Sometimes I get to think that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, with all
his idiosyncrasies, is more responsible than some of the people in positions of
tremendous authority in this country.
Take the media storm this week over
the issue of whether Israel should attack Iran’s nuclear facilities or
It all started with a front-page story by columnist Nahum Barnea in
last Friday intimating that despite wall-to-wall opposition in
the defense establishment, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Defense
Minister Ehud Barak are hell-bent on attacking Iran’s nuclear
Since then the story has developed into a public debate over
whether or not there should be a public debate on the subject, with the media
tripping over each other to bring new angles and headlines to a story that has,
in one way or another, dominated the news this past week. It culminated with a
poll in Haaretz
on Thursday that found 41 percent of Israelis supported an
attack on Iran, 39% opposed it and 20% were undecided, a stunning statistic in a
country where everyone considers himself a prime minister or, at the very least,
a chief of staff.
There can’t be a public debate on the issue, because
the public is in no way able to judge the costs or benefits of the
They don’t know what targets are involved, how many civilians
will be killed, what Iran’s response will be. The public being invited to debate
the pros and cons of an attack on Iran are not privy to information about
Iranian second-strike capability, assessments as to how the Americans and the
Europeans will react, or the Egyptians, Jordanians and Turks for that
The public does not have a clue about intelligence information,
if there is any, of other potential consequences of such an attack, like the
possibility of Iran lashing out against the West with a campaign of nuclear
terror, or even conventional attacks on subways and other sensitive
infrastructure, that would heap hatred and blame on Israel’s head, and turn
friends of the Jewish state into sworn enemies. The public knows little, if
nothing, about the operational aspects of such an attack, of the real risks
involved, of the limitations and the consequences of either success or
To poll the public on the question is ridiculous, if not
ludicrous, almost like asking someone if they want to give up the Golan, without
making any mention of the conditions involved. If you hit the Iranian nuclear
sites, something the experts tell us will take days to do efficiently, what
about attacking the Iranian air force and army, and Iran’s missile sites and
military headquarters and all those surprises the Revolutionary Guards have for
doomsday, including 50,000 rockets and missiles in Lebanon and ditto in Gaza?
poll is a journalistic curiosity.
The story that started the
ball rolling, however, Nahum Barnea’s front-page piece in Yediot
, is a cause for
concern, not because of who wrote it or the paper that published it, but because
of who wanted it out and why.
Barnea, the first-ever recipient of an
Israel Prize for journalism, is a highly credible reporter with extraordinary
access, and whose editorial judgment carries enormous weight at Yediot
indeed it should. He did not wake up one morning, and while in the shower
concoct a story about a deep rift on a critical issue in inner-inner sanctum of
the government. Someone made sure that he heard about it.
For Barnea to
believe him, or her, and for Yediot
to splash it over its entire front page,
that source had to be entirely credible; someone from deep inside the inner
sanctums of the defense policy-making community and close enough to both the
prime and defense ministers to know their thoughts on the most sensitive and
secret of issues. There are not many people like that, and when it comes to an
attack on Iran, the numbers are small indeed.
At first, some pundits
attributed the reports that Israel’s two top ministers want to attack Iran’s
nuclear facilities as being linked to the publication of the IAEA report on
Iran’s nuclear program due out any day now, and their wanting to focus
international attention on it. Then some said the story was deliberately leaked
to add to Israel’s deterrence by telling the Iranians that Israel’s top leaders
are looking for an excuse to attack them, and as a warning to the Americans and
Europeans not to be complacent about Iran’s ongoing nuclear efforts. This began
to make a little more sense when we read that Israel’s ambassadors had been
instructed to promote international awareness on the issue and, somewhat
miraculously, Israel “happened” to test a ballistic missile over the
Mediterranean on Wednesday.
Alas, if only this were true. What we have
here is an attempt by someone who either serves, or has very recently served, in
a very central position, to portray the country’s top leadership as
irresponsible, populist and willing to do anything for their own advancement. It
does not enhance Israel’s security to say its leaders are prepared to fly in the
face of the country’s defense experts, and imply that they are irresponsible. It
does not enhance Israel’s deterrence to have Haaretz
launch a poll on the issue,
or to have the topic as the centerpiece of a debate in the Knesset and on every
talk show, much of it blah blah, but some of it immensely informative to
What this has all been about is not a public debate on
an immensely complicated issue. What it boils down to, at least in part, is
malicious gossip from an informed and well-connected insider, with a deep
understanding of the foibles and power of the media, and who used both to
further his or her agenda.
It is too easy to use the guise of “in the
public interest” to further one’s own interests, and one has the sense that this
is what may have happened here.
This is not the way serious issues are
discussed in serious democracies, as whispers in the night, and as big, thick
and simplistic headlines in the morning.
This is, after all, an
existential issue we are talking about, not politics.The writer is a
senior research associate at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel
Aviv University. His most recent book,
The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, was
published by PublicAffairs, New York, this fall.