The politics of defense

Defense officials’ political misjudgment and insubordination may have killed military option on Iran.

Gabi Ashkenazi with Binyamin Netanyahu 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)
Gabi Ashkenazi with Binyamin Netanyahu 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/POOL New)
Last week, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens accused Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of blowing his chance to attack Iran’s nuclear program, noting that it would have been easier when the reviled Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was Iran’s president than it would be now, with the world swooning over the “moderate” Hassan Rohani. “Here's a line I never thought I'd write: I wish Ehud Olmert were Israel's prime minister,” continued Stephens, a former Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief. Olmert “had a demonstrated capacity to act. It isn't clear that Mr. Netanyahu does.”
Though many Israelis share Stephens’ doubts about whether Netanyahu would attack if necessary, the Olmert comparison is unfair. Whereas Olmert had the defense establishment’s full support for bombing Syria’s nuclear reactor, senior defense officials opposed attacking Iran’s nuclear program so vehemently that then-IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, backed by then-Mossad chief Meir Dagan, reportedly disobeyed a direct order to ready the army for such a strike in 2010. 
The defense establishment’s objection to attacking Iran was two-fold. First, it thought a strike wasn’t urgent: there was still plenty of time. Second, it hoped America would eventually attack instead. Neither pretext for delay was possible in Syria’s case: The reactor was about to go hot, and President George W. Bush, to his credit, eschewed soothing platitudes like “all options are on the table”; he told Olmert plainly that America wouldn’t attack.
But it’s now clear Ashkenazi, Dagan and company were wrong on both counts. Following America’s U-turn on attacking Syria this summer, even defense officials have started to realize that it’s unlikely to attack Iran’s nuclear program: As former Military Intelligence chief Amos Yadlin, a longtime Iran dove, recently admitted, when the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff paints Syrian air defenses as an almost insuperable obstacle, it’s hard to imagine America attacking the far more formidable Iran. And time may have just run out: An Israeli strike while Western powers are negotiating with the “moderate” Rohani would cause immense, perhaps irreparable, damage to its most important alliances. And the same will be true if the West signs a deal that allows Iran’s nuclear program to continue progressing – which it well might.
In short, Ashkenazi and Dagan may have forced the government to forfeit Israel’s only chance to stop Iran from going nuclear – not because they misunderstood the military issues, but because they failed to foresee political developments in either Washington or Tehran.
Nor is this the first time defense officials’ political misjudgments have endangered the country. Negotiations to cede the Golan Heights to Syria for peace provide another salient example. This idea “had the vociferous support of the IDF” right up until the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Haaretz reported last month. Yet the Golan has proven crucial in insulating Israel from Syria’s civil war: Had it been ceded to Syria, Qaida-affiliated jihadists would now be able to bombard the Galilee at will. Hence even Haaretz (another vociferous deal supporter) acknowledged, “Where would Israel be today without that strategic asset?”
Again, what the IDF misread were the political tea leaves: It failed to consider the possibility that Assad’s seemingly stable regime might collapse into bloody chaos.
The 2005 disengagement from Gaza is yet another example. As Haaretz reported in August, “Contrary to what the Shin Bet [security service] and Military Intelligence had expected, after the disengagement Gaza began exporting terror to Sinai rather than the other way around. ‘We thought Sinai was the source of all evil for Gaza, but it turned out that things were exactly the opposite,’ a senior intelligence official said.”
Veteran journalist Ehud Yaari provided a similar description of the disengagement’s effect on Sinai last year: As Beduin political activist Ashraf al-Anani put it, “a fireball started rolling into the peninsula.” Illegal trade and arms smuggling volumes rose to new records, and ever-larger sectors of the northern Sinai population became linked to Gaza and fell under the political and ideological influence of Hamas and its ilk … the arms flow was often reversed, with weapons going from Gaza to the Sinai ... Today, a significant number of Hamas military operatives are permanently stationed in the Sinai, serving as recruiters, couriers, and propagators of the Hamas platform. A solid network of the group’s contact men, safe houses, and armories covers much of the peninsula.
The result is that Sinai, a peaceful border for over 30 years, is now a terrorist threat so great that the Shin Bet created a whole new unit to deal with it, whose “resources and manpower,” Haaretz said, are “on a par with those devoted to thwarting attacks north of Ramallah in the West Bank – and some sources say they are even greater.” Here, too, what the defense establishment misunderstood was the politics of the Gaza-Sinai relationship. Therefore, it failed to predict the disengagement’s disastrous impact on Sinai.
That generals frequently misread the political tea leaves is no surprise; politics isn’t their profession, so they can’t be expected to have any special expertise in it. But that’s precisely why the democratic norm of subordinating the military to the elected government also makes practical sense: As the above examples show, correct military decisions often depend on getting the politics right. And professional politicians usually have a better grasp of politics than professional soldiers.
Unfortunately, this norm has badly eroded in Israel. The Ashkenazi-Dagan insubordination over Iran is just one of many examples. For another, see the IDF’s disregard of a government order to expand its forces around Sinai – until a deadly terror attack once again showed that the government had read the situation better than the generals.
The only way to restore this vital norm is to strengthen governmental control over the defense establishment by making it easier to oust a recalcitrant head of the IDF, Mossad or Shin Bet. Therefore, legislation must be passed stipulating that all these officials serve at the government’s pleasure and can be dismissed at any time, for any reason.
Granted, that isn’t ideal; fixed terms provide stability and facilitate long-term planning. But as the above examples show, reestablishing political control over the defense establishment is currently more important. Israel’s very survival may depend on it.