Iran: No ‘loose cannon’ in Jerusalem

Netanyahu clearly hopes that heightened int'l pressure will lead Iran to go slow and further postpone, hopefully forgo, the final push to a bomb.

Netanyahu bomb picture 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
Netanyahu bomb picture 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson)
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s “red lines speech” at the UN removed the immediate sense of urgency surrounding the possibility of Israeli military action against Iran, while concomitantly putting the international community on notice that the moment of truth may arrive between late spring and the summer. Netanyahu clearly hopes that heightened international pressure will lead Iran to go slow and further postpone, hopefully forgo, the final push to a bomb, but presumes that reality will probably be different.
A vehement debate is underway among defense officials in Israel regarding a potential military strike and a number of former and even current senior officials have come out strongly against one, at least “at this time,” with some even criticizing Netanyahu severely. Crucially, however, the criticism has focused on the appropriate course of action, not the decision-making process itself, and while the unprecedented public nature of the debate has been unseemly, it reflects the strength of a democracy grappling with one of the most momentous decisions in its history. It would be truly worrisome were it otherwise.
The entire Israeli national security establishment, at all levels, has been deeply engaged on this issue since the early ‘90s. Indeed, it is hard to think of any other issue in Israel in recent decades that has been the subject of such extensive and careful attention. Regardless of what one thinks of the ultimate decision, it will not be for lack of painstaking consideration of the options.
In Israel’s system of government either the cabinet plenum or the Ministerial Committee on Defense (MCoD) must give formal approval for a military strike. Both are large, unwieldy, highly politicized and leak-prone and so the real decision making on this issue has been conducted in the informal “Forum of Nine” senior ministers that Netanyahu has convened and in the small informal consultations he holds with a handful of trusted ministers and senior defense officials (a similar process can be expected after the elections as well, regardless of who wins).
Positions formulated in these non-binding forums ultimately must be presented for formal approval by one of the statutory forums, in all likelihood the MCoD. Unanimous support is not required, but Netanyahu, or any premier, would presumably be loath to adopt such a momentous decision with less than broad consensus.
All indications are that Netanyahu has already mustered a small majority in favor and his widely anticipated victory in the upcoming elections will further strengthen his position. Given the severity of the threat, there are few partisan differences on this issue between the different parties and Netanyahu can expect broad public, Knesset and cabinet support, if and when the time comes.
For Israel, a nuclear Iran presents a potentially existential threat, or at a minimum a dire one, that any Israeli leader would go to great lengths to prevent. If ever there was a case of a “lonely” premier and defense minister bearing an almost devastating burden, this is it.
Netanyahu and Barak, or their potential successors, will be excoriated whatever they decide, reviled for having failed to prevent a renewed threat to the Jewish people if they refrain from action, vilified as reckless and irresponsible if they do act.
One thing is clear. Israel has been preparing for this moment for the past two decades and while people may legitimately disagree over its final decision, to attack or not, the decision-making process has been exhaustive and all possible avenues have been explored. There are no “loose cannon” in Jerusalem and if Israel does ultimately act this will only be after all other options have been explored and Israel truly believes that we have to come down to the wire.
The writer, a former deputy national security adviser in Israel, is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Zion’s Dilemmas: How Israel Makes National Security Policy.