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April 30, 2012 4:53 pm
Israeli leaders have spent years calling for international unity to face down the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear programme. Now they are seeing this common front crumble in the one place they thought was safe: Israel itself.
Over the past week, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has faced an unprecedented barrage of criticism at home for its stance on Iran, in particular for the implied threat of air strikes. Leading the latest charge was Yuval Diskin, the former director of the Shin Bet internal security service, whose incendiary remarks have dominated the Israeli political debate for days.
Mr Diskin, who left his post amid much praise last year, publicly slammed Mr Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, as “messianic” politicians who could not be trusted, especially on Iran. The two men, he said, were “not the people I would like to be holding the steering wheel” during a crisis.
Mr Diskin also warned that an Israeli strike against Iran, contrary to government assurances, was likely to hasten the development of an Iranian nuclear bomb.
His remarks were quickly dismissed by government officials as the words of a disgruntled ex-officer angered by his failure to secure another top job. Yet others rushed to his defence, including Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad intelligence service, and Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister.
Speaking in New York on Sunday, Mr Olmert raised a question debated with growing intensity in Israel and abroad: “What has happened,” he asked, “that all the leaders of Israel’s security services suddenly think in the same way?”
There is strong evidence that the Israeli defence and intelligence establishment is opposed to a strike on Iran, at least for the time being. Mr Dagan, for one, made his position clear last year, when he famously described an Israeli attack on Iran as the “stupidest idea” he had ever encountered.
His assessment has since been echoed by other retired intelligence officials and generals, giving rise to speculation that Mr Dagan, Mr Diskin and others are merely saying in public what their successors say in private.
Another blow to the government came last week, when Lieutenant General Benny Gantz, current head of Israel’s armed forces, voiced a string of opinions that differed from official government rhetoric. He said, among other things, that he did not believe that Iran would build a nuclear weapon and described the leadership in Tehran as “very rational”.
The splits are plain to see, says Yossi Alpher, a political analyst and a former adviser to Mr Barak. “We can conclude from all these statements that there is a lot of mistrust and suspicion at the top, and that certainly a major part of the Israeli security establishment is more cautious on Iran than the political leadership.”
He added: “The purpose of these statements is to make it more difficult to decide on an attack. If Barak and Netanyahu order strikes now, they will seem to be acting out of the irresponsible calculus that is being attributed to them. And if things go wrong, there will be plenty of people who can say: we told you so.”
For Mr Netanyahu, the public display of dissent from Israel’s military and intelligence officials comes at a particularly critical moment.
Speculation is mounting that the prime minister will call an early election, possibly in August or September. The issue of Iran is likely to feature strongly in any election campaign, and has until now been widely seen as one of his strong cards.
Meanwhile, Iranian negotiators are locked in talks over the country’s nuclear programme with the EU and six other powers. Analysts agree the talks have gained urgency because of fears Israel will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities unless a diplomatic solution is swiftly found.
Israeli leaders now fear the escalating internal strife will convince Tehran a strike is less likely than before and reduce its incentive to compromise. That concern was echoed by Ari Shavit, an influential columnist in the Haaretz daily on Monday.
“Diskin tried to empty the ammunition from the Israeli gun threatening Iran with a military strike,” he said. “But it was that loaded gun that made the international community impose a diplomatic and economic siege on Iran.”
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