When the Cameras Roll, Israeli Leaders Are Only Too Happy to Talk About Iran

A TV report aired this week about the way Israel has contended with Iran's nuclear threat showed that when it suits their needs, the country's leaders have no problem going on the record about matters of national security.

A resounding journalistic achievement was scored by the season-opening program in Channel 2's documentary series "Uvda" ("Fact" ) this week. One after another, the country's leaders - past and present - stepped in front of the camera to speak with the program's anchor, Ilana Dayan, with stunning frankness about the debate that has torn apart Israel's top ranks in recent years: how to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat.

But many security personnel watching the program saw things differently. It wasn't the revelation of intelligence secrets that jolted them, but the astonishing ease with which the leaders allowed themselves to talk on camera, in great detail, about the dispute and operational aspects involved in eliminating Iran's nuclear project.

The same people who, for years, blocked Israeli media discussion about the 2007 attack on the Syrian nuclear facility, and restricted release of information about the internal debate over Iran - supposedly for security reasons - had suddenly changed their tune. Apparently, when political considerations change, security becomes less sacrosanct.

For the first time, it was possible to reconstruct openly what happened in a meeting held in fall 2010, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak wanted to ratchet up the military's deployment for a possible attack, but were stymied by a coalition of then-Mossad director Meir Dagan, then-Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon. Together with the impressively dramatic descriptions, Ilana Dayan also benefited from the military censors' newly adopted more liberal policy on the subject.

As far as can be judged from the outside, at least one person had a vested interest in the broadcast of the program: former prime minister Ehud Olmert. In the camp that is opposed to an early Israeli attack, both Dagan and Ashkenazi have a certain interest in the public airing of the debate. But it was Olmert who profited most from the presentation. He came across implicitly as bold where boldness was called for (Syria, the secret campaign against Iran ), and cautious where caution was called for (the idea of attacking Iran without prior coordination with the United States).

The timing of Monday's broadcast was critical for Olmert: just before his possible return to the political arena, and two days before the state prosecution's announcement that it intends to appeal Olmert's acquittal in two corruption cases and the sentence in another, in which he was found guilty. However, as in earlier affairs - the 2006 war in Lebanon, the attack in Syria attributed by foreign sources to Israel - Olmert again proved to be a total cynic when it comes to security revelations. In 2008, as an unpopular prime minister in search of a moment of television grace, he had no compunctions about allowing Channel 2 News cameras to document a meeting he held with Mossad chief Dagan. That ploy repeated itself, in an updated version, this week. Olmert's political rivals, Netanyahu and Barak, were dragged into the fray in his wake, going on TV in an attempt to reduce the damage they feared Olmert would inflict on them.

Netanyahu, by the way, was in top form. After getting entangled with both himself and uranium enrichment data in his UN General Assembly speech in September (which will be recalled for the illustration of an atomic bomb he displayed ), the prime minister was clear and sharp this time. Iran, he pledged, will not achieve nuclear-weapons capability by the end of his next term. (Both he and anchor Dayan apparently take his victory in January's election for granted. )

Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote in an op-ed column this week that Netanyahu's declaration makes the elections a referendum on one issue: bombing Iran. Benn has thought for some time that Netanyahu is painting himself into a corner in terms of an uncoordinated Israeli attack, and that repeated public assertions by leaders on critical strategic issues are self-fulfilling prophecies.

However, the opposite thesis can also be put forward. It is impossible to write off Netanyahu's deep ideological commitment to the removal of the Iranian threat and his inner conviction that he is the only Israeli leader capable of handling the problem. But Netanyahu, like Olmert, is first and foremost a politician who seeks re-election. He implicitly confirmed Dayan's report about the 2010 dispute. The Israeli and foreign media reported similar brink-of-decision events in the fall of 2011 and the summer of 2012. Still, in each case, Netanyahu decided not to attack.

Why? The logical explanation is that he is a politician. In the face of a broad coalition that opposed an attack - which included both U.S. President Barack Obama and the senior echelons of the IDF and the Mossad - a decision by Netanyahu to launch an attack (which would probably not have delayed the Iranian project significantly ) could have cost him heavily in electoral terms down the line.

After five or six successive "years of decision," 2013 is now also being touted as a critical year for Israeli and American decisions about Iran. But it's far from certain that there has been a meaningful change in the basic balance of forces arrayed for and against an attack. This means that an Israeli bombing operation against Iran next year is still far from a sure thing.

American interests

One unknown factor in the equation moved sharply into focus on Wednesday morning. Barack Obama will continue to lead the United States for the next four years. Olmert noted, rightly, that "Bibi [Netanyahu] doesn't have a friend in the White House." But Obama, in his cold, hardheaded, blatantly unsentimental way, nevertheless remains Israel's friend. The remarks made by Barak and President Shimon Peres about Obama's great contribution to Israel's security, backed up in September by a highly unusual statement from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, were dead-on.

Reports on Wednesday and Thursday that Jerusalem was concerned that Obama would take revenge on Netanyahu for his flagrant show of support for Mitt Romney seem a little far-fetched. There will certainly not be a beautiful friendship in the second term, and a presidential visit to Israel in the near future is probably not in the cards. However, on the big issues - Iran and the Palestinians - Obama will make his decisions according to American interests, not with the intent of taking revenge on Netanyahu.

For the same reasons, Obama could order an American attack on Iran next year, if a final attempt at diplomacy fails to persuade the Iranians to reach a compromise that curbs their nuclear project. Senior Israeli figures openly admit that the Americans could inflict vastly greater damage on Iran's nuclear facilities than anything the Israeli air force is capable of. For Iran to cross the threshold and become a nuclear power would constitute a colossal foreign-policy failure for the re-elected president.

If Obama is persuaded that such a development can be blocked by a surgical air strike, he may go that route. But he probably also remembers the parting words of Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense in two administrations (under George W. Bush and then under Obama ). After two wars in Muslim states (Afghanistan and Iraq ), Gates told Obama less than two years ago - according to The New York Times - that anyone who recommends getting the United States involved in a third war in the region "should have his head examined."

In the meantime, Iran is indeed shaping up as a key issue in the Israeli election agenda. Barak, who for three and a half years behaved out of character and was careful not to impugn Netanyahu's honor, is now making efforts to distinguish himself from the prime minister, in the hope of getting enough votes for his party to enter the Knesset. This is also apparent, implicitly, with regard to Iran. For example, speaking last week in Britain, Barak said Iran's decision to divert part of its enriched uranium to medical research was what set back the Israeli deadline for an attack by eight to 10 months.

Nevertheless, the main reason for the falling out between Barak and Netanyahu was the latter's suspicion that the defense minister was conducting independent talks with the U.S. administration when the tension between Obama and Netanyahu - over the prime minister's support for Romney - was at its height. It is not by chance that relations between the prime minister and defense minister worsened almost parallel to the forging of the renewed political union between Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The real dynamite

Barak's struggle for political survival may also have an impact on the new appointments in the top ranks of the IDF. On Tuesday, after lengthy delays, Barak interviewed the two major generals vying for the post of deputy chief of staff, Gadi Eizenkot and Avi Mizrahi. It's no secret that the chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, favors Eizenkot. Barak, who got into fierce disputes with the previous chief of staff, Ashkenazi, over senior appointments, will now find it difficult not to give Gantz what he wants on the flimsy grounds that Eizenkot was very slightly involved in the Harpaz document affair (referring to an attempt to influence the appointment of the chief of staff who was to succeed Ashkenazi ).

As for Harpaz, after countless postponements, the state comptroller's final report on the subject may yet be published next month, before the elections. The final judgment is already known: Barak comes in for more criticism than he did in the first draft, but most of the blame is attributed to the Ashkenazi camp.

But that is only half the story. In the past few months, the State Comptroller's Office received almost 10,000 pages of testimony and documents from the investigation that were formerly solely in the possession of Ashkenazi and his group. Until a gag order was imposed, last May, bits and pieces had been leaked from the documents that were damaging mainly to Barak.

This is where the real dynamite lies, as hinted this week by the chairman of the Knesset's State Control Committee, MK Uri Ariel (National Union ). The publication of the report (if it happens ) will also make possible the release of much material to the media, and will show what the security and military upper echelons were preoccupied with while the debate about bombing Iran raged.

Some of the material is likely to hurt the image of the former chief of staff. With Ashkenazi considered a potential electoral asset - despite the time limitation on entering politics that applies to him as a former senior army officer - it's a safe bet that many people will want that material to be made available to the public.