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Gulf Crisis Weekly
2 May 2012

Divisions in Israel over Iran strike

Milan Rai, Justice Not Vengeance

The end of April saw a flurry of stories about divisions within the Israeli security establishment over the government’s attempt to push the idea of a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The stories tended to confirm JNV’s previous arguments that:

Iran is seeking threshold status rather than a deployable nuclear weapon;

the Israeli government is not serious about its threats to attack Iran;

and the British mainstream media is doing a terrible job of reporting Iran.

Timing

The two big events at the end of April were highly-critical remarks, in quick succession, from the head of the Israeli military, Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, and from the former head of Israeli domestic intelligence, Yuval Diskin. According to the New York Times, ‘The timing of the critiques of the policy on Iran was largely coincidental: Mr Gantz spoke during the chief of staff’s traditional Independence Day round of interviews, and Mr Diskin, having promised to stay silent for a year after his retirement, spoke as the anniversary approached.’

Coincidental? Diskin retired on 15 May 2011, so speaking out on 27 April was several weeks ahead of schedule (but only three days after Gantz had undermined the case for war).

These interventions are only a part of a long-running campaign by senior figures in the Israeli security establishment, desperately trying to avert a fully-fledged war on Iran. (They all support covert operations, however.)

Gantz speaks

The FT (25 April 2012) summed up Gantz’s contribution: ‘The head of the Israeli military believes Iran will not build an atomic bomb, arguing that the leadership in Tehran is “composed of very rational people”.’

The armed forces chief-of-staff was speaking to one of Israel’s leading newspapers, Haaretz. In stark contrast to the apocalyptic tones used by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gantz said: ‘Despair not. We are a temperate state. The State of Israel is the strongest in the region and will remain so. Decisions can and must be made carefully, out of historic responsibility but without hysteria.’ (Emphasis added.)

Gantz also questioned the Prime Minister’s assertion that 2012 was the year of decision (and therefore of military action): ‘This is a critical year, but not necessarily “go, no-go”.’

Most tellingly, Gantz portrayed Iran’s leadership, and its goals, in quite a different light: Iran ‘is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile.’ (Emphasis added.)

‘If the [Iranian] supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people.’

Shannon Kile, a nuclear proliferation expert at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Gantz’s description of Iranian leaders as rational was ‘quite an interesting turnabout’.
(Reuters, 25 April 2012)

It might be more accurate to say that seeing the Iranian leadership as not simply rational but ‘very rational’ is a massive disruption to Western propaganda about the Islamic Rebublic. Coming from Israel’s most senior military official, it is particularly striking.

The Japan Option

Gantz therefore falls in with the near-consensus of informed observers, that Iran is seeking not a nuclear weapon, but the capability to build a nuclear weapon. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘Japan option’.

Japan is the world’s largest holder of weapons-grade plutonium; its stock may exceed the quantity in the US nuclear arsenal by 2020. Currently it has around 30 tons of plutonium stockpiled. Most is on loan to other countries; the 25% held on Japanese soil could be turned into over 1,000 nuclear bombs. Japan has the technical expertise and equipment quickly to weaponise its nuclear materials if it so chose. Thus, to take the ‘Japan option’ is to be on the threshold of nuclear weapon status, without crossing it. (For background, see Dr Frank Barnaby and Shaun Burnie, Thinking the Unthinkable: Japanese nuclear power and proliferation in East Asia, Oxford Research Group, 2005)

The RAND quasi-governmental research group in the US issued a report on this topic in 2011 which concluded: ‘Iran is likely in the near to medium term to strive to stay within the bounds of international norms and laws established by the NPT while continuing with uranium enrichment and warhead experimentation.’ The report ‘Iran’s Nuclear Future’, compiled for the US Air Force, cited a statement by Iranian nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani that Iran was seeking a nuclear capability like that of Japan, which has ‘nuclear technology but does not possess any nuclear weapons’. (“Iran’s Nuclear Program Will Follow Japanese Model: Larijani,” Mehr News Agency, February 25, 2010, cited on p14 of the RAND report.)

The most important and authoritative examples of this assessment are the 2007 and 2011 US National Intelligence Estimates (NIEs), the consensus reports of the entire US intelligence community, which both concluded that Iran halted any work on nuclear weaponization in 2003, and there was no evidence of any decision or any moves to build a nuclear weapon since that time. According to Seymour Hersh, the US Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA) tried to get the 2011 NIE to say that Iran’s earlier nuclear-weapons research was focused on Iraq, not Israel, the US or Western Europe. The DIA believes that Iran feared that Iraq had a nuclear weapons programme, and took steps towards deterrence, calling it off once the 2003 war terminated that fear. The arguments over this analysis, which would undermine any war fever, apparently delayed the 2011 NIE for four months.

Getting back to the Japan option, US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta was unusually candid on the subject on US television in January: ‘Are they [Iran] trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No. But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability, and that’s what concerns us.’

There is a slightly different attitude in parts of Europe: ‘If you’re asking whether we would be satisfied with Iran becoming Japan, then the answer is a qualified yes,’ a senior European diplomat told the New York Times (24 January 2012). ‘But it would have to be verifiable, and we are a long ways away from trusting the regime.’

It is often asserted that being a ‘threshold state’ like Japan is somehow in breach of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. This is not so, as pointed out by Richard Dalton, former British ambassador to Iran, and five other former European ambassadors to the Islamic Republic: ‘Most experts, even in Israel, view Iran as striving to become a “threshold country”, technically able to produce a nuclear weapon but abstaining from doing so for now. Again, nothing in international law forbids this ambition.’ (Guardian, 9 June 2011)

Other Gantz remarks

It may be worth noting that General Gantz made some other interesting remarks during his ‘traditional Independence Day round of interviews’. To Haaretz, he said: ‘I agree that such a [nuclear] capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.’

To Yediot Ahronot, the chief of staff said he had ordered his forces to step up covert operations in enemy countries. ‘You almost won’t find a point in time where something isn’t happening somewhere in the world,’ he said. ‘I am escalating all those special operations.’ He didn’t name any countries, but Iran is an obvious candidate. (AP, 22 April 2012)

Diskin

The Gantz controversy was followed rapidly by outspoken comments by the former head of Shin Bet, Israel’s equivalent of the FBI. There have been different views expressed about how Yuval Diskin left office. Ronen Bergman, Israeli author of The Secret War With Iran, said that Diskin’s words carried weight because he left the government in good standing with Prime Minister Netanyahu and because he was widely respected ‘for being professional and honest and completely disconnected from politics.’ (NYT, 28 April 2012)

Apologists for Netanyahu have tried to smear Diskin, saying he was bitter after being passed over for leadership of Mossad, the Israeli equivalent of the CIA, and that he is positioning himself for entry into party politics. Both of these slurs lack weight. As Associated Press noted, ‘In Israel, security figures carry clout well into retirement. Although they frequently pursue political careers, Diskin had been seen as relatively apolitical, perhaps lending his words even greater weight.’

Diskin told the Majdi Forum, a residents’ group in the Israeli city of Kfar Sava:

‘My major problem is that I have no faith in the current leadership, which must lead us in an event on the scale of war with Iran or a regional war.... I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings.... Believe me, I have observed them from up close.... They are not people who I, on a personal level, trust to lead Israel to an event on that scale and carry it off. These are not people who I would want to have holding the wheel [driving the car] in such an event.’
(Haaretz, 28 April 2012)

AP reported Diskin as saying: ‘They are not messiahs, these two.’ (AP, 28 April 2012)

Diskin added: ‘They are misleading the public on the Iran issue. They tell the public that if Israel acts, Iran won’t have a nuclear bomb. This is misleading. Actually, many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race.’ (Haaretz, 28 April 2012)

Other Diskin remarks

Iran wasn’t the only topic the former spy chief spoke out on. The New York Times reported:

‘Many here saw Mr. Diskin’s comments on the government’s dealings with the Palestinians, which was in his direct purview, as even more significant than those on Iran. While Mr. Netanyahu has insisted that the peace process is stalled because he does not have a willing partner, Mr. Diskin declared: “This government has no interest in talking with the Palestinians, period. It certainly has no interest in resolving anything with the Palestinians, period.”’ (NYT, 28 April 2012, emphasis added.)

Regarding relations between Israeli Jews and other groups, Diskin said: ‘Over the past 10-15 years, Israel has become more and more racist. All of the studies point to this. This is racism toward Arabs and toward foreigners, and we are also become a more belligerent society.’
(Haaretz, 28 April 2012)

Messianic

The repeated references to the ‘messianic’ nature of Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are particularly interesting given Netanyahu’s own use of the concept in relation to Iran.

In 2009, Netanyahu described the Iranian leadership thus:

‘You don’t want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs. When the wide-eyed believer gets hold of the reins of power and the weapons of mass death, then the entire world should start worrying, and that is what is happening in Iran.’ (Atlantic, March 2009)

Diskin, saying that he had observed Barak and Netanyahu up close, labelled them ‘two messianics – the one from Akirov or the Assuta project and the other from Gaza Street or Caesarea,’ referring to their places of residence.

Dagan

A few British media outlets noticed that these were not isolated outbursts, but part of a larger wave of criticisms by Israeli intelligence and military figures.

Reporting the Diskin controversy, the BBC noted:

‘In March, the former head of Israel's foreign intelligence service, Mossad, publicly opposed military action against Iran. Meir Dagan said an Israeli attack would have “devastating” consequences for the Jewish state and would not prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.’ (BBC, 28 April 2012)

True, but not the whole story.

The Guardian (28 April 2012) was better, giving this last sentence to its Diskin story: ‘Diskin's comments also put him in agreement with the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who has said that attacking Iran was “the stupidest thing I have ever heard” and that the Iranian regime was rational.’ (Emphasis added.)

AP noted Dagan’s earlier opposition:

‘One of the first criticisms voiced by a security figure came last summer from Israel's recently retired spy chief, Meir Dagan. He called a strike against Iran's nuclear program "stupid." Dagan, who headed the Mossad spy agency, said an effective attack on Iran would be difficult because Iranian nuclear facilities are scattered and mobile, and warned it could trigger war.’ (AP, 28 April 2012)

None of these reports gives an accurate sense of what Dagan has been doing. Well-informed commentator Amos Harel has remarked: ‘Since the end of his term as the head of the Mossad last January, Dagan seems to be on a divine mission to stop the bombing’ of Iran. (Haaretz, 28 April 2012)

It was in his very first public appearance since leaving Mossad, back in May 2011, that Dagan described the possibility of an Israeli Air Force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as ‘the stupidest thing I have ever heard.’

Dagan also said, in words that have not received as much attention, that attacking Iran’s legitimate nuclear power infrastructure, which is under supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency, would be ‘patently illegal under international law’. (Haaretz, 7 May 2011)

In March 2012, Dagan told US television: ‘The regime in Iran is a very rational regime’, describing the Iranians as ‘masters at negotiation’. Asked whether Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was rational, Dagan said: ‘The answer is yes. Not exactly our rational, but I think that he is rational.’ (‘The Spymaster Speaks’, 60 Minutes, CBS, 11 March 2012)

Other figures

There are others in the Israeli security establishment who have spoken publicly. In March, Dan Halutz, who led the Israeli military from 2005 to 2007, criticized Netanyahu for invoking Holocaust imagery in describing the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. ‘We are not kings of the world,’ Halutz said. ‘We should remember who we are.’ (AP, 28 April 2012)

The Washington Post noted: ‘Although striking in its bluntness, Gantz’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear intentions did not differ dramatically from comments made publicly and privately by other current and former Israeli officials in recent months.’ The Post quoted Amir Oren, a veteran military analyst for Haaretz: ‘Many Israelis get the impression that Netanyahu itches for a fight. The military does not. The military must weigh the consequences.’ (Washington Post, 25 April 2012)

The Financial Times found an Israeli official who spoke off the record: ‘The military and defence establishment has always been more cautious on the issue of Iran. They are not minimising the Iranian threat but they are approaching it in a less catastrophist tone than the political leadership.’
(FT, 25 April 2012)

In the UK, the newspaper of the British armed forces observed: ‘Gen Gantz’s assessment of Iran's intentions is consistent with the view of British and American officials. They also believe that Iran wants the ability to build a nuclear weapon – in breach of its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty – but has not yet decided whether to exercise the option.’ (Telegraph, 25 April 2012)

Manipulation

We’ve argued previously that Israeli threats (actually, the threats come only from Netanyahu and Barak) are bluffs, designed not to pave the way for imminent air strikes, but as a means of exerting political pressure on the US and other great powers, forcing them into greater efforts against the Iranian government, through sanctions and covert military operations.

In the reporting of the Gantz and Diskin interventions, traces of this reality can be discerned.

Talking of the Netanyahu threats, Israeli analyst Yossi Melman said: ‘In a way, it is paying off: they achieved the awakening of the international community and the involvement of the United States.’ He added: ‘It’s difficult to sense whether it’s manipulation, or part of it is psychological warfare. I think he really genuinely believes in what he says.’ (NYT, 30 April 2012)

David Horovitz, a veteran Israeli journalist, said many Israelis view the strident tone as a ‘successful effort to create the sense in the international community that there needs to be more dramatic action in a nonmilitary sense.’ Given the success, ‘I don’t think what’s unfolding [in terms of international pressure on Iran] is deemed by Netanyahu and Barak to justify, “OK, we can tone down the process”... Quite the reverse.’ (NYT, 30 April 2012)

An Israeli minister added weight to this analysis. Speaking publicly in New York, Israeli Environment Minister Gilad Erdan criticized Yuval Diskin’s remarks cited above, saying:

‘The former heads of the security system should not harm the government's efforts to destroy the Iranian threat. It is inconceivable that as the Prime Minister succeeds in putting together an international campaign to raise awareness about the Iranian threat and increase sanctions against it, all these former officials come out and hurt Israeli efforts to recruit the world against Iran by talking about what Israel can or cannot do.’ (Israel National News, 30 April 2012)

Note that Erdan points to the success in putting together an international campaign isolating and escalating sanctions against Iran, not in laying the basis for a military strike.

A clearer statement of this kind of position is set out in a wire service news story:

‘Further complicating the picture is the widely held suspicion that Israel’s threats may actually amount to a bluff of historic proportion which has if anything been effective in compelling the world to boycott Iranian oil and isolate its central bank. From that perspective, criticism such as Diskin’s, based on a literal approach, could be construed as simplistic and self-defeating.’ (AP, 28 April 2012)

Elections

Note that it is generally believed that Israel is about to see elections announced for later this year. ‘The minute we have a date set for elections, you have to assume that Bibi [Netanyahu] and Barak are not going to risk their electoral chances by taking some dramatic military initiative which could go wrong,’ said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli strategic analyst. (NYT, 30 April 2012) Just as the November US elections rule out a US military strike on Iran this year.

Media coverage

How well did the British media report the Diskin and Gantz stories? Pretty badly.

In the Guardian, on 28 April, Harriet Sherwood had a professional report of the two latest interventions, and quoted Dagan in the last sentence, as already noted. However, there is no sense of the three men being part of a larger wave of concern in Israel security circles, and no hint of the manipulation thesis.

A web search of the Independent’s website shows a story on Gantz on 26 April 2012, and a one para note on Diskin on Sunday 29 April 2012. A search brings no mention of Dagan in last 30 days. Again, no mention of the manipulation thesis.

The Telegraph website also has no mention of Dagan in last 30 days, and only mentions Diskin to rubbish him (Con Coughlin performing his usual services to the Israeli government on 30 April 2012). Gantz, however, is accorded a respectful report of his views, and due note is made of the wider support for his views among the Israeli military. (Telegraph, 25 April 2012)

A search on The Times website finds no mention of Gantz or Diskin in the last 30 days. Dagan did scrape a mention within the last month. He is mentioned in a 4 April article on the possible scale of Israeli casualties in the event of what The Times describes as a ‘three-week missile war’ with Iran. Dagan is quoted as warning that ‘an Israeli attack could trigger a regional war lasting far longer than three weeks.’

Actually, Dagan has said: ‘The Iranians have the capability to fire rockets at Israel for a period of months, and Hizbollah could fire tens of thousands of grad rockets and hundreds of long-range missiles’. (Haaretz, 7 May 2011, emphasis added)

The Times does not see fit to mention Dagan’s description of a missile war with Iran as ‘the stupidest thing I have ever heard’.

Uploaded 2 May 2012

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