Analysis

Barak, Bibi and Obama's Bunker Buster Option

The former defense minister sent the press scrambling for clues after saying vaguely that Netanyahu left Israel with 'an extremely troubling vulnerability to a key security challenge.' A hint as to what that might have been can be found in Dennis Ross' last book.

A B-52 releases a test version of the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) during a test of the weapon over White Sands Missile Range, N.M. in 2009.
U.S. Department of Defense

It’s been two months since former Prime Minister Ehud Barak threw a bombshell by giving a speech accusing Benjamin Netanyahu of damaging national security via his poor relationship with U.S. President Barack Obama. As bilateral negotiations over a new American military aid package to Israel were drawing to a close, Barak said the prime minister had left Israel with “an extremely troubling vulnerability to a key security challenge” because of his “operative conduct that wasn’t carefully thought through.”

Barak’s hints galvanized the media and members of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who demanded to know what Barak, also a former defense minister, meant. The media (including this paper) published guesses ranging from Israel’s growing closeness to Russia to the rate it’s acquiring Iron Dome missile defense systems. But an effort to summon Barak to a subcommittee of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee failed, and Barak made no great effort to explain himself.

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About a month later, after the military aid deal was signed, Barak dropped another hint. Obama, he told Channel 2 television, was willing to offer Israel an aid package worth $4.5 billion a year (rather than the $3.8 billion ultimately agreed on). Together with Israel, it would determine the conditions under which sanctions would be reinstated on Iran despite the nuclear agreement Obama had signed with it. And it would “in an extreme case,” even “supply Israel with the means through which, if both countries agreed that Iran had indeed violated the nuclear agreement, Israel would also have the technical ability to act independently.”

But all this, Barak said, was taken off the table because Netanyahu insisted on continuing to fight the nuclear agreement in the months after it was signed in July 2015.

Barak’s claims receive some support from a book published in October 2015 by a former senior official in the Obama administration, Dennis Ross. “The proof that Israel could have received something significant to bolster deterrence – had it not fought the deal – came when President Obama called me in August and said he would be open to providing the Israelis the Massive Ordnance Penetrator,” Ross wrote.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak - AFP - November 14, 2012.
AFP

The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is better known as the bunker buster, a 14-ton precision bomb that can penetrate well-protected facilities deep underground like some of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

But by September, Ross said, “when the administration had the necessary votes, that opening was gone.”

In other words, according to Ross, when Obama wanted Netanyahu to stop lobbying Congress against the nuclear deal, the bombs Israel had sought for years were on the table. But when Netanyahu continued to work against Obama on Capitol Hill, and Obama realized that the agreement would pass despite Israel’s efforts to thwart it, this offer was scrapped.

Israel doesn't currently possess aircraft able to carry the heavy bombs. Even so, experts in Washington have raised the possibility of arming Israel with the ordnance on a number of occasions this year. Ross doesn't elaborate how he offered to get around this complication.