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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.

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Sayeret Matkal was modeled on Britain’s SAS special forces, and even adopted its slogan: "Who dares wins." Naftali Bennett, a unit veteran, says the "audacity" learned by soldiers remains after their release from the army. Mr. Bennett, a former aide to Netanyahu, said that the unit specializes in low-profile missions that sabotage an enemy’s ability to fight back.

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"Let’s say there’s a tank division that’s going to attack Israel. The regular way would be to send another tank division to block it. The Sayeret Matkal way would be to send a unit and empty the tanks of gas, and win without firing a shot."

Israeli attacks on Iraqi and Syrian nuclear targets in 1981 and 2007, respectively, fit that description of stealth operations. But military experts say they expect that because Iran’s nuclear program is so widely dispersed – requiring an attack sustained for days – it will be nearly impossible to achieve the same element of surprise.

Mr. Dromi expresses concern that the unit is a "hotbed of an unrealistic view on reality," saying its members are too focused on the micro level of a particular operation without taking into consideration the larger strategic picture.

"They had a slogan: the enemy is a rumor. Which means you never bump into the enemy, because you are so clever and so prepared," he says. "Every operation they did was so planned, so carefully thought over and over, that it was more often than not carried out in a perfect way, while reality is far from that."

In the case of Iran, even a successful strike could have serious repercussions for Israel and its leaders – chief among them, Netanyahu and Barak.

Good cop, bad cop

While Netanyahu and Barak forged a strong bond in Sayeret Matkal, their paths diverged as they became leaders of the leading rival parties, Likud and Labor. In 1999, Barak unseated Netanyahu as prime minister with a landslide win. A decade later, when Netanyahu won the post a second time, he brought Barak into his coalition as Defense minister.

The two have worked as a team ever since.

In the early part of Netanyahu’s second term, when Israel faced US pressure on reining in settlement expansion to boost the peace process, it was Barak who functioned as the dovish face of the government in talks with the US and Europe. But while Barak comes from the left of Israel's political spectrum, differences of opinion about Iran's nuclear program don't fall along party lines.

In recent months, Barak has engaged in saber-rattling by dropping hints about Israel potentially launching a unilateral strike. While some observers have wondered if Barak’s chatter is a bluff, Meir Dagan, a former Mossad chief, told Israeli media that a hasty decision on a preemptive attack could provoke a regional war and be disastrous for the Jewish state.

That said, Netanyahu does not appear to share his old commander’s penchant for risk-taking. Many Israelis, on both the left and the right see him as more cautious than his commando pedigree would suggest. In two terms of office, Netanyahu has not launched any major wars nor pursued any provocative peace initiatives. As a potential attack on Iran looms, many Israelis wonder if Netanyahu has the boldness to lead Israel to war. 

"Barak is known as a gambler," says Bennett. "I cannot say [Netanyahu] displays that same sort of audacity."

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