The Jerusalem Post
Beating the war drums for personal gain
When former IDF general Amos Yadlin became head of the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, he hung a few mementos from his long military career on the wall of his office.
There was the cover of Time magazine – “Attack and Fallout” – showing Israel’s successful strike against Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, a mission that Yadlin took part in as a pilot.
There was the poster he received from STS-107, the crew of the Columbia space shuttle, before it took off on a mission from which the members – including his friend and fellow Osirak pilot Ilan Ramon – would not return.
There was something else on the wall as well: a framed twopage certificate with two medals and a ribbon awarded by the US Director of National Intelligence. It was the National Intelligence Distinguished Service Medal, given for meritorious action on behalf of America’s national security interests.
When asked what the certificate and medals were for, Yadlin would usually refuse to answer. The most he would say is that he is the only person in the world to have participated in 2.5 missions to destroy enemy nuclear programs.
The first – the bombing of Osirak – is well-known; the second only recently came out of the shadows: in 2007 he oversaw intelligence collection and planning for the successful attack against Syria’s nuclear reactor while serving as head of Military Intelligence. And the third? That he wouldn’t say.
But people in the know likely understand what it is about. Yadlin was still head of Military Intelligence in 2010 when reports came out about a mysterious cyber worm that had infected Natanz, Iran’s most important nuclear facility.
It was called Stuxnet, and later reports confirmed the virus was a joint Israeli-American mission led by the National Security Agency and the IDF’s Unit 8200. Stuxnet succeeded in knocking out over 1,000 centrifuges in the Natanz enrichment halls and setting back the ayatollah’s race to nuclear dominance.
Twelve years later, Israel still doesn’t admit that it was behind the worm. As a result, every article in the Israeli media relies on “foreign media reports.”
And responsible (alleged) participants in the operation like Yadlin still refuse to speak about it.
Contrast that silence and ambiguity with the non-stop babble coming out of Israel in recent weeks over its alleged various attacks against Iran. On Sunday, for example, just hours after an “accident” at Natanz, Israeli officials began speaking to the media claiming that it was far from being an accident but rather a deliberate attack carried out by Israel.
To create some subterfuge, a game was played and officials asked reporters to attribute the news to “Western officials,” even though those officials were no farther than West Tel Aviv.
The quick claim of responsibility followed the controversy just a week earlier, when another Israeli official (or maybe the same one) leaked details of an attack against an Iranian ship seemingly before the mission had even taken place.
On their own, each of these cases is irresponsible. Together, they make it seem like everything is out in the open on “purpose.”
This is the new Israel, lawless and ownerless.
ALL THIS chatter is a sharp break from standard Israeli operating procedure. For years Israel stayed silent after attacking Iranian targets in Syria, neither confirming nor denying its involvement; it remained quiet after Stuxnet; and more famously, lips were sealed for more than a decade after Israel bombed Syria’s nuclear reactor.
The change in strategy was first felt a few weeks ago, when reports emerged in the foreign media on how Israel has been striking Iranian ships in the Mediterranean and Red Sea for a number of years. Someone, it seemed, had an interest in getting the story out now, so to do that the mystery source went to the foreign press.
Naturally, Iran started to retaliate within days because Israel had publicly humiliated Tehran – the ayatollahs had no choice but to respond.
Over the last month three Israeli-owned vessels have been attacked. While thankfully no one was injured and damage was limited, Iran was sending a clear message: you attack one of our ships, we will attack one of yours.
Looking back over the last two decades, the policy of ambiguity served Israel well. When it stayed quiet after striking Syria’s Al Kibar reactor, it did so in order to avoid publicly humiliating Bashar al-Assad, giving him the opportunity – which he took – to save face and not retaliate.
That same policy worked for years when Israel attacked Iranian entrenchment in Syria. The attacks were numerous and constant, taking place some months on a weekly basis. But except for a few rare instances, Iran did not respond. As with Syria, Israel created an understanding with the Iranians by not saying anything publicly: yes, we will attack you, but we won’t humiliate you.
This has changed, and we need to ask why.
Why is responsibility being taken and involvement being
admitted with bluster and bravado? What has changed that credit is suddenly being taken and Iran is being pushed to respond?
While the Iranian attacks until now have been small and against privately owned ships, what will we say when Israel gets hit by explosive drones and cruise missiles, which Iran used to strike the Aramco oil processing facility in Saudi Arabia in 2019? It would be wrong and shortsighted to think that cannot happen.
Some analysts claim that Israel is taking credit now to boost its deterrence – it wants the world to know that it is fighting to undermine and weaken Iran. They claim that Israel is even doing the Biden administration a favor by taking credit, since that clears the US of any complicity in the attacks.
The problem there is that it
ignores what taking credit really does: undermines Israel’s ability to continue operating in the future. When the enemy is humiliated, it feels compelled to retaliate. Then when the tit-fortat escalates, diplomatic pressure will mount on Israel to stop – and what benefit does that provide? Finally, Iran already knows who is attacking. So do the Europeans and the Americans. Sending sources from Tel Aviv to the media doesn’t boost deterrence.
Take Israel’s policy of ambiguity when it comes to the nuclear issue. The ambiguity surrounding Israel’s nuclear option serves the country better than bragging does.
Israel doesn’t admit to having a nuclear option, but doesn’t deny that it has it either. So by being ambiguous, Israel retains deterrence.
In other words, ambiguity provides flexibility and maneuverability; shvitzing, in Israeli slang, is being arrogant and does the opposite.
Which is why there is a feeling right now that Israel is intentionally looking to enter into conflict with Iran, and for that battle to be out in the open for the world to see.
It’s also not surprising that the defense establishment is being led right now by the same people who dragged the country into the 2014 conflict in Gaza while failing to figure out how to end what became Israel’s longest war.
Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister then, Defense Minister Benny Gantz was chief of staff, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.Gen. Aviv Kohavi was head of Military Intelligence, and Mossad director Yossi Cohen was head of the National Security Council.
What’s the connection? There are two primary reasons why Israel might want to lead Iran into an open conflict right now. The first is to sabotage the nuclear talks that are taking place between Tehran and the P5+1. Israel, it is no secret, does not want to see America return to the 2015 JCPOA deal. It wants either a better one, or a continuation of economic sanctions.
This might be a legitimate objective, but it is being advanced in the wrong way. Israel already fought with one administration about Iran, leading to an openly hostile relationship between Washington and Jerusalem. It also failed to stop the deal. Picking a fight with the Biden White House will not serve Israel.
We can only hope that executing the Natanz attack on the same day that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Israel was either unfortunate bad timing, or that he knew about it beforehand.
THAT IT is even a question is because in today’s Israel, it is impossible to know what is sincere and genuine, and what is motivated by political and personal interests. This is what happens when a prime minister is on trial for bribery, is fighting for survival, and is doing everything he can to form a government with the clock running out.
Netanyahu’s options are limited, and he knows it. The possibility of finding defectors from other parties is unlikely, although efforts will continue as long as the Likud holds the mandate. Mediators have already reached out to MKs in Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope,
Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.
If there is no miracle breakthrough, Netanyahu’s one path to a government is convincing Bezalel Smotrich and his band of Kahanists to agree to enter a government supported by an Arab party.
While Smotrich and friends continue to reject that possibility, don’t rule it out yet. It is also too early to rule out the chance that Sa’ar or Gantz will cross partisan lines.
This is where Iran comes into play.
The claims of responsibility, the intentional escalation, the leaks to the media are all aimed at creating a national security crisis to convince his rivals to join him and his government.
It is Netanyahu’s Eshkol moment, named for prime minister Levi Eshkol who in the tense days ahead of the Six Day War in 1967 reached across the aisle and brought Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan into the nation’s first national-unity government.
Just 19 years old, Israel felt real existential danger. Unity was meant to show the people that the storm could be weathered.
The truth is that Netanyahu doesn’t have to go as far back as 1967. Last April, after the third recent election, he convinced Gantz to backtrack on his vow not to sit with him and to enter into a rotation government because of corona “without shticks or tricks.”
We all know how that ended – not just with tricks and shticks, but also with a fourth election that ended in the political deadlock in which Israel now finds itself.
Does this mean Netanyahu wants war? Hard to believe. Throughout his career he has shown a desire to avoid conflict and a direct military confrontation. Standoff missions and covert operations are more his thing.
But something has changed in recent weeks, and while his desire to avoid war might still stand, top officials in the defense establishment are concerned that Netanyahu is pushing Israel to the edge.
It is an edge meant to create tension to make it seem like a conflict is possible, while at the same time prevent that conflict from ever erupting.
The purpose is not war. It is to get Smotrich and others to join his government. That is all that matters right now. Nothing else.
That is Israel today.