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Analysis | Israeli Media Abuzz over Looming 'Iran Decision'


13 Aug 2012 18:36Comments

A game of leaks with potentially historic consequences.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a fellow at Truthout, an independent online magazine.
[ analysis ] Following Yedioth Ahronoth's report at the end of July that the heads of the Israeli Defense Forces, Israeli Air Force, and Israel's foreign and military intelligence agencies have voiced opposition to a strike on Iran, the Israeli press is awash with reports suggesting concerted campaigns among the country's national security decision makers to either promote or block a preemptive military operation against the Islamic Republic.

The string of front-page Israeli news reports on Iran this past week also evidences the strains in the U.S.-Israeli special relationship caused by the deep mistrust with which the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views the Obama administration. Israel's Channel 2 reports that Netanyahu is a hair's breadth from ordering an attack on Iran before the end of November. According to a transcript of the report provided by BBC, the Israeli leader is telling his cabinet and generals that Iran "may intend to use nuclear weapons" against Israel and that while he "would prefer the United States to do the job," he does not trust President Barack Obama to take action, so it falls to him to do so. The prime minister's office has so far refused to comment on the veracity of the Channel 2 report, which also claimed that "the prime minister and the defense minister maintain that an Israeli attack against Iran will not lead to a regional war."

In contrast to Channel 2's assessment that Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are breathing down their generals' necks, Yedioth Ahronoth now reports that "not a single state official or military official or even the president [Shimon Peres] supports an Israeli attack in Iran." Cited in the original Hebrew version (though not the English translation) of the report as opposing an attack are the same officials whom Tehran Bureau has previously identified as the main Israeli opponents of an attack. To their number has been added Yoram Cohen, head of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic intelligence agency. According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Netanyahu and Barak are increasingly determined to launch an attack on Iran before the U.S. presidential election in November (and the onset of winter weather). Yedioth Ahronoth has previously suggested that such considerations weigh heavily on Israeli officials, as have reports in papers ranging from the liberal Haaretz to the center-right Maariv to the pro-Nentayahu broadsheet Israel Hayom, the highest-circulation newspaper in the country.

Unsurprisingly, Israel Hayom's general editorial stance has diverged from those of Haaretz -- where most of the commentators openly oppose war and have even been censored for reporting on defense-related matters in which Netanyahu was involved -- and Maariv, where dissatisfaction with Netanyhau's handling of the matter in international forums has been voiced even by those who prefer a military option. By contrast, Israel Hayom's editorials are suggestive of the kind of support the prime minister has among his more militant allies in both Israel and the United States (the paper was founded in 2007 by GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson). Its editorial page has consistently supported the prime minister's arguments against Iran in international forums and backed the concept of a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran. In response to the Yedioth Ahronoth reports, the paper ran an editorial accusing its counterpart of "sabotaging the Israeli consensus" by passing on "propaganda" originating in the White House.

This is a common criticism of the Obama administration, one often advanced by Netanyahu's allies. In their view, the White House and Pentagon are leaking information -- or looking the other way from leaks -- whose publication is intended to force the Israelis to back off from certain aspects of their war plans, even though the Netanyahu government quickly moves to deny the veracity of the reports. Certainly, the charge that leaks are not being patched up is difficult to dispute. The Obama administration's seeming inability to keep "senior U.S. officials" from discussing such sensitive subjects as the MKO's role in intelligence gathering, cyber-warfare sabotage, and Persian Gulf deployments with major media outlets is quite noticeable when compared to the administration's aggressive pursuit of whistleblowers -- especially when the leaked information presents an assertive, military-minded American agenda toward Iran.

The splits within the Israeli establishment are also not easy to determine, but Yedioth Aronoth's report also asserts that Barak has been calling out his subordinates in the past few weeks over their opposition to his claims that Israel will be able to weather Iran's response to an attack on its nuclear sites. Criticizing their collective opposition, he is said to be berating them for being more afraid of a post-war inquiry than a war itself and unsubtly making "it clear that everyone against an attack is free to resign" ahead of it. A mass resignation would perhaps free the defense minister to deal with more pliant replacements, but the resulting scandal would seriously damage the government's credibility at home and abroad. However, in a move that his office denies is at all related to the "Iran decision," Israel National News reports that Netanyahu's 25-member cabinet has awarded him greater procedural powers that may effectively allow him to govern by emergency fiat in the event of a war.

Barak, Netanyahu's main backer in all of this, is now apparently stepping deeper into the political fray over Iran's nuclear program, which has so far been dominated by the prime minister's strong rhetoric. Barak's statements on CNN this past week that Iran is not officially pursuing a weaponization program -- but rather, creating infrastructure that would guarantee redundancy in the event such a step is taken -- are not the first such remarks he has made at odds with those of the prime minister (as well as some others of his own). Despite his strong praise of U.S. defense ties, Israeli media watchers now believe that Barak is pushing hard in favor of a preemptive attack via anonymous interviews with Israeli journalists, most notably to Haaretz, where it appears that the defense minister is the interviewee dubbed "The Decision-Maker".

More significantly, Barak may have deliberately leaked information about a classified U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran -- first reported by Haaretz -- that, if its findings square with the claims made about it, would suggest that U.S. analysts have abandoned the judgement reached in the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that Iran gave up weaponization efforts in 2003 and was not as close to being able to build a bomb as previously thought. Though no subsequent NIEs have been publicized as the 2007 version was, Reuters reports that the Obama administration has not revised its "central assessment." Some U.S. media pundits and former government officials argue that the 2007 findings were wrong and that the NIEs are being manipulated for political purposes.

Haaretz reports that a new NIE had been passed on to the Israelis and that, in Barak's description, "it brings the American assessment much closer to ours," which is that Iran is extremely close to being able to build a bomb and is prepared to take the final step and order one to be built. However, following the defense minister's "confirmation" of the report, the United States refused to comment on the veracity of Haaretz's account. Barak subsequently played down the initial claim that this top-secret report was an NIE.

If it were an NIE, it would constitute an extremely significant development in the push toward preemption. Such an analysis carries significantly more weight than other U.S. intelligence estimates because it synthesizes the findings of over a dozen federal agencies, effectively giving it their seals of approval before it goes to the Oval Office. Former President George W. Bush says that though he questioned the 2007 NIE's findings, they stayed his hand from an Iran strike. He rhetorically asks readers of his memoirs, Decision Points, "How could I possibly explain using the military to destroy the nuclear facilities of a country the intelligence community said had no active nuclear weapons program?" Israel and Saudi Arabia were, according to Bush's account, "furious" over his decision to accept the findings.

With respect to this latest controversy surrounding an intelligence report, Haaretz's correspondents have apparently not seen the report themselves; their sources are military officials who say they have seen it and are distilling its essence. And once again, there is speculation in the Israeli press as to whether those sources -- or, rather, the sole source -- is Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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