How Israelis Differ on Dealing with Iran
RUSI Analysis, 30 Mar 2012
By Goor Tsalalyachin, Visiting Research Fellow
With prospects of igniting a regional war, some leading lights in the Israeli security establishment suggest a more careful approach. Yet, Israel perceives Iran as a rational actor that is likely to change its course only if faced by clear threat of use of force and effective international pressure. Recent US leaks about possible Israeli operational planning only heighten Israeli concerns.
By Goor Tsalalyachin for RUSI.org
Israeli thinking on the Iranian nuclear problem is not monolithic. While there is an Israeli consensus on the severity and seriousness of the emerging nuclear threat from Iran, there is also an alternative policy recipe offered - challenging the tough talk heard from the Israeli Prime Minister. What follows is as a brief guide into the key features and drivers of current Israeli thinking on the complicated and urgent challenge Iran presents.
The recent and intense exchanges between the Israeli and US governments resulted in an agreed policy framework - leaving behind any Cold-War-like ideas of containment, and moving into a declared policy of prevention. 'Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment. I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon', President Obama said. His statement had come at a critical time, following news reporting and much postulation about a pre-emptive Israeli military strike already in the near future. Sensitive aspects, including such ones of an operational character, were openly speculated, ranging from the likely flight routes for Israeli fighter-jets, the anticipated enhancement of Israeli air refuelling capabilities and the type of ammunitions that either the American or the Israeli air force might use to strike Iran's nuclear facilities.
An important timeframe for a potential unilateral Israeli strike made public by none other than Leon Panetta, US Secretary of Defence, who in February 2012, was reported to have assessed that 'there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June - before Iran enters what Israelis described as a "zone of immunity" to commence building a nuclear bomb'.
Against this backdrop, President Obama criticised what he called 'too much loose talk of war', making an effort to both reassure Israel that it does have the US backing and that more time should be allowed for sanctions. But perhaps it was the British Prime Minister who subsequently articulated what the American President really means. Unconstrained by US domestic politics and grilling opposition, David Cameron said in public what Barak Obama maybe thinking in private. In a television interview to NBC news ahead of his US state visit, Mr Cameron said: 'I don't think as we stand today that military action by Israel would be justified.'
The accumulated impression of these news reports on possible war-scenarios, put together with the Israeli statements and the different Anglo-American signals to Israel and to Iran, led many to believe that an armed conflict might indeed be close. Hence the constant assessment (or 'guessesment') of what Israel is about to do now occupies many in international policy circles. Therefore, the recent Israeli statements as well as the rather unusual criticism heard by senior figures deserve greater attention and analysis. It may offer a real-time insight into the mind-set of the current Israeli leadership and its calculus of the threat(s) in connection to Iran and its proxies.
At the Top
Three prominent figures in the Israeli cabinet have taken the lead on the Iranian problem: the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak and the Minister for Strategic Affairs, Moshe Yaalon. Barak and Yaalon are both former esteemed army generals. Each of them headed in their time the Military Intelligence Division of the Israel Defense Force and they have assumed the supreme command as the IDF's Chief of Staff - positions that today afford them greater credibility and authority compared to other cabinet ministers.
Netanyahu, Barak and Yaalon seem to share a similar understanding of the Iranian nuclear problem, the same threat perception and there are no public sings to suggest that they do not share the same policy recipe for tackling the issue.
First, they underline the regional and international implications of the Iranian nuclear enterprise. Defence Minister Barak, as others, made an effort not to present the Iranian threat merely as an Israeli problem, but rather as an issue that has already caused great anxiety throughout the region and should alarm the international community. His rhetorical question to the New York Times encapsulates this message well: 'if a nuclear Iran covets and occupies some gulf state, who will liberate it?' he asked in an interview on January 2012. Barak's words echo the dismay conveyed directly by Arab leaders of the Persian Gulf to their US interlocutors long before Obama assumed power, and that has intensified ever since.
Therefore Israel - and indeed the Saudis and other Gulf countries can now register with satisfaction the recent public acknowledgment made by President Obama of the Iranian nuclear programme as an American problem: 'a nuclear-armed Iran is completely counter to Israel's security interests. But it is also counter to the national security interests of the United States.' His words were noted carefully in Jerusalem and beyond.
Second, the Israeli leadership is troubled by the boosting effect of the Iranian nuclear programme on Tehran's proxies. Speaking at the Knesset, Prime Minister Netanyahu warned of a 'nuclear umbrella' Iran would give to its known proxies, Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza strip and to Hizbullah in Lebanon. Defence Minister Barak made a similar warning, colourfully describing the impact an Iranian nuclear capability might have on the elevation of the conventional missiles threat via proxies, while reducing the Israeli operational ability to take defensive measures. 'Imagine if we enter another military confrontation with Hizbullah, which has over 50,000 rockets that threaten the whole area of Israel, including several thousand that can reach Tel Aviv', Barak reflected on an undesired future. 'A nuclear Iran announces that an attack on Hezbollah is tantamount to an attack on Iran. We would not necessarily give up on it, but it would definitely restrict our range of operations'.
These two references best summarise a critical Israeli concern, deriving from the potential enhancement of Hamas and Hizbullah's strength at the expense of Israeli deterrence against them. In other words, assured by Iranian nuclear backing, Hizbullah and Hamas might feel less susceptible to being hit and more confident about hitting Israel at their leisure, while the Israeli operational room for manoeuvre become far limited.
Interestingly, in spite of the heavy arsenal known to be found in Hizbullah and Hamas hands, Netanyahu recently said that he is aware of the threat these organisations pose to the Israeli home-front but asserted that 'Israel will respond overwhelmingly to any attack. I think there are some dramatic exaggerations as to what will happen here'.
No less disturbing is the familiar concern to do with the merging of terrorism and nuclear related materials.
The third component is the Israeli suspicion and mistrust of the ability of the international community to render a viable and timely solution. Three elements contribute to this deep sense of scepticism.
1) The failure of diplomacy to stop Iran's nuclear programme thus far. Sanctions were installed too late, too slow, and so far they have yet to halt Iran's nuclear project. Netanyahu himself expressed such frustration. Speaking at the AIPAC conference in Washington, he conveyed a sense urgency and alarm: 'Israel has waited patiently for the international community to resolve this issue. We've waited for diplomacy to work. We've waited for sanctions to work. None of us can afford to wait much longer'.
2) The attempt to establish a linkage between the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian nuclear programme. Such an idea has been suggested even by senior foreign politicians who identify themselves as friends of Israel yet Netanyahu's rejection of any linkage between the two issues remains absolute. From an Israeli perspective, such a linkage is perceived either as a misunderstanding of Middle Eastern geopolitics, or as an attempt to push Israel to make concessions not through direct negotiations with the Palestinians. In other words, the linkage is perceived either as clumsy political naiveté or, in some cases, a hostile approach - and in fact a counterproductive policy that will not contribute to any progress on the Palestinian issue, and surely not in connection to Iran. Netanyahu's response to the linkage has been sharp: 'there are those who used to believe, and perhaps they still believe today, that an agreement with the Palestinians is the solution. As if an agreement with Abu-Mazen will halt the centrifuges. Those who want to believe in it may do so, but it is like sticking the head in the sand', Netanyahu recently said at the Knesset.
3) A sceptical and suspicious view of the international community, complemented by an ethos of self-reliance. The Israeli psyche has always been affected by profound bitterness about international institutions, well cemented in history and in more recent events all together: from the tragic lessons of appeasement and the failure to save the Jews from the Nazi death camps during World War II, and beyond. This ethos of reliance on Israeli force to defend itself was put aside during the first Gulf War of 1991 - when Israel was firmly requested not to respond to the Iraqi missiles pounding Tel-Aviv in order not to spoil the US-led coalition fighting for the liberation of Kuwait. The result taught Israelis an important lesson in the form of 39 long-range Iraqi missiles exploding in Israel. The subsequent implications on Israel's deterrence posture are still remembered.
In contrast to the 1991 case, the successful Israeli air strike on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 (Operation Opera) is still considered as a successful instance of Israel's defending itself by itself against a critical and geographically remote threat, as well as of a daring Prime Minister, Menachem Begin, who resisted international criticism. And this is also the case recently cited by Netanyahu as an example of a leader who was guided by a sense of duty to defend the existence of the state, providing a quotation that is quintessential to an understanding of his worldview: 'It is our duty to be the masters of our fate. Israel has never submitted its fate to the hands of others, not even to the best of its friends. This is the highest obligation I have as the Prime Minister of Israel.'
The fourth and most important component is the Israeli leadership perception of Iran as a rational actor. Minister Yaalon and two of the most prominent figures of the Israeli defence establishment - the former head of Mossad and former IDF's Chief of Staff - share the same assessment of a rational Iranian regime. They perceive it as one that is concerned about its survival, susceptible to external pressure and willing to take action when placed under certain coercive conditions. Such pressure could be installed in the form of effective international sanctions backed by a reliable threat of military force. 'If it's conducted properly, then it may bring the Iranian regime before a dilemma: whether to continue its military nuclear programme and its subversion activity, or to survive. When the regime will be faced with this dilemma - it will be rational', Yaalon said at the Herzliya Conference, explaining this assertion by referring to Iran's response to the second Gulf War. 'Why do we assess it this way? Because in 2003 when it [Iran's regime] was faced with such a dilemma it took a decision to suspend the [nuclear] project for two years because it believed it may be attacked by the US and its allies.'
The same view was expressed by the former IDF's Chief of Staff, Lt. General (Ret.) Gabi Ashkenazi, who stated his preference for robust sanctions as a path to stop Iran's nuclear programme.
More recently, Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, offered a similar assessment. Asked in a rare television interview whether President Ahmadinejad is a rational actor, Dagan responded: 'the answer is yes. No doubt that the Iranian regime is maybe not exactly rational based on what I call Western-thinking, but no doubt they are considering all the implications of their actions [...] They will have to pay dearly and all the consequences for it. And I think the Iranians, in this point in time, are going very careful in the project. They are not running in it'.
Criticism and Alternative Views
Deep concerns about the 'loose talk of war' were reflected by a few senior Israelis, who challenged the tough language used by the government, thus sparking a heated public debate on issues usually discussed behind closed doors.
Let General (ret) Shaul Mofaz, after retiring from service as IDF Chief of Staff, he was appointed Minister of Defence. Mofaz, recently elected (28/3) as the leader of the Kadima party [forward in Hebrew], ousting the former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, is now the Leader of the Opposition. With his authority on matters of defence, yet with clear political incentive, Mofaz lashed at Netanyahu's tough talk: 'I think it's more than a spin. It's also meant to create an image that he is the defender of Israel', Mofaz accused in an interview. 'Every assessment body in the world will tell you that there is still more time. Iran is still not a nuclear state; it is on the verge of becoming one. The US is leading on the Iranian issue, and that is they way it should remain... This is not the time. A premature strike will be devastating. It will create great damage, and will have only limited results', he said to Israel's Channel 2 News.
Meir Dagan was appointed Head of Mossad by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2002. He led the intelligence service until January 2011, spending much of his time on a high priority-mission: preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Dagan advocated for Israel's five-pillar strategy towards Iran, in which, amongst other elements, tough sanctions play a key role. Dagan's insights are therefore particularly relevant, and there should be no wonder that the criticism he voiced sent shock waves through government and the Israeli public.
Since his retirement, Dagan has made several public appearances in which he has openly rejected any Israeli military strike, describing it as 'a stupid idea'. He warned that such action might not achieve its objectives and could lead to a long war. Dagan expressed concern about the ability to effectively destroy 'dozens of sites', and about the wider implications of an Israeli strike, which could potentially set off a large-scale armed conflict. 'We are going to ignite, at least from my point of view, a regional war. And wars, you know how they start. You never know how you are ending it'. Some suggested that the reason for Dagan's public criticism lies in personal grievances against Netanyahu, but Dagan himself strongly rejects it.
Lt General (ret) Gabi Ashkenazi handed over the command of the IDF in February 2011. Despite the extremely troubled relationship with his superior, Defence Minister Barak, a matter for thorough investigation by the State Comptroller, Ashkenazi has been much subtler in expressing his criticism in connection to the Iranian affair. As mentioned, Ashkenazi sees Iran as a rational actor that is likely to change its course if faced by tough sanctions. He further underlines the importance of tough sanctions combined with a credible military threat. 'When you look at the sanctions, there is a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality. The other issue is to continue to say, and to be ready, to make the Iranian believe that all the options are on the table', Ashkenazi said in September 2011.
Dr Uzi Arad, a senior Mossad veteran, headed the National Security Council, and until recently was a close loyal confidant of Netanyahu for many years. In 2011 Arad was forced to leave his senior position in dubious circumstances now being investigated, at his demand, by the State Comptroller. Arad too sent shock waves through the system, both in an extensive in-depth interview he gave to two of Israel's most senior journalists and in a revealing testimony before the Knesset's Committee for State Control. Arad heavily criticised the decision-making process in the Prime Minister's Office, including around the most sensitive aspects of Israel's national security. Arad criticised his former boss and friend for the very partial implementation of the National Security Council Act (2008), which had been designed to address the known pathologies of the Israeli decision-making processes. Despite being tainted by the clear personal grievances, the gravitas and undisputed authority of Arad himself and the seriousness of the charges he made, give rise to deeper concerns on the way Netanyahu is handling the Iranian issue - particularly whether and how does he indeed consider alternative policies.
Credible Threat, Credible Signals
The alternative views and the criticism of Netanyahu and his decision-making style still do not negate the consensus threat perception of the Iranian nuclear programme, nor does it change the Israeli consensus in the need to terminate it. The history of anti-Semitic statements and consistent Holocaust denial heard from Tehran, combined with its nuclear ambitions require no further interpretations for any Israeli.
The existential apocalyptic terminology used by Iran, along with the hesitancy and latent appeasement exhibited by key actors in the international community, forms the context in which Netanyahu tough talk and recent Holocaust references should be placed. For example, while responding to suggestions that 'a military confrontation with Iran would undermine the efforts already underway; that it would be ineffective; and that it would provoke an even more vindictive response by Iran' - Netanyahu made headlines with an example from 1944. The American Jewish Congress, Netanyahu told his AIPAC audience in Washington, sought to convince the US government to bomb the Nazi death camps in Auschwitz, but it was answered by the State Department with similar arguments that are made today against striking Iran's nuclear instillations. Although the differences between the historical example and the contemporary challenge are clear, the historical lesson is evident. In this spirit, upon his return to Jerusalem, Netanyahu continued to use harsh words. In a television interview to Israel's Channel 2 he said: 'if we fail to make right decision in time, to whom will we explain that? To historians? To the generations that will not come after us?! We must not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons.'
Although such rhetoric was distasteful to many Israelis, it nonetheless may be seen as a tool of signalling. Convinced of the sincerity of the Ayatollahs' sinister intentions to annihilate Israel, and deeply unimpressed by the slow and inefficient international response thus far, Netanyahu is signalling to all parties concerned how serious the threat is; and how Israel is ready to meet it forcefully. This may explain the line of thinking of the Israeli leadership that has to square several conflicting threat calculations. At the moment, it seems that Netanyahu judge the potential future existential threat as overweighting the current and serious threat posed by dozens of thousands of rockets and missiles fired by Hizbullah and Hamas.
Israel will not appreciate the public release and the timing of the latest report issued by the US Congressional Research Service, just a few weeks away from the resumption of the long waited tense negotiations with Iran. Israelis may judge it as perhaps unintentionally, yet still unnecessarily helpful to Iran more than it may be helpful to its original readership in Congress, as it may be perceived by Iran as offering somewhat authoritative reading into America-Israeli thinking, exposing possible weaknesses and capabilities (even though it relies on open sources only); strengthening a doubtful notion of the efficiency of a possible strike, thus potentially boosting Tehran's position in future negotiations and de-facto defeating the shared objective of stopping Iran.
More than the message of the Congress Research report, Israelis will be even less impressed by US diplomats and intelligence officers briefing the press on possible operational co-operation between Israel and Azerbaijan. 'Four senior diplomats and military intelligence officers say that the United States has concluded that Israel has recently been granted access to airbases on Iran's northern border', reported Mark Perry in Foreign Policy. Israel knows full well that the US government know how to keep a secret when it wants to. Thus, such a report is likely to be perceived by Israelis as an outstanding blunt attempt to damage their operational room to manoeuvre. This report, whether true or false, will not be helpful to build confidence, nor will it reassure Israelis that the Americans - to use President Obama's words - are 'not bluffing' about Iran. In certain constellations, it may very well simply reinforce the existing Israeli suspicious; building on the ethos of self-reliance, it may lead to unilateral measures rather than consultation and coordination with other key stakeholders and natural allies.
Perhaps now more than ever, Benjamin Netanyahu's Holocaust references should be considered carefully - regardless of whether they are liked or deplored. To some it might seem as no more than rhetoric. Nonetheless, it should also be seen as a clear reflection and indeed indication of the severity and totality in which the nuclear threat is perceived by Israeli leadership; therefore Netanyahu's repeated message - cumbersome as it may be - should be taken as a signal of Israeli deterrence vis-à-vis Iran, not as weeping of a defenceless country. It is also a signal to the international community to act now, or Israel will have to act by itself. It is yet another attempt to induce the leading powers to impose even more effective measures: robust, crippling sanctions backed by a reliable, visible and persuasive threat of military force. By so doing, Netanyahu, in fact, may be following the very same rationale as his toughest critics, home and away.
Goor Tsalalychin is Visiting Research Fellow for International Security & the Middle East at RUSI
 The White House, 'Remarks by the President at AIPAC Policy Conference', 4 March, 2012
 For example, see: Philip Rucker, 'Mitt Romney Says Iran Wwill Have a Nuclear Weapon" If Obama Reelected,' The Washington Post - Blogs, March 5, 2012.
 For examples, see: AMEMBASSY ABU DHABI, 'UAE - Scenesetter for Visit of Cjcs' (Wikileaks (November 2010) US Embassy Cables, February 9, 2010), Marked: SECRET//NOFORN. Classified by: Richard Olson, Ambassador; Embassy Abu Dhabi, "General Abizaid Talks Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince" (Wikileaks (November 2010) US Embassy Cables, January 31, 2007), Marked: SECRET. Classified By: Ambassador Michele Sison; RIYADH, "Xxxx ON IRANIAN THREATS" (Wikileaks (30 August 2011) US Embassy Cables, December 16, 2006), 06RIYADH9095, Marked: SECRET//NOFORN, Embassy Abu Dhabi, 'General Abizaid Talks Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince.'
 The White House, 'Remarks by the President at AIPAC Policy Conference.'
 'Knesset Debate Protocol of the 333rd Meeting of the 18th Assembly of the Knesset', March 14, 2012, c; Channel 2 News, Netanyahu at the Knesset: I Will Look After Fate as Begin Did in 1981' (Jerusalem, 2012),.
 'Knesset Debate Protocol of the 333rd Meeting of the 18th Assembly of the Knesset.'
 Ze'ev Schiff, 'Israel After the War', Foreign Affairs, Council on Foreign Relations (Vol. 70, No. 2,Spring 1991), pp.19-33.
 'Knesset Debate Protocol of the 333rd Meeting of the 18th Assembly of the Knesset', 14 March, 2012 [Hebrew]; also see: Israel's Channel 2 News. 'Netanyahu at the Knesset: I Will Look After Fate as Begin Did in 1981'. Jerusalem, 14 March 2012 [Hebrew]
 The Ticking Clock: Discussing and Containing Iran's Strategic Ambitious, The 12th Herzliya Conference (The Interdisciplinary Centre Herzliya, Israel, 2012).
 US Embassy Tel Aviv, "U/S BURNS' AUGUST 17 MEETING WITH ISRAELI MOSSAD" (Wikileaks (November 2010) US Embassy Cables, August 31, 2007), Marked SECRET, Classified By: Ambassador Richard H. Jones.
 Amos Harel and Gili Cohen, 'State Comptroller Report: Tough Criticism on Ashkenazi,' Haaretz, March 4, 2012,; Aviad Glickman, 'Draft Report on Harpaz Affair Criticizes Ashkenazi,' Ynet News, March 4, 2012.
 'Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Gabi Ashkenazi's Keynote Address at ICT's 11th International Conference: World Summit on Counter-Terrorism', 12 March, 2012 [Hebrew]
 Shimon Schifer and Nahum Barnea, 'The Arad Document', Yediot Ahronot (Exclusive, March 2, 2012), sec. Hamusaf LeShabat (the Saturday Supplemental).
 Chuck (Charles D.) Freilich 'National Security Decision-Making in Israel: Processes, Pathologies, and Strengths' Middle East Journal (Vol. 60, No. 4, Autumn 2006), pp. 635-663.
 'Timeline: Israel and Iran Statements', Reuters, March 29, 2010; 'The Hate Industry' (Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center at the Center for Special Studies (C.S.S), November 6, 2006).
 'Prime Minister Netanyahu's Speech at AIPAC Policy Conference, 2012: Transcription'. Prime Minister's Office 6 March, 2012.
 Interview with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by Yonit Levy and Danny Kushmaro, Channel 2 News, 12 March, 2012 [Hebrew]
 Daniel Estrin, 'Israelis Criticize PM's Iran-Holocaust Parallels,' Google News (Jerusalem, March 7, 2012); Also see response of the Leader of the Opposition, Tzipi Livni in: 'Knesset Debate Protocol of the 333rd Meeting of the 18th Assembly of the Knesset.'
Further Analysis: Israel, Middle East and North Africa, Iran