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Israel's calculus on Iran: Shaped by leaders' youth in daring commando unit?

Prime Minister Netanyahu and his Defense minister served as brothers in arms in Sayeret Matkal, a sort of Ivy League for future Israeli leaders. Now they face a grave decision on Iran.

By Correspondent / March 4, 2012

Benjamin Netanyahu (l.) speaks with Ehud Barak after a non-confidence vote at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem June 8, 2009. Once rivals, the two now work as a team while maintaining difference of opinion. Their challenge now is to decide about whether or not to attack Iran despite objection from the US.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/File

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak are two rivals turned partners who face a grave decision on whether or not to attack Iran against the counsel of Israel’s key ally, the United States.

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In the run up to Monday's White House summit between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, many in Israel and the US have said that striking Iran’s nuclear targets would stretch the abilities of the vaunted Israel Defense Forces (IDF). But Netanyahu and Mr. Barak, once brothers-in-arms in one of the IDF's most daring commando outfits, may beg to differ. Many observers say that the leaders' time in the unit, known for its culture of creativity, stealth, and boldness, offers a window on how the Israeli prime minister may think on whether to strike Iran – a risky move that would likely put Israel under attack diplomatically and militarily.

"The challenges [in the unit] are so tough and demands so big, that it elevates your self-confidence," says Danny Yatom, who served under Barak in the Sayeret Matkal unit and later became the head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency. "It teaches us we can do much more than we thought we can do."     

In a country where mandatory conscription makes an Israeli's army unit a future resume builder like one's alma mater in the US, serving in Sayeret Matkal is roughly the equivalent to attending an Ivy League school. From the military to politics and business, they form the corps of the Israeli elite.

Barak legendary for daring missions

Barak, who went on to become army chief of staff and Israeli prime minister, is seen by many as the leading hawk in Israel’s government pushing for a strike on Iran. He has been outspoken on the possibility of a preemptive strike in recent weeks, suggesting that Israel might not accede to US request to hold fire because "later might be too late."

Netanyahu is seen as more hesitant to order a lone strike, even though he has likened the Iranian regime to Nazi Germany. Many Israelis, however, see Netanyahu as very influenced on defense issues by his old commander from Sayeret Matkal, Mr. Barak.

"I am sure when they close the door and are alone, Netanyhau says, Sir!" jokes Uri Dromi, a former air force pilot and a former Israeli government spokesperson.

Barak became a legend in the unit for taking on seemingly impossible missions that others shied away from. He was at his best under fire, Yatom says.

Barak commanded the daring 1972 operation to free 100 hostages on a hijacked Sabena passenger plane. Barak, Netanyahu, and 14 other Sayeret Matkal members disguised as mechanics broke onto the plane, killing two Arab hijackers but none of the passengers. An iconic picture shows Barak in his mechanic disguise alongside the newly freed passengers.

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