Dissent, elections make Israel's next steps on Iran difficult to predict

Former government and security officials' criticism of the Netanyahu government's hard-line approach on Iran is now coupled with the uncertainty of an election campaign.

Sebastian Scheiner/AP/File
An Israeli worker hangs an election poster for Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu over one of Labor Party leader Ehud Barak in Jerusalem in this file photo. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in a published comment on May 2 that policy toward Iran will be based solely on strategic interests.

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Top Israeli political and military figures remain at odds over their opinions on Iran's regime and its nuclear program, making it difficult to guess what Israel's next steps will be. The prime minister's announcement this week that he is open to moving elections up by more than a year only increase the uncertainty.

Today Defense Minister Ehud Barak slammed former prime minister Ehud Olmert, former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, and former Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin, all of whom have downplayed the threat that Iran poses to Israel and criticized Mr. Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for their hawkish approach. 

"Olmert, Dagan, and Diskin are traveling the world and are weakening Israeli leaders' accomplishment of turning the Iranian issue into an important and urgent one – not only to Israel but to the world," Barak said today, according to Haaretz. Of Mr. Diskin, who formerly headed Israel's domestic security agency, Barak said, "it is not even his field of specialization or his responsibility."

Israel's top foreign-policy priority has been convincing the international community, particularly the United States, that Iran is an imminent threat, and the world cannot afford to wait and see if increasingly stringent sanctions will curtail Iran's nuclear program. Iran argues that its program is wholly peaceful, but Israel and others suspect Tehran aims to develop nuclear weapons under cover of its civilian program.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Barak "implied" in the same interview that the Israeli parliament "might need to pass stricter laws to prevent former members of the defense establishment from discussing certain security issues in public."

Diskin said last week that he had no confidence in Barak and Netanyahu's leadership and said their Iran efforts were motivated by a "messianic" drive. There has been dissent for months – often public – among current and former political and security officials, but his unequivocal comments gave the criticism a substantial credibility boost, The Christian Science Monitor's Dan Murphy writes:

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.

Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer said Diskin's warning that an Israeli strike could harden an Iranian desire for the bomb is striking. "While it is true that many experts have expressed this opinion, this is the first time that a central figure who was so recently within the innermost security circles has said such a thing."

Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv public opinion expert and blogger at the left wing blog +972, told the Monitor earlier this week that the only people who can "credibly" criticize Netanyahu's Iran policy are members of the security establishment, such as those Dagan and Diskin. 

According to one recent poll for the Jerusalem Post, less than half of Israelis support a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran but an overwhelming majority – 72 percent – would support an international strike. About half agreed with Diskin's criticism, according to a separate poll cited by The New York Times.

With the Knesset beginning to talk about dissolution, it appears likely that the elections will be bumped from their original date in 2013 to this coming September. The Los Angeles Times reports that the change in timing for the elections is "the latest sign that [Israel's] threatened attack against Iran's nuclear facilities is unlikely to take place in the coming months."

Some officials predict the chances of an Israeli airstrike against Iran will decrease because a divisive political campaign would paralyze the government and focus attention on domestic issues.

At the same time, Netanyahu is unlikely to risk the comfortable lead most polls give him over his rivals by launching a risky, complicated operation against Iran. A bungled or failed strike is one of the few things that could stand in the way of his reelection, analysts say. 

The LA Times also reports that Netanyahu has the strongest security credentials of possible prime minister candidates and would be the one most likely to benefit if a debate on Iran became part of the campaign.

The Associated Press reports that Barak and Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement yesterday that only "strategic interests" will play a role in Israel's policy on Iran, even during an election campaign.

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