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.

Ronen Zvulun/Reuters/File
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.

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.

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.

'Hotbed of an unrealistic view on reality'

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.

"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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