Barak: Steinitz, Ya'alon Thwarted Iran Strike in 2011

Former prime minister and defense minister tries to prevent airing of tapes in which he discusses why the plan to attack Islamic Republic – a move Netanyahu supported - was scrapped.

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From left: Barak, Netanyahu and Gantz, in 2011.
From left: Barak, Netanyahu and Gantz, in 2011.Credit: Moti Milrod
ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

Israel made four plans to attack Iran between 2009 and 2012, but each time the plan was thwarted by opposition in the cabinet or the unpreparedness of the Israel Defense Forces, former prime minister and defense minister Ehud Barak said in an interview, parts of which were aired on Israeli television on Friday night.

Barak spoke of the plans in conversations with his biographers, Dani Dor and Ilan Kfir. Excerpts from the recordings were aired on Israel Channel 2’s weekly news magazine on Friday.

Channel 2 said Barak did not want the material released, but the IDF military censor approved the publication.

In 2009, according to Barak, the IDF still did not have the operational capacity to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. In that year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed the IDF to work to attain this capacity.

Former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi in 2011. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In 2011, the IDF had the military capability to attack Iran, but then-Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya’alon and then-Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz objected to the plan when it was presented to the forum of eight senior cabinet members, Barak claimed. Barak said that in 2012, another planned attack was not carried out due to an American military operation in the region.

In 2010, Barak told Dor and Kfir, a plan to attack Iranian nuclear facilities was not carried out because then-IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi said Israel was not operationally ready. Barak said that in a decisive meeting before the issue was to be brought to the “forum of eight,” Ashkenazi said the IDF lacked the operational capability necessary to mount a successful attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

“At the decisive moment it’s still Ashkenazi. When we reached the moment when we wanted to check whether it could move from the three of us, from Bibi [Netanyahu], myself and [then-Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman, to discussion among the eight [senior ministers] and then to the inner cabinet, at the decisive moment the IDF’s response was that the accumulated capability did not cross the threshold ... the chief of staff has to say that there is operational capability.”

Barak also described a meeting at Mossad headquarters near Glilot Junction, north of Tel Aviv. “We met in a side room, just a limited group, because in a discussion there are 30 people and here the group was limited — prime minister, defense minister, foreign minister, chief of staff, Mossad head, Military Intelligence head, Shin Bet head. In this forum ... we want a statement in the end from the chief of staff that the plan as it is, is maturing, passes the threshold of operational capability ... the answer was not affirmative.”

Barak said that Ashkenazi gave this opinion “only when he was pushed into a corner when he realized that there would be a decision and in this he was creating a situation in which you could not go [for an attack],” adding: “You can’t go to the cabinet when the chief of staff says ‘excuse me, I told you no.’ ... so that was Ashkenazi’s way.”

While in 2009 and again in 2010, the reasons for not mounting an assault in Iran were, according to Barak, because the army was not ready, in 2011, the new IDF chief of staff, Benny Gantz, made it clear that the operational capability was there. This time, the reason the attack was not made, Barak said, was the prime minister’s inability to garner support from members of his party in the “forum of eight” to which the plan was pitched.

“A year later, it’s already Gantz. He says, the capability is there, you know all the limitations, all the things, all the risks. Bibi, I and Lieberman support the action and the readiness to go to the eight. If there’s no majority in the eight, there’s no legitimization to bring it to the cabinet,” Barak said.

A cabinet meeting on July 31, 2014. Sitting: Ministers Yuval Steinitz and Moshe Ya'alon. Standing: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF chief Benny Gantz.Credit: Moti Milrod

Ya’alon, who is now defense minister, and Steinitz, who is national infrastructure, energy and water minister, opposed the plan, Barak told his biographers. “The eight have all the people whose understanding of the matter is deeper, without reference to their role, including the two people who were opposed,” Barak said. Barak said Netanyahu was to have talked at length to each member of the forum of eight about their stance on the matter. With regard to Ya’alon and Steinitz, Barak said:  “and then at a certain point in the consultations between us, he said, 'they support it, it’s all right.'

“Then we called the eight together already, because in principle the capability is there we know, with all the risks we have the capability. We are coming there after Bibi tells us ‘Bogie [Ya’alon] and Steinitz are signing,’ he says to both of us, me and Lieberman.”

Barak then described what happened when the forum of eight ministers met, together with the top brass, and “then everybody gives their opinion, they give it, and they also say if they’re against it. In fact that’s what happened when the presentation was over of the matters themselves ... it’s not a simple matter, a walk in the park”.

Barak described Gantz presenting the complex details of the plan “with all the difficulties and the risks, including the possibility of losses”: “You see before your very eyes how both Bogie and Steinitz melt. You see the responses to the questions between us on their faces. Either Bibi didn’t prepare or he didn’t assess correctly... But it’s the same Bogie and Steinitz who today if you ask the public, are the most militant to attack Iran ...”

“If [Ya’alon and Steinitz] hadn’t changed their opinion, then a situation would have been corrected in which there would have been a majority of five or six out of the cabinet who think it’s possible to do it and then we might have called the cabinet itself to decide and then there would have been an operation,” Barak said

U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, left, with his Israeli counterpart Ehud Barak on a visit to an Iron Dome battery.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

With regard to the 2012 plan, which was rejected because of the American military exercise, Barak said: “We intended to carry it out, then I asked [then-U.S. Defense Secretary Leon] Panetta and I said ‘I am asking, we demand to move the exercise.’ Then they postponed it to the most distant date they could, that was relevant, that was a few days before the elections. ...You ask, you demand from America to respect your sovereignty and you make a decision that you want to do it, even if America is against it and against its interests. You can’t find yourself in the opposite direction when you are trying to force America to cooperate just when they’re here on an exercise that was known ahead of time. That’s how it got complicated in 2012.”

In a response, Steinitz’s office said: “The minister regards as very serious the revelation of a limited cabinet meeting and wonders how things of this kind pass the censor. In any case, Minister Steinitz keeps matters in closed meetings to himself, and does not intend to confirm or deny or relate to them.”

Ya’alon said: “We have no intention of relating to events in discussions in the forum of eight or the cabinet in general, and distorted and tendentious versions in particular.”

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