The fateful war of words between the Mossad and Israeli Military Intelligence continued this week, with ministers leaking their classified contrary views on the Iran nuclear negotiations to Walla between Tuesday and Wednesday.
Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Aharon Haliva now favors some kind of new version of the nuclear deal to slow Iranian progress and buy time for planning a possible IDF airstrike, while Mossad Director David Barnea is against any but a radically improved deal.
The disagreement between them seems remarkable, but is in fact just another round of the ongoing debate between the intelligence heavyweights.
Who wins over the decision-makers – Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid – could have fateful consequences for Israel and the world.
First, Jerusalem (or certainly Lapid) is shifting its signaling from being able to prevent a deal to its hope that its efforts will improve a likely deal between the world powers and the Islamic Republic.
Second, though Barnea and IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kohavi have appeared to be in lockstep opposition to the deal since a major speech by Kohavi in January 2020, there have always been gradations in their views, and the current scenario is starting to flesh these out.
In October 2020, outgoing Military Intelligence analysis chief Brig.-Gen. Dror Shalom gave a stunning on-record interview addressing overall policy, the timing of a potential Iranian nuclear weapon, and Israeli intelligence’s ability to catch the Islamic Republic before it succeeds at breaking out to one.
On all three points, Shalom’s views – and the IDF confirmed that month that his views represented the existing consensus of the analysis wing of Military Intelligence at the time – worked neatly into those of other top former and current IDF officials, while clashing with the views of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-Mossad director Yossi Cohen.
LONG BEFORE Bennett came along, Shalom said that, to date, leaving the Iran nuclear deal and the maximum pressure campaign had not proven to be the best policy or slowed Tehran’s drive toward a bomb.
The main point to support this, even that October, was that the Islamic Republic had much more enriched uranium than before the campaign.
Next, he said that even if the ayatollahs decided tomorrow that they were ready to develop a nuclear bomb, it would take another two years.
Finally, he said that while there was a good chance that IDF Military Intelligence would detect such an Iranian attempt to dash over the nuclear threshold, it was not a sure thing.
In contrast, Netanyahu and Cohen had said the maximum pressure campaigns and leaving the Iran agreement were major improvements in confronting Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
They had declared that Tehran in October 2020 was only three to four months away from enriching enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. Now most experts say it’s only three to four weeks.
Finally, then-intelligence minister Eli Cohen and others had given the impression that the coverage of Israeli intelligence in Iran at the time was virtually unlimited for finding out about any major developments.
The summer 2020 series of seemingly endless explosions in Iranian nuclear and other installations, some of which have been attributed by foreign sources to Israel, supported the view of how deeply the Jewish state had penetrated Iran.
For outsiders, disagreements at these highest levels of Israeli intelligence would seem very confusing.
But for insiders, there is an inherent fault line between the Mossad and the IDF in how they operate and view the world, especially Tehran.
The Mossad is confident about operating covertly and below the surface even during peacetime or times short of war.
Like Cohen, Barnea is ready and willing to continue to sabotage Iranian nuclear facilities on an ongoing basis regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.
In fact, Barnea’s Mossad reportedly did so already both in June and September.
In contrast, the IDF will be called into service against Iran only if it would need to undertake one of the largest, highly complex and most dangerous aerial strikes in history.
Yes, it has been attacking relatively easy targets in Syria and sometimes Lebanon or Iraq for the last few years even without a full, declared war. However, these targets are nothing compared to the deep underground, spread out, and much more highly defended nuclear targets of the Iranians.
Put simply: The IDF has more at risk than the Mossad if it is pushed to act soon.
ONE DIFFERENCE in the debate on the timing is that officials are talking about different markers.
Discussing Iran being only weeks or months away from the bomb refers to how long it would take Iran to weaponize its current uranium stock if it made a push.
The two years Shalom and others periodically mention include an additional period after that time to sort out a variety of unique problems with detonation, placing a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile, and delivering it against a distant target.
But there are real differences in timing.
When Shalom and others mention two years, there is more of an assumption that activities for placing and delivering a nuclear weapon will wait until the uranium is weaponized.
But other top officials who view Iran as much closer to developing a nuclear bomb say that it could carry out many of these missile delivery activities in parallel with weaponizing uranium – and possibly do so in six months.
In some ways, that 2020 debate was a further round of an earlier debate placing then-IDF chiefs Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi and then-Mossad chiefs Meir Dagan and Tamir Pardo against Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak.
Barak and Netanyahu at least publicly wanted to attack Iran’s nuclear program preemptively during the 2010-2012 period, whereas the Mossad and IDF back then were mostly opposed.
When Cohen took over the Mossad, the spy agency moved into the more pro-attack and more anti-JCPOA column, a position we can now see is clearly being continued by Barnea – even without Netanyahu’s influence.
Haliva has now placed the IDF firmly back into the camp of not shaking the boat with the US too much if a deal is inevitable, even if it has holes. It puts in context a recent interview given by incoming Israel Air Force chief Maj.-Gen. Tomer Bar in which he guaranteed that his pilots could take out Iran’s nuclear facilities if ordered to do so. The IDF is saying, “We are ready, but would still rather not at this time.”
Barnea is saying, keep the knife on Tehran’s throat without showing a moment of hesitation regardless of the nuclear talks.
Despite the intrigue of a Mossad versus IDF debate, in the end, it is Bennett, Gantz and Lapid who will need to make the fateful decision of how to respond to a possible new JCPOA or a “less for less” version of a nuclear deal that may be agreed to in Vienna over the coming weeks and months.
According to a mix of their combined actions and statements over time, no matter what one of them says in one particular speech, all signs indicate that they will grudgingly swallow a new US deal without taking major action, while reserving the right to act if they catch Iran cheating in the future.