Point of Return: Israeli Generals and Intel Officials Oppose Attack on Iran
WASHINGTON - Pro-Israeli journalist Jeffrey Goldberg's article in "The
Atlantic" magazine was evidently aimed at showing why the
Barack Obama administration should worry that it risks an
attack by the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
on Iran in the coming months unless it takes a much more
menacing line toward Iran's nuclear programme.
But the article provides new evidence that senior figures in
the Israeli intelligence and military leadership oppose such
a strike against Iran and believe that Netanyahu's
apocalyptic rhetoric about an Iranian nuclear threat as an
"existential threat" is unnecessary and self-defeating.
Although not reported by Goldberg, Israeli military and
intelligence figures began to express their opposition to
such rhetoric on Iran in the early 1990s, and Netanyahu
acted to end such talk when he became prime minister in
The Goldberg article also reveals extreme Israeli
sensitivity to any move by Obama to publicly demand that
Israel desist from such a strike, reflecting the reality
that the Israeli government could not go ahead with any
strike without being assured of U.S. direct involvement in
the war with Iran.
Goldberg argues that a likely scenario some months in the
future is that Israeli officials will call their U.S.
counterparts to inform them that Israeli planes are already
on their way to bomb Iranian nuclear sites.
The Israelis would explain that they had "no choice", he
writes, because "a nuclear Iran poses the gravest threat
since Hitler to the physical survival of the Jewish people."
He claims the "consensus" among present and past Israeli
leaders is that the chances are better than 50/50 that
Israel "will launch a strike by next July", based on
interviews with 40 such Israeli decision-makers.
Goldberg is best known for hewing to the neoconservative
line in his reporting on Iraq, particularly in his
insistence that that Saddam Hussein had extensive ties with
Goldberg quotes an Israeli official familiar with
Netanyahu's thinking as saying, "In World War II, the Jews
had no power to stop Hitler from annihilating us. Six
million were slaughtered. Today, six million Jews live in
Israel, and someone is threatening them with annihilation."
In his interview with Goldberg for this article, however,
Netanyahu does not argue that Iran might use nuclear weapons
against Israel. Instead he argues that Hezbollah and Hamas
would be able to "fire rockets and engage in other terror
activities while enjoying a nuclear umbrella".
But Israel relies on conventional forces - not nuclear
deterrence - against Hezbollah and Hamas, making that
argument entirely specious.
Goldberg reports that other Israeli leaders, including
defence minister Ehud Barack, acknowledge the real problem
with the possibility of a nuclear Iran is that it would
gradually erode Israel's ability to retain its most talented
But that problem is mostly self-inflicted. Goldberg concedes
that Israeli generals with whom he talked "worry that talk
of an 'existential threat' is itself a kind of existential
threat to the Zionist project, which was meant to preclude
such threats against the Jewish people."
A number of sources told Goldberg, moreover, that Gabi
Ashkenazi, the Israeli army chief of staff, doubts "the
usefulness of an attack".
Top Israeli intelligence officials and others responsible
for policy toward Iran have long argued, in fact, that the
kind of apocalyptic rhetoric that Netanyahu has embraced in
recent years is self-defeating.
Security correspondent Ronen Bergman reported in Yediot
Ahronot, Israel's most popular newspaper, in July 2009 that
former chief of military intelligence Major General Aharon
Zeevi Farkash said the Israeli public perception of the
Iranian nuclear threat had been "distorted".
Farkash and other military intelligence and Mossad officials
believe Iran's main motive for seeking a nuclear weapons
capability was not to threaten Israel but to "deter U.S.
intervention and efforts at regime change", according to
The use of blatantly distorted rhetoric about Iran as a
threat to Israel - and Israeli intelligence officials'
disagreement with it - goes back to the early 1990s, when
the Labour Party government in Israel began a campaign to
portray Iran's missile and nuclear programmes as an
"existential threat" to Israel, as Trita Parsi revealed in
his 2007 book "Treacherous Alliance".
An internal Israeli inter-ministerial committee formed in
1994 to make recommendations on dealing with Iran concluded
that Israeli rhetoric had been "self-defeating", because it
had actually made Iran more afraid of Israel, and more
hostile toward it, Parsi writes.
Ironically, it was Netanyahu who decided to stop using such
rhetoric after becoming prime minister the first time in
mid-1996. Mossad director of intelligence Uzi Arad convinced
him that Israel had a choice between making itself Iran's
enemy or allowing Iran to focus on threats from other
Netanyahu even sought Kazakh and Russian mediation between
Iran and Israel.
But he reversed that policy when he became convinced that
Tehran was seeking a rapprochement with Washington, which
Israeli leaders feared would result in reduced U.S. support
for Israel, according to Parsi's account. As a result,
Netanyahu reverted to the extreme rhetoric of his
That episode suggests that Netanyahu is perfectly capable of
grasping the intelligence community's more nuanced analysis
of Iran, contrary to his public stance that the Iranian
threat is the same as that from Hitler's Germany.
Netanyahu administration officials used Goldberg to convey
the message to the Americans that they didn't believe Obama
would launch an attack on Iran, and therefore Israel would
have to do so.
But Israel clearly cannot afford to risk a war with Iran
without the assurance that the United States being committed
to participate in it. That is why the Israeli lobby in
Washington and its allies argue that Obama should support an
Israeli strike, which would mean that he would have to
attack Iran with full force if it retaliates against such an
The knowledge that Israel could not attack Iran without U.S.
consent makes Israeli officials extremely sensitive about
the possibility that Obama would explicitly reject an
Goldberg reports that "several Israeli officials" told him
they were worried that U.S. intelligence might learn about
Israeli plans to strike Iran "hours" before the scheduled
The officials told Goldberg that if Obama were to say, "We
know what you're doing. Stop immediately," Israel might have
to back down.
Goldberg alludes only vaguely to the possibility that the
threat of an attack on Iran is a strategy designed to
manipulate both Iran and the United States. In a March 2009
article in The Atlantic online, however, he was more
straightforward, conceding that the Netanyahu threat to
strike Iran if the United States failed to stop the Iranian
nuclear programme could be a "tremendous bluff".