Despite Talk of Iran Strike, Israel May Be Banking on an Exit Strategy

There are two key 'exit stations' for Israel to back down on its threat: A meeting between Netanyahu and Obama in September and a joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise in October.

The country is abuzz with rumors of war. It all seems to have started on Tuesday, when a television producer heard something from an editor and immediately whispered it to a politico, who - out of a sense of duty, of course - quickly posted a warning on his Facebook page. Maj. Rumormonger has not died; he has merely completed his army service and opened a Twitter account.

As far as can be ascertained, not even the General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces knows if and when the order to bomb Iran will be issued. But given the boundless determination being displayed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the General Staff cannot take unnecessary risks. The generals need to prepare, because responsibility devolves on them. And even if, as has been reported, they have voiced their objections to Netanyahu and Barak about an attack at the present time, their duty is to be prepared for every eventuality. As part of this approach, a range of actions is being taken. Against the background of the war atmosphere that has been relentlessly created here over the past few months, panic is breaking out.

Anyone who has spoken with Netanyahu and Barak of late - journalists, consultants and retired generals are making pilgrimages to them at a rate that makes one wonder when the two have time for anything else - comes away impressed by the firmness with which the "decision makers" view the need to deal with the nuclear threat. When former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy and former director of Military Intelligence Aharon Ze'evi Farkash cite the period until the U.S. presidential elections (in November ) as a critical window of time for an Israeli attack against Iran, we can assume that their remarks are solidly founded.

As far as we know, the final decision to attack has not yet been made. A few Israeli "exit stations" remain along the way. Two key moments are: (a ) talks between Netanyahu and U.S. President Barack Obama at the United Nations General Assembly meeting in late September (no formal invitation to such a meeting has been issued, and the prime minister will probably not initiate such a meeting on his own ); and (b ) a joint U.S.-Israeli military exercise scheduled for mid-October. Logic says that in light of the firm American objection to an attack, Israel will try to avoid taking steps that will embarrass the administration more than is necessary. The idea is to avoid the impression (which Tehran will try to foster in any event ) that Washington entered into a coordinated plan with Jerusalem.

An attack immediately after a summit meeting, during the military exercise - thereby also endangering the lives of American soldiers present in Israel - or on the very eve of the elections, would be like sticking a finger in the Americans' eye. But it's hard to know: Israel has already ruined most of its ability to achieve tactical surprise by means of its frequent declarations of an intention to attack. And Barak, we know, is proud of his ability to always think in terms of a double reverse.

There is also an alternative explanation to the recent jarring background noise. The board of governors of the International Atomic Energy Agency is about to discuss its quarterly report on the progress of the Iranian nuclear project. In the past two years, Israel has escalated its rhetoric against Iran in the weeks leading up to the final formulation of the periodic reports. The more the international community, and the United States in particular, is convinced of Israel's intention to attack Iran, the more likely it is that the quarterly report's findings will be seen with extreme seriousness.

Because the IAEA data show once again that Iran is continuing to advance toward its goal, the possibility will arise of stiffening the international sanctions, principally by means of the UN Security Council, which has the ability to impose more acute measures than in the past. Netanyahu and Barak constantly make a point of dismissing the sanctions. Their threats to attack appear to be authentic. However, we have to take into account the possibility that they are also striving for the default option - heightened sanctions as a temporary substitute for an attack - if they are persuaded that they cannot cross the double obstacle being posed to an attack: by the Obama administration and by the professional hierarchy in Israel.

Missiles and earthquakes

In mid-October, more than 1,000 American officers and soldiers will arrive in Israel to take part in the military exercise Austere Challenge 12. This will be the latest in a series of periodic joint maneuvers focusing mainly on missile defense. The exercise will combine simulated missile fire with training for the command posts. The current round will feature various intercept systems - Iron Dome, Arrow II, Patriot and Aegis - along with the American X-Band radar that is permanently stationed in the Negev. The extensive exercise will be conducted largely according to past patterns.

The exercise will simulate a warning of missiles being fired at Israel, then locating and intercepting them. The American force, comprised of personnel from EUCOM (U.S. European Command ), will be in Israel for about three weeks. One of the scenarios to be examined will include the purification of an air-defense battery that has been affected by chemical weapons. During this same period in October, Home Front Command will conduct a large-scale civil defense exercise related mainly to coping with an earthquake.

In the meantime, Iran is currently demonstrating its might by hosting the annual summit meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement. It's important for the ayatollahs' regime to underscore that it has international support - especially when additional sanctions are being considered on top of the last sharp round of the same, which reports say are seriously hurting the Iranian economy. Bowing to Tehran's pressure, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi agreed to attend the summit. But the visit was limited to a few hours, in part because Morsi does not wish to anger the Americans: Egypt still needs their economic support.

Apart from the momentary satisfaction the Iranians will derive from hosting the NAM meeting, it would be hard to say that they like what they see around them. The situation of Syrian President Bashar Assad is becoming critical, and in Lebanon the Shi'ites are facing more determined demands than in the past - by the other ethnic and religious groups - to disarm Hezbollah. An affair that was uncovered a few weeks ago drew little attention: The Shin Bet security service and the police in Israel arrested a ring of Arab-Israeli drug dealers who smuggled more than 20 kilograms of standard-issue C-4 plastic explosives into Israel from Lebanon.

The investigation found that the material was supposed to be picked up by people using a code word. This quantity of explosives is enough for five suicide bombing attacks. Was Hezbollah trying to prepare an attack in Israel to be implemented at a time of distress, or were the explosives intended for a quick operation? Under pressure, Iran and Hezbollah often tend to try to divert attention to a secondary front. In the absence of information, a series of attacks like this could have led Israel to blame the Palestinians in the West Bank and thereby to change the regional order, at least for a time.

Rank and guile

On Monday of this week, Brig. Gen. Yoav Har-Even was promoted to major general in a ceremony presided over by Defense Minister Barak and Chief of Staff Benny Gantz. It was a strange ceremony, as the promotion was unaccompanied by a new appointment, although Har-Even is supposed to become the IDF's new head of operations directorate. The present head of the directorate, Maj. Gen. Ya'akov Ayash, has been appointed Israel's new military attache in Washington.

The members of the General Staff came to the ceremony after spending half a day with Barak and Gantz discussing the IDF's annual intelligence assessment. The headlines that morning announced that Military Advocate General Brig. Gen. Danny Efroni had recommended a criminal investigation of former chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi over the Harpaz document affair (relating to an alleged attempt to influence the appointment of the chief of staff in 2010 ).

However, Gantz, who learned about Efroni's recommendation to the attorney general from the media, already had enough on his mind. According to the director of Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and his staff, "In the coming year, the regional environment will be unstable, tense and more Islamist than in the past. This environment is coping with a series of crises, regional and internal, which raise the sensitivity threshold of all the players and, without prior planning, might also lead to flare-ups." This is the only substantive sentence in the statement that the IDF Spokesman released to the media. The formulation apparently followed careful consideration.

The atmosphere at the promotion ceremony was relatively relaxed. The group of generals did not appear to have just been issued attack orders by the defense minister. Barak is now making a bit of an effort to reduce the tension in his relations with the General Staff, which arose in the wake of the leaks to the media about his and Netanyahu's anger over the generals' opposition to attacking Iran before November. (Netanyahu spoke of generals "covering their asses" in case of subsequent commissions of inquiry; Barak claimed the officers were afraid for their careers if the attack failed. )

Still hovering in the background, however, is the Harpaz issue: not the Barak-Ashkenazi dispute, in which most of the generals lost interest after the retirement of the former chief of staff, but the question of how it will affect the appointment of the next deputy chief of staff. Gantz wants to complete the appointment process within a short time, but Barak is delaying discussion of the subject.

Maj. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot is perceived in the General Staff as the natural candidate to become the deputy, but the defense minister apparently has reservations. These have to do with the role Eizenkot's close friends allegedly played in leaking the Harpaz document to Channel 2 in August 2010. However, another consideration may also be at work here. In recent years, Eizenkot has stood out as a firm opponent of a unilateral Israeli move against Iran.

If Eizenkot does not get the nod, Maj. Gen. Avi Mizrahi is considered a possible candidate, though of late the name of the former GOC Southern Command, Tal Russo, has also emerged. This is a crucial decision by Barak and Gantz, which could well decide the face of the future General Staff. Gantz's three-year term will end in February 2014, though it could be extended by another year.

If Barak decides to skip a generation by bypassing Eizenkot and Mizrahi, the result would be the advancement of younger major generals - Kochavi and GOC Northern Command Maj. Gen. Yair Golan - to the starting line of the race to become the next chief of staff. To that end, the two would need to accumulate experience in additional posts (Kochavi has not been GOC of a territorial command; Golan has not headed a General Staff directorate ). This would set in motion an accelerated game of musical chairs in the General Staff and move major generals from key posts after less than two years in office.

Panetta and Barak in southern Israel
Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Barak, left, with Eizenkot.
Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry