Israel's Greatest Intelligence Challenge Is Netanyahu

As the U.S. warns Israel against striking Iran, no one knows precisely what the prime minister is thinking.

This week U.S. President Barack Obama told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in no uncertain diplomatic terms that he ought not dare to attack Iran.

The goal, said Obama, is to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. Lest there be any doubt, Obama promised once again to consider every possible mode of action - including military action. "But," said Obama, "a peaceful resolution of this issue is still possible, and far better."

The Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy - AFP - 29012012

In his annual State of the Union address, Obama made it clear that the situation depends more on economics than it does on defense. Iran can wait. He wrapped himself in a flag embroidered with the names of the naval commandos who participated in the mission to kill Osama bin Laden, and he received a souvenir from them. (Their commander, Adm. William McRaven of the U.S. Special Operations Command, was a guest of honor on the balcony of the House of Representatives. ) Obama stressed how proud he is of a parsimonious strategy that will save the country nearly $500 billion. His target audience, Obama's spokesmen explained, is "the middle class and those who are aspiring to enter it."

The middle class, not the Middle East.

The top brass of the U.S. military was in the chamber, headed by Gen. Martin Dempsey, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Dempsey was back in Washington after a very brief visit to Israel, which was also intended to transmit a restraining, two-stage message: Don't attack - and we'll see to it you won't be threatened by another Holocaust. The second part of that message was inscribed in the Yad Vashem guest book and made public by Dempsey. It is evident that someone has analyzed Netanyahu's transcripts and discovered in them a vow to prevent a second Holocaust.

As for the first part of the message, Dempsey was sent to meet with Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz for a professional military discussion. Protocol obligated Dempsey to meet with Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Defense Minister Ehud Bark as well, but the main target of his mission was Gantz, who is known to Americans from his stint as the military attache in Washington, and who is considered a balanced and moderating factor in the Israeli system.

Israel has never initiated a war or bombed a nuclear installation in a Muslim country without the agreement of the trinity that is the prime minister, defense minister and chief of staff. Netanyahu and Barak, who didn't want Gantz in the first place and who preferred Yoav Galant, need the support of the chief of staff in the greatest adventure of all. It is clear to the Americans that the Netanyahu-Barak duo, which three years ago established the current government in order to wing it over to Tehran, is a lost case. The effort, therefore, is focusing on the military link.

Tolerating the bomb

No American leader wants an Iranian atom bomb. But Iranian nuclear weaponry, should it suddenly appear, is not a matter of life or death for the Americans. In Israel, too - despite broad agreement that it is essential to prevent an Iranian atom bomb, even if it means using military power - there is also the glimmer of a subversive opinion: It would be bad, for all the obvious reasons, if Iran had the bomb, but it would not be intolerable. It would be possible to live with Iranian nuclear weapons and effectively ignore them, just as Iran and its surrogates believe that Israel has nuclear weapons but effectively are fighting it as though that isn't the case.

The Netanyahu-Obama relationship is so cold that one tends to discount a permanent factor in the prime minister's considerations in Jerusalem - the fear of the White House's response. An action that goes against the will of a president who is campaigning for a second term in office, especially on the eve of elections, is liable to exact revenge on the person who decides to take that action. But Netanyahu has nothing to lose: Obama in his second term will exact payment from him in any case. He will insist on a diplomatic agreement contrary to the line Netanyahu has been taking in the Palestinian arena, and possibly in the Syrian arena as well.

Ever since he took to the public stage in 1979, when he founded the Jonathan Institute, Netanyahu has been a frustrated pro-Republican. He had hoped to watch the fall of Jimmy Carter and predicted that his successor would be George H. W. Bush. (His father, Benzion Netanyahu, picked Ronald Reagan. ) Netanyahu spent all his years as a representative of Israel in Washington (as an attache at the embassy ) and in New York (as ambassador to the United Nations ) under the Reagan-Bush administrations. But as prime minister he has had to work vis-a-vis Democratic presidents - Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama now.

If Obama loses the election, Netanyahu's dream will come true. Therefore it is likely that Netanyahu will do all he can to interfere with Obama defeating his Republican rival, Newt Gingrich. This is a gamble within a gamble - the Democrats versus the Republicans and the rivalries within the Republican Party. Gingrich is the joint rival of Obama and Mitt Romney, Netanyahu is a friend of Gingrich, and billionaire Sheldon Adelson is the patron of both.

If in January 2013 Gingrich is president and Netanyahu is prime minister, Adelson will no longer be called "the richest Jew in the world," but rather will bear the title of "the strongest man in the world."

The Knesset elections also enter into this equation. If they are brought forward, borne on the shockwaves of the indictment that Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein might file against Foreign Minster Avigdor Lieberman next month, Netanyahu is liable not to resist the temptation to take advantage of the timing of the elections in order to attack Iran.

This is, after all, what Prime Minister and Defense Minister Menachem Begin did (with the support of Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan ) in June of 1981. Begin obtained from the outgoing government the majority needed to attack the Iraqi reactor and, contrary to a prior agreement, hastened to tie Israel to the mission.

Ostensibly, it is possible to cite an opposite example in Operation Grapes of Wrath, on which the Israel Defense Forces embarked with the approval of Prime Minister and Defense Minister Shimon Peres and the support of Chief of Staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak on the eve of the elections in 1996.

In the first case, the operation helped the prime minister, who defeated the leader of the opposition (Peres ) in the elections. In the second, the prime minister lost to the leader of the opposition (Netanyahu ). And perhaps there isn't any contradiction here: In both cases, the right won.

Breaking a siege

Since Netanyahu wants to bomb Iran, and the means are even more important to him than the end, he uses limp language to support the increase of diplomatic and economic pressure on the regime in Tehran. If sanctions oppress the Iranians to such an extent that they give up nuclear weapons, the glory will go to Obama, who succeeded in harnessing Europe and important parts of Asia, and not to the belligerent Netanyahu.

The sanctions have indeed undermined the Iranian currency, the rial, and the Iranian public's faith in its leadership - but there's a sting: "Pearl Harbor," in the words of a senior Military Intelligence officer last week.

While the Fifth Fleet of the U.S. Navy is operating in the Straits of Hormuz, just as the Pacific Fleet was anchored at its home base near Honolulu on the fateful morning of December 7, 1941, the two instances are not really comparable.

In a situation of such high alert, it is doubtful whether it would be possible to create an intelligence surprise and to strike a painful blow with no warning. In fact, there exists another similarity between the two examples. Seven decades ago, Japan, an aggressive regional power, found itself in increasing economic distress. It had an oil embargo imposed on it (for purchasing, not for selling, as in the case of Iran ) and it was threatened with strangulation in its zone of influence. It knew - and there were those among its civilian and military leaders who warned of this - that the Americans were much stronger. Nevertheless, while conducting diplomatic talks with Washington, which was demanding that it relinquish achievements it had accumulated during the previous decade, it decided to break through the blockade with a crushing operation.

If it turns out that the sanctions do have an effect on Iran but that the Iranians still do not turn back the wheel of the nuclear infrastructure they have built up over the years, they are capable of attacking. They will rely on the assumption - for the Japanese it was an illusion - that a crisis in the Gulf with Saudi Arabia or one of its neighbors will create an excuse and a convenient environment for a new formula. Such a crisis would force Obama to decide whether he is going to act, or react, only against the focuses of the threat or to expand the battle against the atomic bomb as well.

The supreme calculation is the political-economic calculation. No one is pretending to know whether Tehran will follow Tokyo's example in the case of Pearl Harbor.

The head of the Research Division at Military Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Itai Baron, tends to stress the difference between a "secret" and a "mystery." Where this or that object is concealed in Iran's nuclear infrastructure is a secret that one can try to uncover with effective and sophisticated intelligence. This is not the case with respect to the Iranian decision, which hasn't yet been made by the trinity of religious forces (Ayatollah Ali Khamanei ), civilian forces (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who irritates the clerics' over-regime ) and security forces (the Revolutionary Guard ) about whether to break the siege and aim quickly for the production of nuclear weapons or to launch shore-to-sea missiles against the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Gulf.

This is a mystery, the solution to which cannot be found via satellite, agent or electronic eavesdropping, because Khamenei himself has not yet solved it. It is only possible to prepare for its possible solutions.

Despite the importance of top officials such as the head of the Mossad and the commander of the air force, the most crucial recommendation, for or against, belongs to the chief of staff. The most authoritative intelligence assessment is that of Military Intelligence headed by Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and within MI, that of Brig. Gen. Baron, representing his officers in the Research Division. Iran is the weightiest issue on their desk, but they are equally engaged with the intra-Arab arena (for the first time after years of relating to each of the countries separately ), Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Turkey. The Arab public - an elusive and hard-to-predict element, as opposed to the government and defense systems characterized by a clear structure and chain of command - is an important target.

The greatest intelligence challenge facing the General Staff and Military Intelligence is not in the area of electronic intelligence or human sources, but rather getting to the bottom of what Netanyahu is thinking. This is especially difficult because Netanyahu sees himself as the greatest expert on America and will not easily take into account the assessments of officers, even if they are authorized to serve as the national assessors.