The Israeli leadership is at war with itself over Iran: In one corner, Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. In the other, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak and former Mossad chief Meir Dagan have a lot in common. They are both chubby and in their late sixties. They are both war heroes, decorated generals. And each rose to the highest positions in the Israeli defense establishment. But don’t mistake such biographical similarities for personal affinity. Barak and Dagan hate each other. Their animosity goes back years—and at the heart of their dispute is the critical question of how the Jewish state should deal with its enemies’ nuclear ambitions.
In December 2010, together with some 30 Israeli defense and political journalists, I boarded a bus that took us to a building on the top of a hill overlooking Glilot junction, five miles north of Tel Aviv. We had come to Mossad headquarters for a meeting with Dagan, who was then the head of the agency. It was supposed to be an off-the-record briefing. But this being Israel, within hours after the meeting ended, most of what Dagan told us was on the Web and in the papers.
What he said was shocking. The Mossad chief told us that Iran would obtain nuclear warheads by 2014 at the earliest, and thus, he argued, there was no need for an Israeli military strike for the time being. Dagan’s claim ran directly counter to the public line of Israel’s defense establishment: that Iran would obtain the bomb much sooner.
Since that meeting more than a year ago, Dagan has been on a crusade to stop Israel from launching an imminent military strike against Iran. He has reiterated the argument that he laid out to us in Mossad headquarters—against a strike and in favor of sanctions and covert operations—at various public events and private conversations over the past year. And though Dagan is no longer head of Mossad, his view carries tremendous weight: His perspective on a possible Israeli strike is shared by many of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Cabinet ministers and Israel’s security establishment.
Dagan’s campaign has enraged Barak and Netanyahu, who accuse him of undermining Israeli deterrence. Barak and Netanyahu support an Israeli military strike in the near future, and for the past few months, with increasing intensity, they have tried to create the impression that they are considering such an attack this year.
Which view will prevail? At stake is the future of Israel, the lives of Iranians and Israelis, the supply of oil to the United States and the West, and the stability of the whole Middle East.
The roots of the tension within the highest level of Israel’s political-military leadership go back nearly five years, when Barak, Dagan, and the rest of the Cabinet were faced with the delicate question of whether to bomb Syria’s nuclear reactor in the Dir al-Zur region. In summer 2007, the Cabinet, led by then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, deliberated behind closed doors to discuss the assessments of Mossad and Israeli military intelligence of a big structure that Syria was secretly building near the Euphrates River. The undisputed conclusion was that Syria was constructing a reactor to produce plutonium for nuclear bombs and that the plans for the reactor had been provided by North Korea.
The Cabinet’s overwhelming decision was to order the Israeli air force to launch a military strike before radioactive materials would be introduced and it would be too late. Barak was the most senior Cabinet member to oppose the idea, and he argued that Israel could wait a few more months. Olmert, then-Chief of Staff General Gabi Ashkenazi, Dagan, and other Cabinet ministers were astonished to hear it. They suspected that Barak had a hidden agenda motivated by his own ambition to be prime minister. That summer, Barak and the Cabinet knew that within three or four months the findings of an inquiry commission investigating the 2006 Lebanon war would be released. They expected the commission would blame Olmert for major failures of the war, and thus he would be forced to resign. Barak hoped to replace him.
Over the course of a few weeks, Barak realized that he was in unsplendid isolation. Ultimately, he decided to join his Cabinet colleagues in approving the attack. (The Cabinet voted 13 to 1 to approve the attack. Avi Dichter, then minister of homeland security, opposed it.) In September 2007, eight U.S.-made Israeli F-16 fighter planes destroyed Syria’s nuclear ambitions when they bombed the reactor.
Barak’s behavior during that process caused Dagan and other military leaders to lose their faith in him. As one senior official put it, “If he zigzagged then, what assures us that his motives this time are pure?” Indeed, three years ago in private conversation, Barak opposed a military strike by Israel against Iran. So, what made him change his mind? It’s not clear. One possibility is that he wants to please Netanyahu in the hopes that the prime minister will take him aboard Likud and reinstate him in the Defense Ministry after the next elections, which are set for November 2013 but most likely will be sooner.
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