Postscript: Israel’s Iran debacle

The story of the unfolding of Israel’s current Iran debacle started with the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan.

Meir Dagan (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Meir Dagan
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
If I were an ayatollah I would be rubbing my hands with glee. Israel’s relationship with the United States is teetering on crisis; Europe’s leaders, led by Angela Merkel of Germany, the same country that provided Israel with nuclear-capable submarines just recently, are furious; Israel’s prime minister and defense minister are at each other’s throats, as are other members of the Israeli cabinet, often with microphones in front of their mouths; day after day Israel’s major papers publish more and more details of Israel’s strategic thinking on the Iranian issue, while the never ending flow of Iranian-related verbiage put out by pundits, many fresh out of uniform or the civil service, just adds to the general confusion.
If the ayatollah in question had been with me at a bar mitzva just the other week, he would have been even more delighted to hear several young couples with an assortment of young children between them, discussing whether or not the responsible thing to do as parents would be to leave the country for a while. The weekend papers and Friday night TV commentators had certainly left an impression of pending war, and who knew what the crazy Iranians and their Hezbollah and Hamas allies would do in response.
For years Israel’s message to the world has been that a nuclear Iran was not only Israel’s problem, but the world’s problem. A tremendous effort was made to fortify this point, and not without success. Iran has been placed under an international sanctions regime and the American president is publicly pledged to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. The Iranians have come under closer international scrutiny, Canada has cut ties with the country and the secretary-general of the United Nations, in Tehran of all places, ridiculed and condemned Iran’s behavior toward Israel, the Jews and the Holocaust.
But then everything became unraveled.
Instead of Israel standing on the side lines watching while the world, at its urging, dealt with the Iranian problem, it is now back on center stage.
Instead of international cooperation, we now have international recrimination.
Instead of Israel and its allies having their collective eye on the ball, they now watch each other. How did this all come about?
The story of the unfolding of Israel’s current Iran debacle is simple, but quite unbelievable. It started with the former head of the Mossad, Meir Dagan, who decided to brief a group of senior journalists before leaving his post after eight years and three prime ministers as Israel’s top spymaster. The meeting was held in Dagan’s office, an extremely unlikely location for a media event, just before his successor, Tamir Pardo, was slated to take over on January 1, 2011.
Dagan’s message to the reporters was stunning: The Israeli public, he is quoted as saying, could trust neither the prime minister nor the defense minister on the Iranian issue; that the two men were going to lead Israel on a senseless path of war by irresponsibly bombing the Iranian nuclear reactors, and that Israeli military and security leadership was too weak to oppose them.
He then told the world on CBS’s prime-time 60 Minutes program that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities was the “stupidest idea” he had ever heard, and went on to give a long series of interviews on and off the record, just to make sure that the entire world understood that Israel’s current leadership could not be trusted to do the right thing.
Dagan’s motives have been a subject of speculation for months. Some say he felt he had to speak out to prevent a catastrophe, or at least postpone it.
Others say that it was political, sour grapes over not having Binyamin Netanyahu extend his term, or that he genuinely believed that the war against Iran’s nuclear program is best fought covertly. Whatever his motive, the net result was the seed of today’s bitter harvest, his campaign eagerly being taken up by those elements of the Israeli media that are happy to do anything to bring Netanyahu down, which means most of it, but not for the reasons you may all think.
Netanyahu made a serious enemy of Yediot Aharonot, the country’s largest and most influential paper, when he urged gambling billionaire Sheldon Adelson to open Israel HaYom, a blatantly pro-government daily giveaway, that has taken a serious bite out of Yediot’s circulation and advertising revenues and never has to show a profit. Yediot also has a substantial share in Channel 2, the independent network, giving it yet another medium to slam the prime minister whenever possible.
So when the former head of the Mossad, the man who led Israel’s secret war against Iran’s nuclear program for eight years, a national hero and father of the Stuxnet virus, says Netanyahu and Ehud Barak cannot be trusted, for Yediot it is like manna from heaven; something to be headlined and played up, no matter what the consequences for public morale, Israel’s international reputation and its ability to deter its enemies.
How can any responsible figure, no matter what his motives, have knowingly started a chain reaction he knew would lead to the world believing that Israel is in the hands of men who are not to be trusted and bureaucrats and generals too weak to oppose them.
The vibe the media put out, with Yediot at the helm, was that the Israeli public would do well to prepare the shelters and run for gas masks. There were reports from “experts” that “at worst” there would be “only” 300 to 500 dead in the event of an Iranian response, not counting possible damage from Hezbollah’s impressive arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles, and from Hamas down south.
We have been the architects of our own downfall once again. For once we had most of the world on board, but instead allowing ever-tightening sanctions imposed on Iran by the international community to take their toll, we have gone into confrontation mode with our best friends and landed up arguing among ourselves while the Iranians continue to bury more centrifuges ever deeper into the ground.
How ironic, this all because of the poor judgment of a man this country thought it could trust most.
Hirsh Goodman is a journalist and author living in Jerusalem. His latest book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, won the 2012 National Jewish book Award in the history category.