Washington – The perception that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is threatening to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities unless sanctions and diplomacy succeed in shutting them down has been the driving force in the Iran crisis.
But although Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak have made some tough statements, especially over the past several months, there is still one gaping hole in the record of their rhetoric on Iran: neither Netanyahu nor Barak has ever made an explicit public statement threatening to attack Iran.
And in recent months, both have refused to make anything like such a threat when invited to do so by interviewers.
The absence of any such explicit threat of force by Netanyahu and Barack does not in itself rule out the possibility that he is prepared to attack Iran under some circumstances. A review of the history of Israeli declaratory policy toward Iran, however, reveals that the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert twice actually did issue explicit threats to attack Iran if it did not end its nuclear programme.
In February 2006, then Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz declared that, if diplomacy failed to “delay or curb” the Iranian nuclear programme, Israel couldn’t “sit idly by” while Iran was on the threshold of achieving nuclear capabilities.
That language suggested a serious threat, because it is well known that the People’s Republic of China warned the U.S. Army early in the Korean War that it could not “sit idly by” if the U.S. forces crossed the 38th parallel, before making good on its threat by sending massive ground forces to fight them in North Korea.
On Jun. 8, 2008, Mofaz, then deputy prime minister in the Olmert government, was even more explicit, declaring, “If Iran continues with its programme for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack it.”
In contrast to those straightforward conditional threats to use military force against Iran, Netanyahu and Barak have either refused to address the issue in speeches and interviews or have limited themselves to much broader statements about “all options” being “on the table” and Israel’s “right to self-defence”.
When asked by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Nov. 20 whether Israel was going to attack Iran, Barak would not answer, saying it was not a “subject for public discussion”. Instead Barak talked about the vague notion of an Iranian “zone of immunity”, in which a sufficient proportion of Iran’s nuclear capabilities would be in sites protected from a potential Israeli attack so that such an attack would be futile.
In Ottawa before his visit to Washington in March, Netanyahu said only, “(L)ike any sovereign country, we reserve the right to defend ourselves against a country that calls and works for our destruction.”
In his speech to the influential lobby group American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) Mar. 5, Netanyahu sought to refute the argument that “stopping Iran from getting the bomb is more dangerous than letting Iran have the bomb” and likened it to arguments made by the United States against bombing Auschwitz in 1944.
But that appeared to be an argument against the Barack Obama administration’s policy of refusing to attack Iran in the absence of evidence of moves to enrich uranium at weapons grade. Netanyahu refused to say under what circumstances his government would resort to force against Iran.
“I read about what Israel has supposedly decided to do or what Israel might do,” he said. “Well, I’m not going to talk to about what Israel will do or will not do. I never talk about that.”
In an interview with Greta Van Susteren on Fox News Mar. 7, Netanyahu repeated that generic idea: “If it’s necessary we’ll act in our own defence.” But when she asked if Israel could act alone, he said, “You know I never talk about that.”
The closest Netanyahu has come to a direct threat of war was on Mar. 10, when he said he hoped “there won’t be a war at all, and that the pressure on Iran will succeed,” but added that the “eleventh hour” is approaching for Iran to “halt its nuclear programme or suffer the consequences”.
Netanyahu and Barak apparently went much further in off-the-record meetings with a small number of Israeli reporters. The message, wrote Ari Shavit of Haaretz in a Mar. 26 report, was, “If the international community doesn’t stop Iran by summer, Israel will soon strike.”
But Shavit and other reporters were forbidden from quoting from those briefings or identifying the officials giving them.
The public reticence of Netanyahu and Barak may reflect the fact that the two leaders are not in a position to commit the Israeli government publicly to an attack on Iran. Press reports have portrayed Netanyahu and Barak as representing a distinct minority on the issue in Israel’s nine-member “security cabinet”.
Even Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who argued publicly last month in an interview with Haaretz that the only alternatives in regard to Iran are “bomb or bombing”, was said by his interviewer, Ari Shavit, to express “deep concern” in private conversations about Netanyahu being dragged by Barak into a “wanton Iranian adventure”.
In late October 2011 it was leaked to the Israeli Hebrew language newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Netanyahu and Barak were seeking to convince the Israeli cabinet to support an attack on Iran. Barak then told Israel Radio that no decision had been made and that it would not be taken by two people.
Raviv Drucker, political commentator for Israel’s channel 10, noted that such press speculation “works rather well for Netanyahu, as he can be portrayed as keen to deal with Iran but being ‘held back’ by others in the Israeli establishment.”
Netanyahu and Barak may also be constrained by the consensus of the Israeli national security establishment in opposition to an attack on Iran under present circumstances. IDF and Mossad officials have told Netanyahu that Israeli intelligence agrees with the U.S. intelligence community that Iran has not yet decided to take the critical steps that would be required to have nuclear weapons.
Barak even alluded to that fact himself in an interview with Israel Radio Mar. 22. He said Iran “wants to achieve a military nuclear capability” but was “not breaking out”. One of the reasons, Barak said, was its “fear of what will happen, if, God forbid, the United States or maybe someone else acts against them.”
That statement implied that Iran was already being deterred from advancing to nuclear weapons – a position at odds with the Netanyahu government’s posture.
Netanyahu’s refusal to make a public threat to attack Iran is also consistent with his well-established reputation as an extremely “risk averse” political figure.
“Netanyahu is known for his caution,” said David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near Policy in an interview with The Tablet in May.
The unambiguous Mofaz threats of 2006 and 2008 did not signal an actual readiness to strike at Iranian nuclear facilities, because at that point, the Israeli Air Force did not have the capability to carry out an effective attack.
Retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Rick Francona, who visited Israel in November 2006 and met with Israeli Air Force officials, concluded that they did not have the capability to destroy Iranian nuclear sites. In an interview with this writer in 2007, Francona said the Israeli officers “recognised they have a shortfall in aerial refueling”.
But Olmert and Mofaz may been emboldened to issue explicit threats by the knowledge that Iran would not be close to a breakout capability for a few more years.