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Israeli leaders scrambled to present a united front on Iran yesterday, after Israel's army chief earlier this week appeared to contradict the government's assertions that Iran poses an imminent threat to Israel's existence.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said that Iranian leaders are not "rational in the Western sense of the word – connoting … the peaceful resolution of problems" and said that to believe anything different "borders on blindness or irresponsibility."
His comments, made on Israeli Independence Day to foreign diplomats, were seen as a direct rebuttal to remarks earlier this week from Israeli Defense Forces chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz. He said in an interview with Israeli newspaper Haaretz published Wednesday that he does not believe Iran is making a nuclear bomb yet and that it would probably not decide to do so because "the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people."
An Israeli official told Reuters that Barak's briefing was meant to "set things straight" after Gantz's comments. Earlier this week, in an interview with CNN, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he would not pin "the security of the world on Iran's rational behavior," saying Iranian leaders "can put their ideology before their survival."
The Netanyahu administration has consistently sought to portray Iran as an irrational actor, willing to risk "catastrophic retaliation." Such a portrayal could boost support for a preemptive military strike on Iran by Israel, according to Reuters.
The New York Times reports that Israeli leaders are now seeking to "erase" the perception that they are not united on the issue of Iran's nuclear program, with Gantz telling reporters "there is really no distance" between him and Netanyahu.
"It was unclear whether the general was being pressed to walk back from his comments, if he felt his message was misconstrued, or if it was all part of a broader strategy of trying to offer dual messages for different audiences," the NYT reports.
Aides to all three leaders insisted that there was no disagreement on Iran. An aide in General Gantz’s office said that his words had been taken out of context and that he sought out a reporter for The Associated Press at an Independence Day event Thursday morning “to correct that wrong image or that wrong headline.”
The headlines that were trying to be made that there’s difference of opinions between the leaders, and that’s not true,” the aide said. “They both view Iran in the same way. There is really no difference in the fact that Iran is the main threat for Israel and Israel is ready to cope with Iran.”
The prime minister’s office appeared to be satisfied with the clarification. “We’ve noted in his comments that he says there is no difference,” said one top official. Similarly, a senior aide to Mr. Barak said “the minister of defense and the chief of staff are completely on the same page.”
Former chief of military intelligence Amos Yadlin told the NYT that any differences between Gantz and the government are because "you hear different music from the political level and professional level," implying that any differences were not substantive.
Gantz's comments to Haaretz came in the context of an explanation that Iran is aware it's program could be destroyed if it antagonized Israel:
As long as its facilities are not bomb-proof, "the program is too vulnerable, in Iran's view. If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous."
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