How Iran Strengthened Israeli Democracy

Netanyahu and Barak deserve a medal for their contribution to strengthening Israeli democracy: for the first time, a broad and noisy public debate is taking place over whether to go to war.

Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak deserve a medal for their contribution to strengthening Israeli democracy. For the first time a broad and noisy public debate is taking place over whether to go to war, with the encouragement and participation of the prime minister and the defense minister. When Israel does attack Iran it will not be a war of deception: The pros and cons have been discussed ad nauseam in the public arena. One can argue about the wisdom of Barak and Netanyahu's policy, but they did not act covertly. Their aggressive intentions were out in the open for all to see, from Tel Aviv to Tehran.

No such public debate took place before the Sinai Campaign of 1956, the first and second Lebanon wars (1982 and 2006 ) or the bombings of Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities in 1981 and 2007, respectively. When Israel launched wars of choice in the past the preparations were kept secret or the decision was taken in haste. The arguments took place behind closed doors, and the disagreements were made public only when the Israel Defense Forces reached the outskirts of Beirut (1982 ) or when the north was pounded by missiles for a number of weeks (2006 ).

Now we are seeing democracy at its best. Netanyahu and Barak are trying to persuade Israelis of the justness and the necessity of a war against Iran. The voices on the other side respond through every avenue of communication: the Knesset, the media, through petitions and protests outside the ministers' homes. The government organ Israel Hayom applauds the approaching war, while rival daily Yedioth Ahronoth emphasizes the arguments against it, U.S. pressure and deficiencies in Israel's civil preparedness. Jurists and intellectuals, threatening petitions to the High Court of Justice, seek to dictate to Netanyahu the forum in which the decision to go to war shall be made. Every trivial cabinet debate and momentary political deal is described as preparation for putting together "a majority for Iran."

This debate is not fed by conjecture alone. The operational plans are classified but the military establishment shares with the public its misgivings and the opposition of the chief of staff, the generals and the leaders of the intelligence community to attacking Iran in the absence of coordination with the United States. The IDF even disclosed its estimates as to the number of civilian casualties that could be expected in an Iranian counterattack and the amount of time by which an Israeli operation would set back Iran's nuclear program. The military censor stepped back, intervening only to retroactively protect Netanyahu's reputation, to conceal an event from his past in order to keep him from appearing irresponsible and prone to panicking.

This is the debate that democracy's proponents, from ancient Athens to today, dream about: a national decision made after a thorough public airing during which interested parties can have their say and attempt to persuade their audience. What more could one ask, especially under the current government, which is usually characterized as ultra-nationalist and anti-democratic.

But the disagreement over a war with Iran also bares the limitations of the public debate and the slightness of its influence on decision makers. Netanyahu and Barak hear their rivals and respond to the criticism by hardening their positions. The louder the voices of those who oppose military action the greater the resolve of the prime minister and the defense minister to strike the Iranians, and the more they paint themselves into a corner. How could they explain a decision against an attack after Netanyahu's talk of a "second Holocaust" and the well-argued interview given by "the decision maker" to my colleague Ari Shavit?

The preparations for attacking Iran set an important precedent of bringing the Israeli public into the critical decision of going to war, instead of presenting it with a destructive fait accompli. That is the right way to make decisions in a democracy. But "the wisdom of the crowd" does not by definition guarantee the quality of the decisions and it cannot substitute for the leader, who controls the agenda.

Netanyahu enjoys depicting his opponents as wimpy defeatists, traitors or ignorant, harmful "chatterboxes." That is what his "aides" did to President Shimon Peres when he raised doubts about the wisdom of the anticipated war. That is not just media manipulation, it is a political stratagem: The more the war's critics are painted as a gang of anarchists, heirs to the "Oslo criminals," the harder it will be for the security cabinet and the cabinet as a whole to vote against it. No Likud cabinet member wants to be seen as a partner of Amos Oz, or other outspoken leftists like political activist Eldad Yaniv and human rights lawyer Michael Sfard. Thus, paradoxically, the protest strengthens the prime minister's hand in the portentous cabinet vote.