be in close touch with the military advocate general, Maj. Gen. Dan Efroni, and with the army team that dealt with the affair, prosecutor Lt. Col. Sharon Zagagi-Pinhas and Lt. Col. Gil Mamon, the commander of the special investigations unit in the Military Police. The head of that force, Brig. Gen. Meir Ohana, is quoted this week in the IDF weekly Bamahane as saying that the Military Police conducted “a professional investigation that dug deep.” He praised the investigators for their “serious work in one of the most sensitive cases we have dealt with in recent years,” adding, “I have no doubt that excellent work was done.”

In contrast to their counterparts in the Military Police, the Israel Police investigators will enter the highly volatile political and media arena. A thin and not easily detectable line exists between semi-legitimate political intervention by senior bureaus and allegations of subversion. Many possible questions arise from material published in the press alone. For example, how was the close alliance between Ashkenazi and President Shimon Peres forged? Is Histadrut labor federation head Ofer Eini, who in November 2010 savaged Barak at the height of Barak’s clash with Ashkenazi, part of that alliance? ‏(In a television interview, Eini called Barak a “dumbbell” after it was revealed that a foreign worker was employed illegally in the defense minister’s home.‏) In that period, did someone activate MKs from the leading opposition party, Kadima, against Barak? And why, in one of the peculiar developments in the case, did even the Western Wall rabbi, Shmuel Rabinovitch, take time out from his jihad against the Women of the Wall to contribute his share in the pro-Ashkenazi lobbying effort? It’s no wonder the political arena is in turmoil.

The tapes, then, are at the center of the investigation, but not only with regard to relations between Barak and Ashkenazi. Brig. Gen. Moshe “Chico” Tamir was forced to conclude his army career after being convicted in connection with an accident involving his underage son, when the latter was illegally driving an army all-terrain vehicle. Was Tamir recorded in connection with other allegations against him, and was there an additional reason for Ashkenazi to dismiss him?

Brig. Gen. Imad Fares was the first to reveal the existence of the tape-recording system in the chief of staff’s bureau, in the course of appealing his own dismissal from the army following an accident his wife had while driving a military vehicle. ‏(Fares was originally charged with lying and ended up getting a disciplinary reprimand for filling out a form incorrectly.‏) When Fares asked to listen to the recordings of the discussions involving his case, he was told that some of them could not be found. It will be interesting to see if they turn up now.

And there is also the procedure by which “background” meetings between the chief of staff and journalists are recorded by the IDF Spokesman. In one case, at least, it was alleged that a recording that might have proved problematic had disappeared. The IDF Spokesman’s Unit, which in the period in question was under the command of Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, will now be dragged deep into the heart of the affair. Those who thought that the bottom of the barrel in army-media relations had been reached when Miri Regev ‏(now a Likud MK‏) headed that unit might have to think again.

At present, with the recordings being examined meticulously, senior attorneys of the state prosecution who are reading the transcripts are finding it difficult to hide their astonishment at the vulgarity and aggressiveness contained in some of the conversations. It will be very hard to stuff the genie back into the bottle. Naturally, not every impolite occurrence, and not even every ethical infraction, is a matter for a police investigation. Weinstein will have to demarcate the boundaries of the game for the investigators. Still, at the conclusion of the investigation − which could take a year or more − we might get a better picture of what really went on in the battle of the two bureaus. And we must not forget that this ugly campaign was conducted while soldiers continued to be sent off on dangerous missions.

Iranian president Hassan Rohani at his first official press conference, this week. Sweet talk and moderate declarations.Credit: AFP
Prime Minister Netanyahu, earlier this month. Everywhere he went this week, he spoke about Iran.Credit: Kobi Gideon/ GPO
Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, in 2011. This week, he remembered the anniversary. Credit: Nir Kafri

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