It has become something of a parlor game in Tel Aviv and Washington to speculate about when Israel will finally make the decision to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. There have been a number of controversial articles and pieces of journalism conducted over the past few years that concentrated on that very that question, from Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Point of No Return,” to Ronen Bergman’s “Will Israel Attack Iran?” Most concluded that at some point, Israel’s leaders will decide that Tehran’s nuclear program is too dangerous to ignore and that military action is the only way to stop it.
These authors may have been more right than they imagined.
A documentary by the investigate journalism Ilana Dayan that appeared on Monday claims that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak ordered the Israeli military to prepare for an imminent airstrike on Iran in 2010. “Set the systems for P-plus,” the prime minister was reported as saying, code for an attack to be launched soon.
There is a good chance that the operation would have gone ahead were it not for the strong objections of Israel’s two most powerful military leaders: Gabi Ashkenazi, the head of the Israel Defense Force at the time, and Meir Dagan, the director of the country’s Mossad intelligence service. According to the documentary, both men argued to Netanyahu that he did not have the right to order a military operation without approval from his full cabinet and that Israel’s military was simply not ready for the type of blowback that would have resulted from unilateral action.
Obviously, the strike never occurred. What the episode shows is that Netanyahu and Barak were far more serious in their intention to delay Iran’s nuclear progress than even the most able bodied reporter believed.
The documentary makes no mention of Netanyahu conferring with the United States about his decision, implying that, in the past, he was more than comfortable ordering military force without explicit approval from Washington. This goes against the view held by some of Israel’s military officials and the majority of the Israeli public — that a joint operations with the Americans would be far preferential to Israel going it alone.
It is also interesting to note that it was Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs, those who would have had to send young men into combat, that restrained the politicians from ordering an operation whose consequences were not clear and the success of which was far from preordained.
With the exception of his family and his closest advisors, no one can say for certain whether Netanyahu has got more pragmatic about using force to delay Iran’s uranium enrichment program as the years have gone by. His speech to the United Nations General Assembly last month implied that the premier still believes that military action is ultimately necessary.
Whatever the case, the 2010 episode should be taken seriously. If the Israeli leader was serious about using airstrikes then, he may be content with using them in the future.