The critics should look no further than the U.S. to see what consequences can ensue.
By DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. And KARL R. MOOR
While the Israeli political scene is no stranger to strident criticisms directed at senior government officials and their policies, the recent attacks on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak over their policies toward Iran are a dangerous luxury.
Numerous retired security officials who do not lack a private voice or influence within a small nation. including former Shin Bet head, Yuval Diskin, ex- Mossad chief, Meir Dagan, and Former IDF Chief of General Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, have launched broadsides against the current Israeli government’s dire assessments of the Iranian threat and the best ways of dealing with it.
They were followed by a more subdued critique, proffered by the IDF’s current Chief of General Staff Benny Gantz, who opined that the Iranian threat was not all that imminent and the Iranian regime, warts and all, was a rational strategic actor. These criticisms were reinforced by more openly political attacks, which came from Labor Chairwoman Shelly Yacimovich and Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Despite some differences in style and substance, the basic arguments of all these naysayers are that Messrs. Netanyahu and Barak have greatly exaggerated the extent of the threat posed by the Iranian nuclear weapons program, downplayed the efficacy of the global diplomatic and economic pressure on Tehran and overestimated the extent to which an Israeli military strike is a viable strategic option. While the precise modalities of these Israeli contretemps over the Iranian policy are unusual, they are not unprecedented.
Heated debates about issues of war and peace are endemic to all societies, and in democratic societies they are played out in the halls of government and in public. For example, during the George W. Bush Administration, senior CIA officials seemed to be at war with their political masters, leaking rosy assessments of the Iranian nuclear program in ways designed to foreclose any prospects of the U.S. launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran. Meanwhile, a few retired generals, dissatisfied with the Iraq war, attacked then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
But these types of intramural disputes are never cost-free. The consequences of the attacks on Netanyahu’s and Barak’s handling of the Iranian issue are serious. That they make it more difficult for the current Israeli government to mount military strikes against Tehran’s nuclear installations is, of course, the most obvious result and the one clearly desired by the critics.
What the critics are missing is that other consequences ensue, too. Tehran is encouraged to press forward with its nuclear efforts. Pressure on Iran is likely to slacken off, since the international diplomatic pressure and sanctions against Tehran have been motivated as much – if not more – by the fear of an Israeli strike as by the concern for Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons.
The impact is particularly pronounced in the case of North America, since U.S. President Barack Obama’s recent more robust sanctions policy is driven largely by a desperate desire to win his re-election bid; an endeavor that would be fatally compromised by the economic turmoil caused by an outbreak of any hostilities in the Middle East between now and November. All of this, of course, emboldens the mullahs even more.
These substantive problems aside, loyal Israeli dissenters are missing an even more important point. Israel is not an ordinary country. Its leaders and citizens alike maintain that Israel must meet the highest of ethical standards, even when dealing with existentialist threats that often entail moral dilemmas. It is also a beleaguered nation that has been living under siege throughout its entire existence.
For the first time in its history, Israel is dealing with a strategic threat that it may be unable to tackle entirely on its own. And, unlike the U.S., Israel has no margin for error and its statecraft has to punch above its weight. In this crucial moment in Israel’s existence, message discipline about the Iranian nuclear threat is in order. The unfolding public debate on Iran does not come close to meeting this standard.
David B. Rivkin, Jr. and Karl R. Moor are American lawyers who frequently write about national security and legal issues. Rivkin served in the White House and the Departments of Justice and Energy under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and is a senior advisor to the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.