JERUSALEM — Israel's prime minister and defense minister tried to move their country closer to an attack on Iran in 2010 but military and security chiefs resisted, an Israeli television program reported Monday.
The Channel 2 television magazine “Fact” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak instructed the military to enter a level of preparedness termed P Plus, reportedly code for preparing for a military strike.
It remained unclear whether they intended to follow through with a strike or just wanted to signal that Israel was prepared to make such a move. Ultimately the instructions to the military were dropped.
In a taped interview that followed the segment, Netanyahu told “Fact” that he was “not eager to go to war” and would be “very happy” to see international sanctions force Iran to rein in its nuclear program, which Tehran says is peaceful in intent but Israel, the U.S. and others fear will produce a nuclear weapon.
“At the end of the day, as prime minister of the Jewish state, the responsibility is mine to prevent the threat to our existence,” Netanyahu said.
In the feature, which aired Monday night, veteran investigative journalist Ilana Dayan reported that the order was given somewhat casually, at the end of a ministerial forum convened on a different matter.
But Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Dagan, then army chief of staff and head of Mossad, respectively, resisted the instruction, said Dayan's report. Ashkenazi reportedly said the army wasn't ready; Dagan contended that only the security Cabinet could authorize such a step because it might lead to war. Both men have since left their posts.
The report highlights the continuing disagreement between Netanyahu and some of his top security officials on the possibility of an Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear program, a topic that in recent years has become a permanent fixture on the agenda in Israel.
It also demonstrates the risk of brinkmanship in a volatile situation. Confidants of Ashkenazi told Israeli news media he feared that increasing the level of preparedness could by itself lead to war.
Since then, Ashkenazi, Dagan and other former senior defense officials have openly voiced their objection to a strike on Iran under current circumstances. Yuval Diskin, formerly the head of Shin Bet, fiercely criticized Netanyahu and Barak for their policy on Iran and suggested they have a messianic complex.
Ilana Dayan asked Barak whether he and Netanyahu had tried to “steal a war.” Barak said it was “untrue that raising the degree of alert for a certain period forces Israel to go to war.” Speaking on Israel radio earlier in the day, retired Maj. Gen. Danny Yatom also commented that raising the level of alertness of a particular unit or entire force “doesn't mean that's the point of no return.”
Whether the reported incident was a practical operational instruction or a signal to other countries that Israel was serious is unclear. Either way, the issue of Iran and this glimpse into the inner workings of Israel's decision-making process probably will play a role in Israel's election campaign.
Some political elements could benefit from focusing the campaign on defense issues, Vice Prime Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel radio Monday, suggesting that raising the question “might have something to do with the timing of elections.” Still, he said, the army was preparing to defend Israel's security, including any threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program. “This is no state secret,” Shalom said.
On Thursday, one columnist commented that Barak was making political use of intelligence on Iran after making generous on-record comments to foreign news media. Yatom said the defense minister wasn't undermining national security by telling television that the chief of staff said the army was not prepared at that particular time two or three years ago.
Another former chief of staff opposed to striking Iran at this time, and opposed to Netanyahu and Barak politically, is Shaul Mofaz, who took over the centrist party Kadima from Tzipi Livni this year. Mofaz, who briefly joined Netanyahu's government this spring, launched his election campaign this week with a large image of a nuclear mushroom and the slogan “Bibi will get us in trouble.”
-- Batsheva Sobelman
Photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Cabinet meeting Sunday in Jerusalem. Credit: Gali Tibbon / Pool Photo