No, it’s not about Iran

Netanyahu doesn’t need Mofaz to attack Iran because Israelis already trust him on this issue.

Mofaz and Netanyahu at cabinet meeting 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Mofaz and Netanyahu at cabinet meeting 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In arguing last week that the new unity government’s impetus was primarily domestic, I’m in the minority: The more popular explanation is Iran. And it’s certainly true, as Charles Krauthammer noted, that unity governments are sometimes formed to create public legitimacy for military action; 1967 is the classic example. It’s also true, as other commentators have noted, that if Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu wanted to bolster the government’s security credentials in light of the vehement opposition to attacking Iran voiced by respected security experts like former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet security service chief Yuval Diskin, there’s nothing like having three former IDF chiefs of staff in the cabinet: Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Vice Prime Minister Moshe Ya’alon, and now, Kadima chairman Shaul Mofaz.
But I don’t think Netanyahu ever had a legitimacy problem over Iran, because polls consistently show the public siding with him rather than Dagan and Diskin. After Diskin charged last month that Netanyahu and Barak were “messianists” who couldn’t be trusted on Iran, for instance, a subsequent poll found that the public disagreed by a 2:1 margin. And far from concurring with Dagan that attacking Iran is “a stupid idea,” two-thirds of Israelis say that if other measures fail, attacking Iran is preferable to living with Iranian nukes.
These findings may seem surprising, because Diskin and Dagan both enjoy great public esteem for their respective performances as Shin Bet and Mossad chief. But when you consider the history of Israel’s efforts against Iran’s nuclear program, it’s not surprising at all.First, it’s an undeniable fact that so far, the Netanyahu-Barak duo has conducted a highly responsible and effective Iran policy in comparison to former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon. By loudly threatening military action – in contrast to the Olmert-Sharon policy of keeping a low profile and letting Washington take the lead – they have for the first time succeeded in getting the world to impose the kind of draconian sanctions on Iran that all Israeli governments have deemed the only hope of making military action unnecessary. Indeed, French officials openly acknowledged that the EU decided to halt Iranian oil imports only due to fear that otherwise, Israel would attack Iran.
Second, it’s equally undeniable that so far, the methods advocated by Dagan and Diskin have failed miserably. According to a cable later published by WikiLeaks, for instance, Dagan’s strategy for Iran contained five elements: “political approach,” “covert measures,” “counter-proliferation,” “sanctions” and “regime change.” Four of the five have been tried extensively. Iran has been hit with four rounds of Security Council sanctions, plus independent US and EU sanctions. The West has negotiated with Iran repeatedly. Various efforts were made to keep Tehran from acquiring nuclear technology, reportedly including having CIA agents sell it faulty equipment. And as Mossad chief, Dagan spent eight years taking covert action against Iran; his reputed successes include the Stuxnet computer worm and the assassination of several Iranian nuclear scientists.
But despite all this, Iran’s nuclear capability has progressed dramatically. Tehran has produced enough low-enriched uranium for four nuclear bombs; further enriched some of this uranium to 20 percent, which experts say is far more difficult than going from 20 percent to the 90 percent needed for a bomb; installed thousands of additional centrifuges, including at a new underground facility in Fordow that is almost invulnerable to attack; and conducted experiments in weaponization, including technology to arm its missiles with nuclear warheads and “a highly sophisticated nuclear triggering technology that experts said could be used for only one purpose: setting off a nuclear weapon.”
As for regime change, Iran’s Green Revolution posed a real opportunity in 2009, but the world, and especially Washington, declined to support it. Now, the Iranian opposition has been brutally suppressed, making regime change highly unlikely in the limited time remaining until Iran gets the bomb.
Granted, Dagan’s strategy isn’t dead yet: The new, tougher sanctions – including the European oil embargo, a ban on doing business with Iran’s central bank and severing Iran from the SWIFT network of interbank transfers – will come fully online only later this summer; meanwhile, new negotiations with Iran are also underway. But even Dagan doesn’t seem to believe these latest measures will suffice to halt Tehran’s nuclear program: He co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed just last week declaring that still more draconian sanctions are needed.
Finally, there’s a third historical factor: the Iraq precedent. In 1981, numerous senior defense officials opposed attacking Iraq’s nuclear reactor, including the heads of the Mossad, Military Intelligence and the Atomic Energy Commission, plus a former IDF chief of staff and a former air force chief of staff. Yet the operation was an unqualified success, and Iraq remains nuke-free to this day – showing that senior defense officials aren’t necessarily better than elected politicians at weighing the costs and benefits of such a strike.
Thus the nuclear record alone suffices to justify Israelis’ faith in Netanyahu and Barak over Dagan and Diskin. But another factor may be at play as well: Both former officials have blamed the government for the ongoing Palestinian impasse. Dagan, for instance, lambasted it for not adopting the Saudi peace plan, while Diskin asserted last month that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas really wants to negotiate, and it’s Netanyahu’s fault that talks have effectively been frozen since 2009.
But Israelis are very aware of Abbas’s of Olmert’s generous peace offer in 2008, his refusal to talk with Netanyahu even after the latter imposed an unprecedented settlement freeze, the ongoing Palestinian insistence on the “right of return” and denial of Jerusalem’s Jewish history, the polls showing that most Palestinians still view Israel’s destruction as their ultimate goal. In light of all this, they overwhelmingly blame the impasse on the Palestinians. And having rejected Diskin and Dagan’s judgment on this issue, it’s only natural for Israelis to question their judgment on other issues as well.
In short, Israelis already have solid grounds for trusting Netanyahu and Barak over Diskin and Dagan on Iran. For that, Netanyahu doesn’t need Mofaz in the cabinet.
The writer is a journalist and commentator.