Attack on Iran: no check or balance in Netanyahu’s decision-making
For a previous post on Israel’s decision-making procedures on military attacks: Attack on flotilla unleashed by ignoring all formal procedures
A leading Israeli defense reporter writes that Barak and Netanyahu have decided to attack Iran before November, and only IDF chief Benny Gantz can stop them. I say even he can’t.
Larry Derfner, +972
July 9 2012
Channel 10 defense reporter Alon Ben David, who’s been covering the Israeli security establishment for about 20 years and is as plugged in up there as anyone alive, writes in Haaretz today that the only person who can stop an Israeli attack on Iran before the November 6 presidential election is IDF chief Benny Gantz. This is an extremely newsworthy op-ed because Ben David is not a pundit, he’s a top-drawer reporter (also writing for the “Bible” of military affairs, Jane’s Defence Weekly) and he’s saying Netanyahu and Barak have made the decision to strike between August and October. He also says the cabinet – a majority of which supports an attack, and no surprise there – ”will only be convened right before the strike to prevent leaks.” Interestingly, the key leaker whom Netanyahu and Barak want to keep in the dark about the exact time of the attack is Shimon Peres, who, Ben David writes, might go so far as to alert the White House to try to stop it.
The chief of the Mossad, head of military intelligence and commander of the Air Force all oppose a war, according to Ben David – and so does Gantz, at least for now. ”The State of Israel cannot go to war without the support of the chief of staff,” Ben David notes, so it’s going to be up to Gantz to face down the entire political leadership. He would be speaking on behalf of the security establishment, which opposes an attack.
Much of what Ben David has to say about Gantz is encouraging. First of all, he’s not gung ho.
Gantz is familiar with the widespread assessment that an attack will not only not scuttle the Iranian bomb project, it is liable to intensify the pace of its development. Israel will be dragged into a painful war, which will not defeat it but will paralyze it and deliver a critical blow to the home front, after which Israeli society may be irrevocably changed. It will be a war that is liable to lead many Israelis to reconsider their future in this place.
Also, in line with Gantz’s hesitancy about a war, Ben David says he has an “accurate moral compass.” All very good to hear. On the worrisome side, though, he “so dislikes personal confrontations.” Barak, who is Gantz’s direct boss, lives for them. There’s another problem – Gantz was not Barak and Netanyahu’s first choice for IDF chief; their first choice, Yoav Galant, who lost the appointment over his tricky land dealings, was said to be in favor of a war.
Ben David writes that the military/intelligence brass are “walking around like they’re carrying a heavy burden” – they don’t want to do it. With few exceptions like Galant and Amos Yadlin, director of Israel’s leading security think tank, the retired military/intelligence types are against it, too. So is a majority of the Israeli public (though a majority, like most of the military/intelligence establishment, would like the U.S., with it’s far superior capabily, to do the job instead).
It’s only the politicians who are eager to strike. A huge problem is that that the politicians include three former IDF chiefs (Barak, Shaul Mofaz and Moshe Ya’alon) as well as other ex-generals and master spies.
Ben David says that in the end, it will all come down to Gantz. If he agrees with Netanyahu, Barak and the cabinet majority, Israel will attack; if he doesn’t, Israel won’t.
I happen to disagree with Ben David, and I’m speaking strictly out of my own reading of things. Finally, the army takes orders from the elected political leadership. If the IDF chief of staff tells the prime minister and defense minister he’s against a war, that Israel cannot do enough damage to Iran’s nuclear facilities to make the consequences worth suffering, I’m sure Netanyahu and Barak will listen politely – and then tell the cabinet it’s time to vote, the vote will be for war, and Gantz and the army brass will have no choice but to launch it. Unless, of course, they resign on the spot, which is not the sort of thing these career military men would ever dream of doing. They may voice their disagreements, but in the end they will follow orders – and as Ben David reports, the people who give the orders, the political leaders, are down for war. Sometime before November 6.
Unfortunately, Netanyahu, Barak and the people they frighten into obedience, which is a lot of people, hate to hear dissent, especially on a matter as colossal and fraught as this. Anybody who speaks out, like ex-Mossad chief Meir Dagan, like ex-Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, like Netanyahu’s long-time chief aide Uzi Arad, is discredited and turned into an outsider. With the political leadership set on war, Gantz, as head of the military, will make it his business to remain an insider. He may stick to his current opinion and even say it out loud, but he will also make it absolutely clear that if those who give the orders want to attack, he will be a 100% loyal soldier and lead the IDF toward its objective with everything he’s got.
“All the weight of this decision has been placed on the narrow shoulders of a single army officer,” Ben David concludes. I’m afraid this is much, much too big for any one officer, even the IDF chief, to stop.
Jim Zanotti, Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Kenneth Katzman Specialist in Middle Eastern Affairs, Jeremiah Gertler Specialist in Military Aviation, Steven A. Hildreth Specialist in Missile Defense, Congressional Research Service
March 27, 2012
Decision-makers: Views and Interactions
According to one report, the issue of a possible Israeli strike on Iran has “sparked fierce public debate in Israel among political and military leaders, past and present, dividing cabinet ministers, generals and Mossad chiefs. Most see military action as a last resort to be contemplated only if sanctions and diplomacy fail; others insist that bombing Iran could actually stabilize the Middle East by setting back the radical cause indefinitely.”
A 2011 RAND Corporation report cited a former Israeli official as saying that “the majority of ministers currently in power (including Prime Minister Netanyahu) would support military action to avoid Iran’s acquiring a bomb under their watch.” However, an Israeli journalist known for covering intelligence issues wrote In February 2012 that “as [former Mossad chief Meir] Dagan, the majority of Israeli Cabinet ministers, the CIA, and others have made clear, there is no need to strike in the near future since there is still time before Iran produces its first bomb.”
In a January 2012 interview, Defense Minister Barak indicated that there were “three categories of questions, which he characterized as ‘Israel’s ability to act,’ ‘international legitimacy’ and ‘necessity,’ all of which require affirmative responses before a decision is made to attack:”
1. Does Israel have the ability to cause severe damage to Iran’s nuclear sites and bring about a major delay in the Iranian nuclear project? And can the military and the Israeli people withstand the inevitable counterattack?
2. Does Israel have overt or tacit support, particularly from America, for carrying out an attack?
3. Have all other possibilities for the containment of Iran’s nuclear threat been exhausted, bringing Israel to the point of last resort? If so, is this the last opportunity for an attack?
Whether Israel’s leaders believe the answer is “yes” or “no” to each of these three questions is a subject of debate among U.S. and Israeli analysts. A January 2012 New York Times article stated that “conversations with eight current and recent top Israeli security officials suggested several things: since Israel has been demanding the new sanctions, including an oil embargo and seizure of Iran’s Central Bank assets, it will give the sanctions some months to work; the sanctions are viewed here as probably insufficient; a military attack remains a very real option; and [post-attack] situations are considered less perilous than one in which Iran has nuclear weapons.”
In Israeli policymakers’ evaluation of post-attack situations, however, one Israeli analyst asserted in February 2012 that they are so focused on the “immediate military implications” that they “are ignoring several of the potential longer-term aspects of a strike: the preparedness of Israel’s home front; the contours of an Israeli exit strategy; the impact on U.S.-Israel relations; the global diplomatic fallout; the stability of world energy markets; and the outcome within Iran itself. Should Israel fail to openly debate and account for these factors in advance of an attack, it may end up with a strategic debacle, even if it achieves its narrow military goals.”
Israeli sources indicate that top leaders are divided on the issue. One journalist asserted in February that Netanyahu’s and Barak’s apparent support for an attack in the near future is countered by many cabinet ministers and security establishment officials who supposedly share former Mossad chief Dagan’s perspective “against a strike and in favor of sanctions and covert operations.” That view is based at least partly on doubts about Israel’s military capability to set back Iran’s nuclear program three to five years.66 According to a November 2011 article by another Israeli journalist:
Benny Begin and Moshe Yaalon, two of the most hardline right-wing ministers in the “Octet Forum,” the Israeli Cabinet’s main decision-making body, are currently opposed to an attack because they believe a military strike will cause a massive backlash from Iran and its proxies and should only be a very last resort.
According to the same article, “Netanyahu’s decision to replace Dagan [in early 2011]—coupledwith Barak’s insistence on removing popular army chief [Gabi] Ashkenazi in February —was seen by many as an intentional strategy to remove opponents of a military strike on Iran from positions of influence.” In June 2011, the New York Times quoted Dagan as saying, “I decided to speak out because when I was in office, [former Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) director Yuval] Diskin, Ashkenazi and I could block any dangerous adventure. Now I am afraid that there is no one to stop Bibi [Netanyahu] and Barak.” Despite changeovers in top Israeli security positions, an Israeli military correspondent was quoted as claiming in February 2012 that the current Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, is considered a leader of a school of thought within the security establishment that reportedly has not concluded that the time has come for military action. One report cited a former senior Israeli official as saying that the defense establishment “was not enthusiastic about an attack. It hoped that sanctions and diplomacy would work and that if military action were needed it would come from the United States.”
It is unclear how influential security officials’ views would be in a decision on a strike. When an interviewer told Barak in January 2012 about top-ranking military personnel who argue that a military strike is either unnecessary or would be ineffective, Barak said, “It’s good to have diversity in thinking and for people to voice their opinions. But at the end of the day, when the military command looks up, it sees us—the minister of defense and the prime minister. When we look up, we see nothing but the sky above us.”72 In mid March 2012, one report quoted an Israeli journalist as writing that a slight majority of Israel’s security cabinet supports a strike:
According to the most recent assessments, at this point eight ministers tend to support Netanyahu and Barak’s position, while six object to it. It should be noted that the security cabinet has yet to hold a decisive meeting on the issue and the assessments are based on secret talks being held between the prime minister and his ministers, one at a time.
Another mid March Israeli report claimed that “if Netanyahu and Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, decide to attack, they’ll be able to pass a decision through the cabinet without significant difficulty. With the exception of ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor, a tenacious objection against an Israeli strike on Iran is not expected.”
Some Israeli analysts question whether Netanyahu is likely to launch a strike against Iran. He has not ordered a major military offensive during either of his stints as Israel’s prime minister (1996-1999 and 2009-present), possibly owing in part to what some analysts have observed to be a generally cautious approach to decision-making. In his meeting with President Obama at the White House on March 5, 2012, Netanyahu reportedly confirmed that no decision had been made to that point.
Yet, speaking at the annual American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington, DC on March 5, 2012, Netanyahu said:
We’ve waited for diplomacy to work. We’ve waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer. As Prime Minister of Israel, I will never let my people live under the shadow of annihilation. Some commentators would have you believe that stopping Iran from getting the bomb is more dangerous than letting Iran have the bomb. They say that a military confrontation with Iran would undermine the efforts already underway, that it would be ineffective, and that it would provoke even more vindictive action by Iran.
Netanyahu then referred to correspondence in 1944 between the World Jewish Congress and the U.S. government that apparently indicated U.S. unwillingness to bomb Auschwitz because of the “doubtful efficacy” of the operation and the possibility of “even more vindictive action by the Germans.” In response to Netanyahu’s speech, the editor-in-chief of Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper wrote:
The Holocaust talk has but one meaning—forcing Israel to go to war and strike the
Iranians…. No amount of missiles falling on Tel Aviv, rising oil prices and economic crises matter when compared to genocide…. Enough loopholes can be detected that would allow Netanyahu to escape an imminent decision to go to war…. Nevertheless, Netanyahu took on a public obligation on Monday that would make it very hard for him to back away from the path of war with Iran.
In early March 2012 interviews on Israeli television following his Washington, DC trip, Netanyahu reportedly said, “This is not a matter of days or weeks. It is also not a matter of years. The result has to be that the threat of a nuclear weapon in Iran’s hands is removed…. If you don’t make the decision, and you don’t succeed in preventing it, who will you explain that [to]? To historians? To the generations that were here before us? To the generations that won’t come after us? It is forbidden to let the Iranians get nuclear arms. And I intend not to allow that to happen.”
Public Opinion and Debate in Israel
A U.S.-based Israeli analyst has noted that domestic Israeli political factors might militate against Netanyahu undertaking the risks a strike would entail—including his coalition’s apparently strong prospects for reelection in 2012 or 2013, and a reported lack of pressure for military action on Iran from the public or from coalition partners seen as having generally hawkish views. Public opinion polls conducted in February and March 2012 indicated reluctance by a large majority of Israelis to propose an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities in the absence of U.S. support. Assuming an Israeli attack without U.S. cooperation, a late February poll conducted by Israel’s Dahaf Institute indicated that Israelis would oppose a strike by a 63%-31% margin. A majority, however, would apparently support an attack with U.S. cooperation by a 62%-34% margin. An Israeli political science professor involved in the polling process reportedly explained the Israeli views as follows:
They are not challenging the right to [attack], [they are] challenging the ability to do it effectively and with international support. People don’t want Israel to become the troublemaker of the world.
A poll taken by Israel’s Dialog polling institute in early March indicated only 26% support for an independent Israeli strike.
A public debate in which Israeli officials and non-government analysts might engage appears to be a controversial subject in its own right. According to one report, “No issue in Israel is more fraught than the debate over the wisdom and feasibility of a strike on Iran…. Security officials are increasingly kept from journalists or barred from discussing Iran. Much of the public talk is as much message delivery as actual policy.”
In a November 2011 Dialog poll, Israelis indicated by a 51%-39% margin that they oppose public discussion of a possible attack because it could “cause damage.”
Some Israeli commentators have voiced concern that the public is resigned to the possibility of war with Iran, based on a tradition of deference to national leaders. According to one commentator,
The impression is that the majority of Israelis are not afraid…. The decision is left up to a handful of people who have decided that the public, as usual, trusts them blindly, obediently.
The March 2012 Dialog poll indicated that by a 50%-38% margin Israelis trust Netanyahu and Barak on the Iran issue.
Two January 2012 articles co-authored by three Israeli analysts (including two former officials) argued that “a public discussion will assist those officials who are authorized to make informed decisions on this issue.” Both articles acknowledged the limitations of such a discussion given the apparent centrality to decision-makers’ considerations of classified information on Iran’s nuclear program and on the operational capacity of Israel’s air force. Yet, they still argued for a debate to proceed:
Instead, the public debate must focus on the strategic dimensions of the issue—a realm in which civilian strategists have much to contribute. Indeed, airing these dimensions is an absolute imperative. Without it we are condemned to repeat the mistakes of the past or to commit worse ones. More important, without such airing we are doomed to step mindlessly closer and closer to a military confrontation with Iran or, possibly just as dangerous, to accept and accommodate its nuclear ambitions and designs.