A couple of days ago, the Israeli daily Haaretz ran an interview with Israel’s Chief of Staff Lt. General Benny Gantz that caused a stir amongst political analysts. Contrary to the vision of impending doom frequently painted by Israel’s Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, Gantz stated that he does not believe Iran will decide to develop nuclear weapons.
While the statements appeared surprising to most, it was not only for the most obvious reasons. The “Israeli perspective” or the “Israeli red line,” has often been used by those who want to exert immense pressure Iran and possibly cease all forms of its nuclear enrichment. The argument goes onto state that while the Americans and Europeans could exist with a nuclear Iran, Israel has no such option. However, General Gantz has painted Iran as a state led by rational leaders, who have yet to make a decision on nuclear weaponization. Gantz goes further by predicting that Tehran will defer such an option. While there are quarters that seek to stretch the facts to fit their political objectives, one can not deny that the Iranian nuclear program is a rational and very real concern for the state of Israel. However, this concern or threat is not a monolith, it is a debate.
The Israeli Debate
The jury’s been out for a decade on Israel’s perception of the Iranian nuclear program. Despite a rigorous debate on multiple levels of Israeli society, the results have not always been easy to analyze or categorize. For example, there is no clear left v. right dynamic to separate the camps. Much has been made of Netanyahu’s rightwing ideology and aggressive view on Iran, still, there are plenty of voices, some even further right of the PM that have called for a calmer, more pragmatic approach. A staunch proponent of this view for the past six years or more is the newly elected Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, who also served as a Likud Defence Minister under the hawkish PM Ariel Sharon. A more recent surprise was the admission of the current hard-line Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said that a war with Iran would be a nightmare.
In 2005, Israeli Academic Shlomo Brom wrote a chapter on the Begin Doctrine for a publication of the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College titled Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran. In the piece, Brom explores Israel’s mixed record of reactions (and actions) against weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the region. He also highlights the current Iranian threat and the two schools of interpretation it has created in Israel, where one camp believes Iran is an illogical state that posses an existential threat to Israel, while others perceive Iran as a complex, rational actor that only seeks to safeguard its national interest.
Alongside Netanyahu, the first school is also home to leftwing Labour officials such as Ephraim Sneh, historian Benny Morris, former diplomat Uri Lubrani, retired General Uzi Dayan and the defence establishment – most prominent being the IDF, Israeli Air Force (IAF) and military intelligence (AMAN). The second school also consists of high profile politicians, academics and most importantly, Israel’s international intelligence organization; Mossad. In fact, during the past few years a number of former Mossad heads like Ephraim Halevy and Meir Dagan have cautioned against military action and sought to allay concerns on Iran being an “existential threat.” Mossad’s current director Tamir Pardo has also reiterated the company line.
Crack in the armour?
Historically, the counterpunch to Mossad’s view on Iran has been the defence establishment, particularly the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and military intelligence (AMAN). The debate between Mossad and these departments has even descended to claims of each party using Iran as a political tool to beef up their budget. However, General Gantz’ statements seem to contradict this dichotomy and might be the most significant take away from the Haaretz interview.
It is also notable that the statement has come while American and European negotiators seem to be pressing towards a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue, hopes that have been rejected and ridiculed by Netanyahu and other hardliners in Israel. It is clear that the United States want to avert a possible war with Iran this election year. The Obama administration has been constantly communicating with Israeli officials through Secretary of Defence Leon Panetta and high-profile military personnel like General Patrick Dempsey, to ensure it is not dragged into an armed conflict with Iran. Therefore, it is possible that Gantz’ statements may be a by-product of discussions, to reduce Iranian concerns and allow diplomatic efforts by the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia and Germany) to bear fruit. Interestingly, Gantz reiterated General Dempsey’s thoughts (on an earlier interview with CNN) on Iran being a rational actor, contrasting to Netanyahu’s frequent statements.
Swing state: Too close to call
Despite General Gantz’s admission, it is too early to call a winner in the Israeli debate on Iran, especially due to the PM’s strong feelings on the subject. Moreover, the last two decades have seen a number of Israeli politicians and generals swing from one school to the other. Netanyahu during his first tenure as PM in 1996 was instrumental in moving Israel out of a Labour-led campaign to prop up Iran as Israel’s greatest threat, according American-Iranian author Trita Parsi. A debate on Iran between the Netanyahu of the 90s and the present day version would definitely make for good television. Other officials like the current Minster of Defence, Ehud Barak and ex-Mossad head Dagan have also switched chairs.
Therefore, as long as there isn’t significant progress on Iran, one should take Gantz’ comments with a grain of salt and a pinch of hope. It seems that at least for the time being, we can keep military action on the shelf and diplomacy at the table.