Ariel Sharon and the rise of Iran’s nuclear threat

On December 18, 2009, Aluf Benn, Amos Harel, offered one of the most important insights into Israeli policy on Iran.

Sharon, Yaalon (photo credit: (Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sharon, Yaalon
(photo credit: (Ariel Jerozolimski)
On December 18, 2009, Aluf Benn and Amos Harel, writing in Haaretz, offered one of the most important insights into Israeli policy regarding the Iranian nuclear threat.
“When Netanyahu was finance minister in Ariel Sharon’s cabinet, he urged Sharon to focus on the struggle against Iran. When Netanyahu resigned over the disengagement plan, and Sharon left Likud and established Kadima, Netanyahu told Sharon that if he acted against Iran before the election, Netanyahu would support him. Sharon did not act.” (Neither did Netanyahu – MD).
“The uranium conversion plant in Isfahan has an important function in the chain of Iran’s nuclear program. It first went into operation in 2004... [and] since 2004, hundreds of kilograms... were sent to the enrichment plant in Natanz [stored in] underground tunnels.”
“It is possible that years ago, the problem of Iran’s nuclear project could have been solved by one tough blow and with relatively minimal risk. At the time, the project was dependent on one facility... Isfahan. If it had been bombed, Iran would have lost large quantities of raw material for uranium enrichment, and its nuclear program would have been set back years. But nothing happened.”
Why not? Benn and Harel did not answer this crucial question, nor did the media pick up their observation. Was the IAF incapable? Did Israel lack essential information? Was America, bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, reluctant to agree? Was Israel misled by faulty intelligence reports that the Iranians were not developing nuclear weapons? According to a senior military advisor, the IDF and IAF instituted operational plans to bomb the Iranian facility, but the political echelon opposed any action.
In hindsight, the decision not to bomb the Iranian facility was a gigantic mistake that changed the course of history.
There was, however, another reason for Sharon’s inattention: criminal charges against him and his sons and his preoccupation with unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and Northern Shomron.
The “Disengagement,” which took place in August 2005, took a year to prepare, mobilized massive resources and cost billions of shekels. Focused on expelling Jews from their homes and destroying 25 communities, Sharon ignored the primary and critical threat to Israel’s existence.
Three other people (at least) share responsibility for Israel’s blunder: defense minister Shaul Mofaz, vice prime minister Shimon Peres and Lt.-Gen. Dan Halutz, then commander of the IAF, designated in February, 2005 to replace Lt.-Gen. Moshe Ya’alon as IDF Chief of Staff (who opposed Sharon’s policy). Enthusiastic supporters of Sharon’s plans to evacuate Jews, they overlooked Iran in what seems to have been a pattern of confused decision-making.
Mossad directors Efriam Halevy and Meir Dagan played down the Iranian threat; Maj.-Gen. Giora Eiland, head of National Security Council, was tasked with the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip. Virtually the entire military and political echelon was focused on destroying Jewish communities, not on Iran.
Similarly, in 2006, prime minister Ehud Olmert, in the midst of the war in Lebanon, announced his intention to evacuate more settlements. Seemingly irrelevant, it dramatically illustrates his obsession with further unilateral withdrawals from and destruction of Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria.
Had the Israeli government prepared for war with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas instead of attacking tiny hilltop communities, the outcome of the Second Lebanon War would have been different. Instead, the Iranian threat was lost on Israel’s radar.
A year later (2007) Haaretz reported that foreign minister Tzipi Livni believed “Iranian nuclear arms pose little threat to Israel.” Once again, the focus was to destroy settlements, not Iran and its proxies.
The war in Lebanon was not a military defeat. It was a political defeat which allowed Hezbollah to control south Lebanon and dominate the government, while Hamas consolidated its rule in Gaza. Because Olmert’s primary agenda was political, not military, instead of defeating Hezbollah, he legitimized them. He failed to respond effectively to Hamas terror attacks until, in an effort to gain position in the coming election, he authorized the Cast Lead operation into Gaza.
When Binyamin Netanyahu became prime minister in 2009 and appointed Uzi Arad to head the National Security Council, Israel’s Iran policy became a priority. By then, however, Iran had multiple nuclear centers, a well-developed program, and the new Obama administration was more concerned about Israeli plans to build apartments in east Jerusalem and stopping all settlement activity.
Although its Iranian policy is more realistic, however, the Israeli government seems again caught on the hook of the settlement issue.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s approval, is intent on carrying out his private political agenda to destroy settlements despite widespread opposition from government ministers and Knesset.
Instead of developing a coherent national policy his call for unilateral withdrawal, like those implemented by Sharon and planned by Olmert, distracts from more serious issues – e.g. a compromised judicial system, crime and corruption, social and economic inequality, monopolies and cartels, and the infiltration of hundreds of thousands of illegal Africans.
The failure to bomb Iran under Sharon and Olmert-led administrations, entangled in the “two-state” delusion and an obsession with Jews living in Yesha, fits a pattern.
Although Netanyahu and others have spoken eloquently about the Iranian threat, the international community is unwilling to act decisively and it is unlikely that Israel will act unilaterally. As Israel faces increasing demonization and threats to its legitimacy and its very existence, it also confronts a domestic crisis – and an ideological one as well.
The issue is the sovereignty of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel. We dare not lose that focus.