March 7, 2012

Netanyahu, Churchill, and Iran

Prof. Shai Feldman

Originally published at The Times of Israel

It has been said that when it comes to the looming Iranian threat, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sees his role in Jewish history in Churchillian terms. He began to view Iran as a major strategic threat during his first term as prime minister (1996-1999) and continued to warn of a coming storm during his years in the political desert and, later, as finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s government. Returning to the premiership in early 2009, Netanyahu finally had an opportunity to one-up Churchill, who could do nothing against the rising threat of Germany until his appointment as prime minister following Hitler’s invasion of Poland. As Israel’s newly recycled prime minister, Netanyahu could make sure that the regime in Tehran, which he regarded as the modern-day Middle East parallel to Nazi Germany, would never obtain the capacity to obliterate the Jewish state.

The Israeli debate as to what must be done about Iran was confined to close quarters while Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert  were in office. Both were determined to avoid making it an Israeli issue, instead insisting that Iran was a regional and international threat and that it was the international community’s responsibility to deal with it. By contrast, under Netanyahu the Israeli debate has become public, in no small measure due to the contribution of the then-departing director of the Mossad, Meir Dagan. In a way, Dagan undertook a counter-Churchill role; in his view it was imperative to warn the nation of the inclination of Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, to launch an unnecessary and untimely preemptive military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations. Indeed, Dagan seemed to imply that in this case Barak’s propensity for reckless behavior was even greater than that of Netanyahu.

Dagan’s main point was that any serious consideration of a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities must take into account the possibility that the strike, and the expected Iranian determination to retaliate, would spark a broader regional military conflagration. It is difficult to assess the odds of Arab states or non-state actors reacting to the destruction of Persian-owned nuclear installations while they remained silent after Israel destroyed similar facilities in Arab states – Iraq’s Orisaq reactor in June 1981 and Syria’s Deir ez-Zor facility in 2007. Yet it is impossible to dismiss this possibility. Indeed, it would be logically inconsistent to simultaneously apply worst-case analysis to the ramifications of Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and best-case analysis to the implications of a military strike to prevent Iran from obtaining such weapons.

This inconsistency notwithstanding, there are reasons to doubt whether Netanyahu is in fact serious about the need to do everything possible to eliminate Iran’s nuclear threat.

First, there an is incongruence between Netanyahu’s public position regarding this threat and the stance he has taken in the parallel debate about Israel’s defense budget. One would have expected a Churchillian prime minister prepared to confront Iran militarily to have supported a significant expansion of Israeli defenses. But in fact, Netanyahu permitted this second debate to be framed in terms of whether or not the defense budget should be cut, not expanded. Indeed, so real was the discussion of such cuts that in one cabinet meeting the otherwise-level-headed IDF chief of General Staff, Lt.-Gen Benny Gantz, reportedly lost his temper with Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz in what appeared to violate the principles of proper civil-military relations in a democratic government. Yet even during that heated discussion, Netanyahu appeared to be wavering between supporting his finance minister, who had argued for a reallocation of resources from defense to social needs, and his defense minister, who opposed the proposed cuts.

Second, given the nontrivial odds of Iranian retaliation in response to the destruction of its nuclear installations, and the fact that Iran and its regional allies possess thousands of missiles and rockets of every kind, one would have expected a prime minister seriously contemplating a military strike against Iran to be preparing Israel’s homeland defenses for such a confrontation. Yet there is no evidence that this is happening. Quite the contrary: Recent press reports indicate that the state of Israel’s passive defenses is as chaotic as it was during the 2006 Lebanon debacle. Even more surprisingly, the Israeli government has just nominated as ambassador to Beijing the one cabinet member who actually knew something about homeland security – Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Matan Vilnai.

Finally, even if only a fraction of what Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, Uzi Arad, recently told Yediot Ahronot is true, the manner in which the prime minister has been mismanaging his national security team appears inconsistent with the requirements of orchestrating a major military confrontation. Instead of focusing on what is billed as an existential threat, Netanyahu’s office appears to be embroiled in intrigue and deep personal distrust. There is no denying Arad’s rather difficult personality and his own contribution to the unacceptable modes of behavior that have become the norm in Netanyahu’s Byzantine court. But Netanyahu’s willingness to dismiss the sole truly strategic thinker in his inner circle, who has worked tirelessly – possibly even obsessively – to address the Iranian nuclear threat, raises some question as to whether Israel’s prime minister takes the threat as seriously as his public persona would have us believe.

Seeming to apply best-case analysis to the possible ramifications of a military strike against Iran, a reluctance to prepare the homeland’s defenses for the possible fallout of such a strike, a willingness to consider cutting the defense budget, and the dismissal of key members of Israel’s national security apparatus may all be part of a grand effort to confuse Israel’s adversaries. But if a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations will be launched, leading to Iranian and Iranian-inspired retaliation, and if the aforementioned Israeli deeds and misdeeds turn out not to have been part of a Barak-conceived, super-sophisticated attempt at strategic deception, but rather the result of supreme human stupidity, Benjamin Netanyahu’s place in Jewish history will most likely not be described in Churchillian terms.