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Israel security establishment goes where US politicians fear to tred

Disagreements in Israel over whether to attack Iran have erupted into the open. In one corner, the Netanyahu government. In the other, a number of Israeli security officials.

By Staff writer / April 30, 2012

Israel's Defence Minister Ehud Barak (l.) sits across from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd r.) during the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. Netanyahu dropped heavy hints on Sunday of an early election, shifting the national focus from a former spymaster's accusations that he could start a 'messianic' war with Iran.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters

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When Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, said in February that it wouldn't be "wise" for Israel to attack Iran and said that the "Iranian regime is a rational actor" that can be negotiated with and pressured via sanctions, he received a withering attack from the hawkish American right and criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government.

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Staff writer

Dan Murphy is a staff writer for the Monitor's international desk, focused on the Middle East. Murphy, who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and more than a dozen other countries, writes and edits Backchannels. The focus? War and international relations, leaning toward things Middle East.

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The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported then that Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak told US officials privately that General Dempsey's comments "served Iran's interests" and that an unnamed senior Israeli official complained "the Iranians see there's controversy between the United States and Israel, and that the Americans object to a military act. That reduces the pressure on them."

Well, now Dempsey has been joined by a number of other security experts who appear to share his point of view on a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran. They are Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, Israel's international spy service; Yuval Diskin, the former head of the Shin Bet, the country's domestic intelligence service; (Ret.) Gen. Gabi Askhenazi, a former head of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF); and Gen. Benny Gantz, the current head of the IDF.

Showing how raw emotions are, and how split the Israeli establishment is on war with Iran and other issues, former premier Ehud Olmert spoke out against a rush to war with Iran in a speech in New York sponsored by The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. According to the New York Times, Mr. Olmert cautioned against war with Iran, said Netanyahu was disinterested in making the compromises required for peace with the Palestinians, and warned Israel against alienating the Obama Administration. Of Obama, Olmert said: "You have to respect him.... He is the president of the most powerful nation on Earth, and happens to be a friend of Israel."

That comment drew boos from the largely Jewish-American crowd, and at other moments audience members shouted out "Neville Chamberlain" (the UK prime minister who sought to make peace with Hitler) and "naive."

Israel is turning towards elections that must be held by the end of next year, but that many in the country now speculate will be moved up to this fall, ahead of the US presidential election. At the moment, Mr. Netanyahu and his coalition partners look well positioned to retain the government, but the public squabbling can't be helping.

Israeli politicians are known for their very public disagreements, but differences between security officials past and present and Israel's sitting government – especially on a topic as critical as this – are rare. Israel's generals have far more sway over policy in Israel than US ones do, at least historically, and in the case of the war posturing over Iran's nuclear program the simple message of their public comments appears to be: Don't.

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