November 11, 2011 3:54 pm

Ex-spymasters oppose Iran attack

For much of the year, Israeli diplomats and officials have been tugging at the sleeves of their western counterparts in frustration, pleading with them to look away from Egypt, Libya and the other centres of the Arab spring, but to the real danger further east: Iran.

This week, a damning report by the International Atomic Energy Agency finally pushed the issue of Iran’s nuclear programme back up the global agenda. No less important in galvanising international interest, however, was what happened in Israel just days before the report was published – a sudden surge in leaks and speculation about an Israeli military strike against Iran.

What made the debate unusual was that it was held in Israel itself, openly, and with the apparent collusion and encouragement of senior members of the country’s military and political establishment. It centred on claims by the Israeli media that Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, and Ehud Barak, the defence minister, were trying to build support inside the cabinet in favour of a strike.

But the debate quickly escalated into a media frenzy that pitted high-profile critics of military action against government loyalists worried about the credibility of Israel’s deterrence.

Outside the country, not least in Iran itself, the torrent of speculation was widely understood as a not-so-subtle threat.

Indeed, many diplomats and analysts believe the debate – and its timing – was far from accidental. It reflected, they argue, the Israeli government’s desire to focus the minds of international leaders and stress the urgency with which Israel views the threat of a nuclear Iran.

At the same time, there is no doubt that Israeli leaders are indeed engaged in an agonising debate over the merits of a strike, even if few believe that military action is imminent.

It is also clear that the leadership is far from united in its view on the matter – with the military and intelligence community in particular sounding a sceptical note. Indeed, one of the most remarkable aspects of the Israeli debate is the fact that high-profile former spymasters are arguing more or less openly against an attack on Iran.

Yoel Guzansky, a former Israeli government official and currently a fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, says the recent debate reflects both tactical considerations as well as genuine arguments behind the scenes: “Some of those who oppose a strike went public, and others wanted to focus attention on this highly urgent issue that the Arab spring’ has sidelined.”

A similar point is made by a senior western diplomat: “Israel’s strong preference is not to have to do this unilaterally. So they want the international community to treat this with the same seriousness and urgency as they do,” he says. “But I think Israel is genuinely deeply concerned. In part the outburst [of speculation] is tactical but part of it is genuine.”

The diplomat adds: “A debate has been opened on the inside with some very strident view on the anti-side, like [those expressed by] Meir Dagan.”

Mr Dagan, who retired as director of the Mossad intelligence service earlier this year, has been perhaps the most vocal critic of military action. According to Israeli media reports, he told a public conference in May that the idea of an Israeli strike was “the stupidest thing I have ever heard”.

Other former security officials, meanwhile, have taken aim at the core justification for such a strike, dismissing Mr Netanyahu’s claims that Iran constitutes an existential threat to Israel. Efraim Halevy, another former Mossad chief, said recently that was “far” from being the case.

The interventions by Mr Dagan and Mr Halevy have drawn close scrutiny, partly because former Israeli intelligence chiefs are held in such high esteem, but also because their comments are seen as indicative of the broader unease felt by current top officials in the security apparatus.

At the same time, some observers point out that none of the critics has so far categorically ruled out military action, making the current debate essentially one about timing: “Even those like Meir Dagan who say there are better options now don’t rule out military action should worse come to worst,” says Yitzhak Ben-Israel, a retired general and the current director of security studies at Tel Aviv University.

Mr Ben-Israel is one of many who voice dismay at the sudden burst of publicity surrounding a sensitive matter of national security. Yet he also believes that it will have little impact on events inside Iran: “The Iranians believe in so many conspiracy theories – even if they hear someone in Israel talking, their first conjecture is that it is all disinformation.”

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