More than 13 years later, the events of 2010 are still something of a mystery in Israel. Then, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, regularly threatened military action against Iran but stopped short of launching a strike.
Still today, the ministers who were members of the security cabinet back then and the IDF officers who briefed them regularly, are still conflicted about what happened. Were Netanyahu and Barak serious about attacking Iran and simply stopped – as they later claimed - due to the opposition they met within the defense establishment, or were they bluffing all along, using threats against Iran to stir panic in Washington, London and Berlin and get the world to ratchet up sanctions against Tehran?
Based on comments by senior Israeli politicians and military officers in recent weeks, it seems that Israel might once again be in a bit of a “2010 moment”, one which, on the surface, seems like a path to war, but on the other hand might be again a bluff aimed at getting the world’s attention.
Is Israel heading to war with Iran or are they just bluffing to get attention?
There is no denying the escalation in the rhetoric. Last month, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi said that Israel is not “indifferent” to what is happening in Iran and might need to take action to stop it. This week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened a war drill and issued a public threat at a meeting of the security cabinet, saying that Israel can handle the threat from Iran on its own.
And then there was Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who said Tuesday that Israelis did not need to worry themselves with the new hypersonic missile that Iran unveiled earlier that day and that if a war were to break out with Tehran’s proxy, Hezbollah, Israel would send it back to the “stone age.”
One would be forgiven for thinking that the beating of war drums means that war is coming. On the other hand, what we have learned over the last couple of decades in Israel is that sometimes war drums mean the exact opposite and are used to deliver messages, oftentimes to allies and not just adversaries.
What Israel seems to be doing now, is using its threats to put pressure on the Biden administration as it negotiates a new interim deal with Iran as a way to stop its enrichment of military-grade uranium. Based on the intensity of the Israeli rhetoric, it seems that the US-Iran talks are proceeding at a faster pace than initially anticipated, and might even be on the verge of an agreement.
As a result, it is interesting to compare the way Netanyahu and his government spoke in 2015 against the original Iran deal with the way they are speaking now. Then, as is well known, Netanyahu accepted an invitation from the republicans and spoke before Congress in direct opposition to the deal, and somewhat to then-president Barack Obama. While Netanyahu felt the need to do everything possible to stop the bad deal – as can be expected from an Israeli leader - his decision to speak in 2015 in Congress went against the president’s wishes and is still a raw nerve for many democrats.
WOULD NETANYAHU do the same today? Unlikely. The reason is twofold. On the one hand, while Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy said during his visit to Israel last month that he would invite Netanyahu to Washington DC if President Joe Biden did not, Netanyahu understands that a fight with the administration will not succeed in stopping a new interim deal and will become highly politicized as the 2024 presidential election race heats up.
The second reason is because deep down, Israel wants a diplomatic resolution to the Iran nuclear challenge. It knows that a military option – while viable – will only delay Iran’s pursuit of a bomb and pave the way for the mullahs to gain the legitimacy they need to plow ahead under the claim that a bomb is needed to protect the republic.
While there are some in the Knesset and the defense establishment who are enamored by the military option and cite the success of the destruction of the Iraqi reactor in 1981 and the Syrian reactor in 2007, they would do well to remember that in both cases the reactors were built by external actors – France in Iraq and North Korea in Syria. That is not the case in Iran where the nuclear technical know-how is domestic and knowledge, as is known, is not something that can easily be destroyed.
Which is why Israel has always wanted a diplomatic resolution to the threat but one that took Israel’s concerns into consideration and dealt with the fundamental issues – not only Tehran’s nuclear program, but also its development of long-range ballistic missiles as well as the regime’s support of terrorist proxies throughout the region.
The talks that the Americans are engaged in now with Iran are unlikely to meet any of those criteria. From the little details that have leaked about the pending deal, Iran will be able keep its enriched uranium while committing to suspending all high-level enrichment.
In other words, it gets to keep all the uranium it has already enriched, all of its nuclear infrastructure and technical knowledge. What this means is that in the best-case scenario, Iran will only suspend its high-grade enrichment but will not abandon its desire to one day get the bomb. In exchange for this enrichment freeze it will see significant economic benefits.
Can Israel realistically stop this deal or at the very least sweeten it? That remains to be seen and is currently the Israeli objective. Like in 2015, Jerusalem understands that it is unlikely that it will succeed in stopping a new deal.
On the other hand, Netanyahu knows that he has sway in Washington, especially within Republican circles where Israel is looked to as a stamp of approval when it comes to US moves on Iran. Biden might want an interim deal, but he also does not want to do something that will simply give his republican opponents ammo to use against him on the campaign trail.
Can Israel maneuver through this complicated terrain? Can it, on the one hand, improve the framework of the deal but, on the other hand, receive some other benefit from the US, like security assurances, new weapons systems or maybe even some form of rapprochement with Saudi Arabia?
That remains to be seen. In the meantime, Israel would be negligent not to escalate its own talk against Iran right now. It might not be as glamorous as a speech before Congress or an invitation to the White House, but everything does need to be done to stop Iran.
The writer is the immediate past editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.