The political battle over Netanyahu's epic Iran intel broadcast

Why Netanyahu’s Iran archive presentation ended up dividing, rather than uniting.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
The Knesset’s summer session was supposed to begin Monday with great fanfare.
After the halls of the parliament had been empty for months while the MKs were presumably taking out and putting away their dishes on their extended Passover vacation, the Knesset was supposed to come back to life.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was set to address his Likud faction and then the Knesset as a whole, in honor of Herzl Day. Motions of no confidence in Netanyahu’s government were due to be brought, followed by votes on controversial bills.
But then Netanyahu called an emergency meeting of the security cabinet on short notice in Tel Aviv, canceled the faction meeting, and sent Tourism Minister Yariv Levin to give a dry speech about Herzl in his stead. When he announced an address to the nation, politicians speculated that it was about the previous night’s mysterious attack in which missiles were destroyed in Syria.
Yesh Atid and the Zionist Union canceled their no-confidence motions, because they thought Israel might be going to war. Voting on key bills was postponed until after the Netanyahu address, which, despite lacking questions, was called a press conference.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adresses Iranian nuclear activity, April 30th, 2018. (Credit: GPO)
The first reactions to Netanyahu’s speech from opposition MKs, led by former defense minister Amir Peretz, were supportive of Netanyahu and critical of Iran. They praised the huge amount of information brought to Israel by the Mossad from Tehran in a daring operation. It appeared that, like Netanyahu’s addresses to the United Nations and AIPAC policy conferences, this speech would unite the nation.
BUT THEN the criticism began. MKs questioned why Netanyahu scared people for so long, why the information had to be shared in such a manner, and asked whether the speech lacked a “smoking gun” proving that the nuclear deal had been breached by Iran.
The most intense criticism came from Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, who went as far as accusing Netanyahu of harming Israel’s intelligence efforts in Iran by revealing the information to the world. He even said current intelligence officials were “shocked” by Netanyahu’s presentation, but he avoided questions about whether he spoke personally to such officials.
Current Mossad head Yossi Cohen was in favor of presenting the information as publicly as possible, and security officials who briefed the Israeli media said there had been a consensus in the intelligence community that Netanyahu tell the world about the documents retrieved from Iran’s secret archive.
Former Mossad deputy chief and current Yesh Atid Knesset candidate Ram Ben-Barak, who was deeply involved in Iran nuclearization prevention for more than a decade as head of special operations, admitted that he had not heard criticism from anyone currently in the Mossad. But in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, he was very critical of Netanyahu’s presentation.
“There’s a complete consensus in Israel on the need to prevent Iran’s nuclearization, on the Mossad operation being impressive, and a nearly complete consensus on the deal with Iran being bad,” Ben-Barak said. “There is not as much as consensus on whether the deal should be accepted as the best current alternative, and there is legitimate debate on whether it was right to do something so dramatic as revealing a Mossad operation.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018 (Amir Cohen/Reuters)Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018 (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Ben-Barak said that Israel’s goal needed to be persuading the countries that signed the Iran deal to join US President Donald Trump in fixing it or nixing it by his May 12 deadline, and that presenting the archive publicly did not aid that goal.
“Netanyahu showed Trump and the CIA the information, and we have good relations with the intelligence [agencies] of the other countries, so why did Shula in Afula and Barbara in Wisconsin have to know?” he asked. “I believe the Mossad head and others really supported revealing the information, but they were mistaken. It had to remain quiet, because the broadcast stuck a finger in Iran’s eye, encouraging Iran to take steps we don’t want them to take.”
Ben-Barak insisted that Israel knew for certain, before he left the Mossad six years ago, that Iran was lying about not advancing a military nuclear program. He said Israel used that knowledge to persuade the international community, including Russia and China, to put tough sanctions on Iran.
“It’s not new that they lied back then,” he said. “But as far as we know now, they are keeping the deal, and if they’re not keeping the deal, we still can’t prove it. If there is a document that says they’re continuing [with their military nuclear program], it hasn’t been revealed, including in Netanyahu’s presentation.
We need to act smart and avoid a regional war, and what Netanyahu did was the opposite.”
DEPUTY MINISTER Michael Oren (Kulanu), who was deeply involved in preventing Iran’s nuclearization for more than four years as ambassador to the US, told the Post he was “mind-boggled” that Netanyahu’s presentation did not immediately persuade everyone in Israel and leaders around the world that Iran intends to continue its nuclearization.
He said the “smoking guns” Netanyahu revealed included proving that Iran lied when it signed the nuclear deal, finding out that the same people were running Iran’s civilian and military nuclear programs, and discovering that Iran hid instead of destroying information it could use to continue its military nuclear program when the deal expires in under eight years, due to its notorious sunset clause.
“There must be either cognitive dissonance or a logical breakdown among those who say that the world knew Iran was lying when it made the deal but they signed it anyway,” Oren said. “When they say they already knew then what the prime minister presented, I know they are lying, because I was involved, and I know what they knew. Iran coming clean was a condition for the deal, and now we know the deal itself was one big lie.”
Oren said the signatories of the deal should be immediately withdrawing their signatures, which were obtained under false pretenses.
“Even if they knew that Iran was lying in the past and present and were willing to overlook that Iran was lying, why put in sunset clauses that do not protect the world from Iran lying in the future?” Oren asked.
Oren also questioned why the international community’s inspectors, whose comprehensive inspections are supposed to be the basis of the deal, did not find half a ton of documents and computer files about Iran’s development of a nuclear arsenal. But he said he is very thankful that the Mossad did what the inspectors failed to do.
He said that at the very least, the international community must now demand unlimited oversight over Iran’s nuclear program, including in closed military sites, and prevent the development of Iranian ballistic missiles.
At least on that – it is safe to say – there remains a consensus in the Knesset.