In 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a meeting of the seven senior ministers in his government responsible for major policy decisions of war and peace. He and his Defense Minister Ehud Barak sought approval for an Israeli attack on Iran.
What they didn't bargain for was the adamant opposition of almost all the senior military and intelligence chiefs including Meir Dagan (Mossad), Yuval Diskin (Shabak), Gabi Ashkenazi (Israel Defense Forces). Alternate versions of the story also include President Shimon Peres and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intelligence chief Amos Yadlin among the opponents. Dagan in particular, who was invited to the meeting to brief the ministers, waged war on the plan.
Maariv says (Hebrew only) that Dagan came to believe that the two leaders were intent on getting Israel into a “dangerous military adventure in Iran.” Now that those who opposed the attack have departed the scene, Israel's former top spy worries that “there is no one to stop them.”
Because Dagan has a reputation as a man of steel willing to take on any mission no matter how lethal on behalf of the nation, the ministers were likely taken aback by his opposition. Enough bolted from Bibi's camp to torpedo the plan and it has not been revived since then.
Until now. In the past few months, Dagan, who was forced into retirement by the prime minister, at least in part because of his subversion of the plan to attack Iran, has become downright voluble (he usually maintains a studious silence in public and never makes speeches or gives interviews). He has practically been on a jihad against the idea of an Israel assault on Iran. The result has shocked those who follow the Israeli intelligence and policy debate concerning Iran.
The former Mossad director warns that all the military-intelligence chiefs who massed to stifle the war initiative in 2010 are gone. New figures have replaced them. Individuals whose views on the subject aren't well known and perhaps not even formed. Further, these new leaders have much more to prove both to their boss, the prime minister, and their respective constituencies. So, Dagan worries, they might embrace an Iran adventure when more seasoned operatives like their predecessors might've acted more cautiously in the face of the daunting repercussions of a possible Israel attack.
In one of his rare public utterances, Dagan called Bibi's plan one of the lamest ideas he's heard in ages:
“It's the stupidest thing I've ever heard.”
Dagan said that the problem [in attacking Iran] doesn't involve his doubting the abilities of the Israeli Air Force, but rather whether it could perform the job to its completion and attain all its objectives. When asked what would happen after such an attack, Dagan continued: “There will be war with Iran. This is one of the things we know how to start, but not how to end.” He noted that Iran could be expected to fire its missiles into Israel for many months afterwards. It could be expected to engage Hezbollah with its tens of thousands of Grad rockets and hundreds of long distance SCUDs. Iran can also engage Hamas on its behalf and Syria might join the war.
These ideas are nothing new inside Israel. There have been intelligence and military analysts saying precisely this for some time. But never before has the voice been that of someone as senior, someone tested in the crucible of battle as Dagan has been.
The response of the prime minister and his supporters was swift and sharp. They accused the former spy chief of sour grapes, having political motives, angling for the prime minister's job etc. But the damage has been done. Dagan's public opposition has undoubtedly emboldened those remaining within the intelligence apparatus to raise their voices as well against such a foolhardy plan.
Months ago, when it first was exposed, I denounced Israel's Stuxnet attack on Iran's nuclear plants in Bushehr and Natanz, a project likely organized by the cyber warfare personnel of the Mossad and the IDF's Unit 8200. But the appeal of this form of nonviolent sabotage of Iran's nuclear capability is clear. For Dagan, it represented a way to divert the war camp from its plans. Doubtless, he argued to the senior ministers when they deliberated war that he should be given a chance to see how much damage he could do to Iran without dropping a single bomb. The fact that Stuxnet had a serious, but short-term impact in delaying the progress of Iran's uranium enrichment program can only be seen as a success by the anti-war camp.
Recently, the Knesset intelligence committee invited the new chief of staff, Benny Gantz, to address the question of Israel's options concerning Iran. Defense Minister Ehud Barak refused Gantz permission to testify even though the hearing would've been secret. I have speculated that one of the reasons for Barak's refusal may've been either foreknowledge or concern that Gantz might not give a robust endorsement of the military option to the Knesset members.
At any rate, the committee compelled Gantz to testify and overcame the resistance of Barak. But the Israeli media has not revealed the substance of what the general said.
Another argument raised by the Israeli pro-war camp behind the prime minister is that the ex-Mossad director destroyed whatever deterrent Israel had over Iran by opposing such a war. As a loyal servant of the state, he would have weighed this possibility carefully. No one could dismiss lightly such criticism, nor would Dagan. There can only be one reason he would take such a drastic step by criticizing Bibi so intensively (in three separate statements) and publicly: he really believes the prime minister intended and still intends to go to war against Iran. And he believes such a war would be an utter disaster should it happen.
The split we're seeing here rarely happens in Israeli politics. Usually, at least superficially, the military, intelligence and political echelons circle the wagons when it comes to important life or death issues. There is rarely anyone with the guts or courage to stand against the prevailing consensus.
So, what we're seeing with Dagan's cri de coeur may be historic and certainly is dramatic. The question is – can Dagan prevail? Can he derail a government plan to attack Iran? If he can't, he is setting himself up as the sole sane one who resisted temptation and tried to speak truth to power. This should stand him in good stead politically if there is anything left of Israel to lead should the Bibi-Barak coalition take Israel into its next military adventure.
Dagan's principled opposition to war against Iran mirrors the role played by Robert Gates, the recently departed US defense secretary. He conceded in a farewell New York Times interview that he'd been a key opponent of a plan for war against Iran concocted by Dick Cheney. In the end, President Bush sided with Gates and against Cheney, which likely explains the decided coolness between the two during the last year or so of the Bush presidency.
But with specter of a possible willing president looming, will new Defense Secretary Panetta and the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs abandon the pragmatism of predecessors and support an Iran attack?
UPI intelligence correspondent Richard Sale has consulted extensively with former senior intelligence sources on this subject. Those individuals are telling him that Israel is planning to attack Iran before the September UN meeting at which Palestinian statehood will be discussed and possibly approved. He wrote to me some weeks ago:
… Some US intelligence officials think that such a surprise [attack] on Iran could possibly take place in … September when [Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman] Mullen retires. It would [be] political war with its object to divert attention from Palestine.
… Senior US intelligence officials are saying that just recently a big US military force has been conducting large contingency planning drills in preparation for an intervention if Israel attacks Iran. Planning for a US intervention is very far advanced.
… But perhaps the chief thing that counts here is that senior members of the US intelligence are resisting such notions with all the force that they can.
More recently, Sale wrote:
… The news is dismaying. Israel is planning a surgical strike against Iran. I've been talking to former senior agency officials and officials in military intelligence. Not only is [it] “very far along” in planning for a regional war, the Obama administration has signed off on it.
It will happen soon, before September … This is no drill.
If this is right, the timing of the attack couldn't be more propitious for Israel, as it will likely either derail, or at the least delay, the statehood vote. It would also further reinforce the conviction of many that the Netanyahu government is using the issue of Iran as a pressure valve to deflect world attention from something that is a much higher priority for the current Israeli government: maintaining the occupation.
To be fair, I find the statement that the US is “planning for a regional war,” and that Obama has “signed off on it” to be alarmist. Even if the US has signed off on an Israeli attack and possible US support for it, I doubt we're wishing or willing to instigate a regional war.
I spoke recently with a retired defense analyst who is one of my heroes of the Vietnam era. He told me that while he believed the US president would not approve in advance an Israeli assault on Iran, Obama would not stand in the way of one, as Eisenhower did in 1956 when he found out about the Suez attack after hostilities began. Rather than going to the mat to oppose Israel, once he discovered the attack was too far along to stop it, Obama would, the analyst believes, fall into line and participate in whatever supporting role he felt was appropriate.
Given the resounding “success” of and approval generated by the Bin Laden assassination, I, too, think it likely Obama would support an Iran attack. A September attack could complicate the November mid-term elections, but if it was deemed successful (i.e. caused serious damage to Iran's nuclear facilities) it would further inoculate the Democrats and ensure success at the polls.
The retired defense analyst did, however, add that he found it unlikely that, in this day and age, Israel would be able to get far enough along operationally for such an attack without the US finding out about it enough in advance to kill it, or at least severely crimp Israel's style.
Further confirmation of the thesis advanced by Richard Sale, the intelligence correspondent, comes from no less likely a source than Jeffrey Goldberg, who avidly reported a year ago during an interview with Netanyahu that the Israel premier likely planned to attack Iran. In writing this month of the reasons behind Meir Dagan's “going native” on Bibi & Barak, Goldberg describes the thinking of Israeli sources who explained Dagan's motivation:
[They] suggested that Netanyahu wants to change the subject from his difficulties with the Palestinians. It's no secret that the prime minister has been outfoxed by the Palestinian leadership lately and that Israel is desperately trying to stop a Palestinian independence initiative at the United Nations. Netanyahu is capable of great cynicism and he has made clear that the peace process doesn't interest him very much.
While a former senior IDF commander and political leader who has served as a past source for my work refused to confirm this specific story (in order not to expose Israeli operational plans), he did not rule it out. Further, he did confirm that there is a specific Israeli military contingency for such an attack. In fact, Maariv's generally right-wing Ben Caspit, who's becoming uncharacteristically dovish regarding the Iran attack scenario, notes it prominently (Hebrew only) in this article:
When Bibi Netanyahu became prime minister he received a briefing on the [Iran] military option being planned. The meeting was prolonged. Then another was planned. And another. Till finally Bibi spent a full 20 hours considering the matter. And according to an aide, “his eyes sparkled” the whole time.
We know Ehud Olmert asked George Bush for a green light to attack Iran and that while Cheney pushed for it, Bush ultimately declined. If Olmert was willing to go to war, why would we doubt that Bibi would, too? Bibi, who casts the ayatollahs practically as Satan's emissaries on earth. We also know that Bibi is obsessed with Palestinian and world efforts to “delegitimize” Israel. And that the September UN vote is one of the top threats on this list. So, why would anyone think he'd be too dainty to use Iran to foil Palestinian statehood? Especially if he was reasonably certain it would redound to his credit (as delusional as such an assumption might be to more pragmatic souls).
Returning to Sale's prediction, where he noted an attack could come after the retirement of Admiral Mullen – the latter has made some statements indicating he's less than enthusiastic about the prospect of the US supporting an attack on Iran. Now, in their (Gates' and Mullen's) stead we will have Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey. One would presume that these newcomers would be much less willing to go out on a limb and be iconoclasts than their predecessors, and more likely to support an Iran attack if the president did. It's almost a mirror image of the situation in Israel, and grounds for fear of what may lie ahead come September.
When considering what the motives of these former US intelligence officers may be, they read the same reports about Meir Dagan's worries as you and I. And as Seymour Hersh has noted in his fine reporting on the views of the US military echelon on Iran, many within the system see war against Iran as a terrible idea. So, some of their retired brethren may be acting as their stalking horses, sounding their own alarm to the US public, warning, as Dagan has in Israel, of the severe blowback from a military adventure against Iran.
Is it possible there will be no military operation against Iran? Certainly. But I believe that both Dagan and Sale's sources are exercising an abundance of caution in putting out the word. They don't want to take the chance of trusting in pragmatism only to find out to their dismay that the pragmatists lost and the fantasists took us to war.