Hard to buy Barak's claim that IDF, ministers tied his hands on Iran strike

Now one is left to wonder whether Netanyahu and Barak really wanted to make the decision to attack - or whether it's all a bluff.

By
August 22, 2015 21:20
Then-IDF chief Benny Gantz (R) speaks with then-defense minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem

Then-IDF chief Benny Gantz (R) speaks with then-defense minister Ehud Barak in Jerusalem. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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When authorities were investigating the Boaz Harpaz affair, it became apparent that unlike the tapes recorded by then-IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, the audio recordings from the office of his superior – then-defense minister Ehud Barak – had been destroyed.

Experts, analysts, Barak adversaries and conspiracy theorists all claimed that the destruction of those tapes by a man like Barak – who is notoriously cautious – was no coincidence. The investigating authorities exonerated Barak, however, after coming to the conclusion that the destruction of the tapes was simply a mistake by mandarins at the Defense Ministry.

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This time, however, it seems that Barak’s circumspection has failed him. On Friday, Channel 2 aired audio segments in which the former defense minister can be heard explaining why he and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not order the IDF to attack Iran.

Barak blames Ashkenazi, his successor, Benny Gantz, as well as ministers Moshe Ya’alon and Yuval Steinitz, all of whom opposed the attack. According to Barak associates, Ilan Kfir and Danny Dor – the authors of an upcoming Hebrew-language biography about the former defense minister – violated their subject’s trust. They claim that Barak had agreed to have his interviews recorded in order to expedite the writing process and make life easier for the authors.

The former defense minister, however, did not consent to having the tape’s content publicly disseminated. When contacted by The Jerusalem Post’s corporate sister Ma’ariv for comment, Dor did not respond.

Prior to the Channel 2 report, Barak tried to prevent the airing of the audio clips. He appealed to the Military Censor’s Office, which rejected his request to bar the broadcast. Once Barak revealed information about secret cabinet discussions to journalists, the question of whether he intended to have his position aired publicly is a secondary one – and certainly is not one that concerns the censor.

Even if he did not intend for the information to emerge in audio format, Barak intended to have his opinion known by the public. He is trying to shape the historical narrative by portraying himself as the figure who pushed hardest in favor of a strike on Iran – only to be overruled by the cabinet ministers and military commanders who opposed such a move.

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According to Barak, Ashkenazi told him in 2010 that the IDF simply did not have the operational capacity to execute an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

In 2011, Ashkenazi was replaced by Gantz as chief of staff. Gantz told Barak that the military did indeed have the operational “maturity” for a strike.

While Gantz made it clear that the IDF would carry out any directive issued to it by the civilian leadership, he was convinced that an attack was unnecessary. Barak also said that he was surprised to see ministers Ya’alon and Steinitz “melt” at the last minute after he was led to believe by Netanyahu that the two men supported the plan.

Ya’alon and Steinitz instead chose to side with the opposing cabinet ministers – Dan Meridor and Bennie Begin. As a result, Netanyahu and Barak were left without the necessary majority to back an attack.

A year later, Barak and Netanyahu tried again to convince the cabinet to approve an attack plan. This time, however, it was weather considerations that presented an obstacle. Israel had only two “windows of opportunity” to attack, but neither was exploited due to external factors. These were a large-scale drill with the US military from May to July and the upcoming US presidential election in November 2012.

Barak’s comments should not be taken as absolute truth. They are just one version of events.

Other versions that have not been aired publicly include that of former Mossad director Meir Dagan, and those of Gantz and Ashkenazi themselves. Dagan and Ashkenazi have hinted that Netanyahu and Barak acted in a manipulative fashion on the Iran issue.

There was one claim, first reported by Ma’ariv, according to which Barak told the cabinet that he was personally informed by then-CIA chief Leon Panetta that the Obama administration had reversed its opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran.

When the Americans were informed of Barak’s claim, they were furious. They sent a special emissary to Israel with the exact transcript of the Panetta-Barak conversation in question. Barak and Netanyahu then allegedly tried to get the chief of staff to “get the system activated.” That would involve mobilization of the reserves and ordering the air force, intelligence services and home front authorities to take a number of preemptive measures.

“Activating the system” could take more than a month, and is liable to lead to a “miscalculation.”

The risk is that Iran would expose these preparations and launch preemptive actions that would threaten to drag the entire Middle East, as well as the United States, into a regional war. Was that Barak’s and Netanyahu’s intention? Such a possibility should not be ruled out.

These conflicting versions of events remind one of the Japanese film Rashomon, in which a number of characters recall events, each through his own lens. The narratives often contradict.

The truth may only be known 70 years from now, if at all, when official records of the meetings are made public. That is not a sure thing. In the most sensitive, secret discussions, there are those who compose the protocol of meetings simply with an eye to the history books.

Even if we were to believe Barak, it’s difficult to be swayed.

If the prime minister and the defense minister really wanted to win cabinet approval for a decision to attack Iran, they could have overcome ministerial opposition. Never in the history of the State of Israel has a determined, dominant prime minister been prevented from getting government approval for his decisions – especially those relating to existential issues – by opposition from other ministers.

One is left wondering whether Netanyahu and Barak really wanted to attack – or whether it was all bluff. If indeed it were a bluff, it was a successful one. They played a game of “Hold me back” with the Israeli public and – more important – with the Americans.

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