The ambitions of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, as harboured by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak, have been defeated by internal opposition, a growing number of observers have come to believe in the wake of dramatic opposing statements by prominent Israeli leaders, including President Shimon Peres.
The picture emerging is one of the prime and defence ministers’ isolation in advocating for unilateral Israeli action. It has been known for some time that the chief of staff of the Israel Defence Forces (IDF), Benny Gantz, and Tamir Pardo, the head of the Mossad, or the Israeli intelligence agency, both oppose a strike on Iran.
This knowledge in itself is unusual. While such sentiments can be leaked, both Gantz and Pardo have been clear in media interviews that they do not share Netanyahu and Barak’s assessments regarding the immediacy of the Iranian threat or the utility of a military strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities. It is worth noting that both Gantz and Pardo were appointed by the current government.
Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea, writing in the daily Yediot Ahoronoth on Aug. 10, listed not only Gantz and Pardo among current military leaders opposing an Israeli attack on Iran, but also Air Force chief Amir Eshel, Military Intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi and General Security Services (Shin Bet) director Yoram Cohen, in what amounts to a consensus among Israel’s top defence and intelligence leaders.
But it was statements by Peres and by the former IDF Director of Military Intelligence General Uri Saguy that exposed the extent of Netanyahu and Barak’s isolation and criticised Israeli’s leaders on points rarely raised in public.
Peres told Israel’s Channel 2: “It is now clear to us that we cannot go it alone. We can forestall (Iran’s nuclear progress); therefore it’s clear to us that we have to work together with…America.”
“Iran is a global threat, to the U.S. and Israel alike,” he said, adding that he was convinced that the U.S. would take action when necessary.
Peres’s statements were widely interpreted as criticism of Netanyahu’s and Barak’s ongoing attempts to pressure President Obama to attack Iran and the perception that Netanyahu was working to unseat Obama in favour of Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who is on much friendlier terms with Netanyahu.
There was also a widespread belief that Peres was warning that the tactics Netanyahu and Barak were employing with the U.S. threaten to harm the “special relationship” between the two countries.
While Israelis value their freedom to act on their own, they also recognise the need for U.S. support, as the United States is the only major power that has consistently supported controversial Israeli policies and actions. The idea that the Israeli government may be directly interfering with U.S. politics is an extremely unpopular one in Israel.
For his part, General Saguy cast doubt on the ability of Netanyahu and Barak to lead the country under dire circumstances. A reporter who interviewed Saguy for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz described his views of both.
“Saguy does not trust (Netanyahu) because he has not seen him make…one single important decision. He does not trust Barak because he’s seen the results of many important decisions the minister has made, as chief of staff, prime minister and defence minister,” the reporter wrote.
This view from a highly respected Israeli military leader seriously undermines the credibility of Israel’s two leading decision-makers with regard to military action. Combined with the military and intelligence consensus, the public statements suggest the possibility of an open revolt against the current leadership if Barak and Netanyahu try to move forward with an attack on Iran.
Netanyahu, however, sharply criticised Peres for “overstepping” his role as president, a largely ceremonial office in Israel. That sharp retort, as well as Netanyahu’s continued campaign among important Israeli party leaders, such as Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual head of the Shas party, could indicate that he has not yet given up on finding a way to attack Iran.
It is widely believed that at least part of the Israeli strategy in beating the war drums on Iran is to pressure the Obama administration into acting against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Netanyahu surely fears that if Israel is no longer believed to be seriously considering a unilateral strike, the urgency in Washington, already far less than he would like it to be, will diminish considerably.
Challenges for Obama
Obama’s position on Iran has been remarkably consistent: pursue sanctions and diplomatic engagement in the hope that Iran will agree to the monitoring of its nuclear program to ensure that weapons are not being developed. Obama has also pledged that all options, including a military one, remain open to prevent Iran from obtaining such a weapon.
An Israeli strike could put Obama in a very difficult position: he could either risk staying out of a conflict not of his making, which would surely set Israel’s supporters in the United States ablaze in opposition to him, or he could support, either directly or indirectly, the Israeli war effort, which would make it easy to cast him to blame when oil prices skyrocket as a result.
With the Israeli threat diminished, at least for the moment, Obama can continue to pursue his approach to Iran with a reasonable level of confidence that this will not hurt his chances of re-election in November. That surely does not please Netanyahu, but unless the situation changes in Israel, he will find it very difficult to raise this issue again before the election.