Netanyahu more resolved than thought to strike Iran, but Israel might not be

November 5, 2012

(Bob Edme -- AFP/Getty Images))

In 2010, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak attempted to order the Israeli military to prepare for an imminent strike on Iran but were thwarted by other senior officials, according to an Israeli investigative news report now backed up by The New York Times. The two Israeli leaders were reportedly told that they could not issue the order because it required the approval of the full Israeli cabinet and because the country's military did not have the capability to launch the strike.

"Eventually, at the moment of truth, the answer that was given was that, in fact, the ability did not exist," Barak is quoted as saying in the Israeli report, which airs in full Monday night. If true, the story represents a small but potentially quite important shift in the world's understanding of Israel's resolve to attack Iran, even without America's approval.

This isn't the first time that Israel has almost attacked Iran, but it seems to be the closest that the country has come to striking Iranian nuclear facilities unilaterally – without U.S. support or approval. In 2008, Israel reportedly sought the George W. Bush administration's assistance and green light for an attack, which the United States denied. That seems to have been enough to have stopped the attack.

Based on this newly-reported incident, Netanyahu seems willing to go it alone on a strike against Iran. This addresses – and perhaps even resolves – a long-running debate in Washington over Israeli intentions toward the United States and Iran. Some have argued that Netanyahu would prefer U.S. assistance for a strike on Iran but is ultimately willing to do so alone. Others believe that the Israeli leader is less willing to act unilaterally, and is essentially bluffing in order to push the United States to strike Iran. In this thinking, Netanyahu hopes that the United States will see an Israeli attack as inevitable and commit the act itself in order to make sure it's at least done as effectively as possible.

The debate over Netanyahu's intentions has major implications for U.S. policy and for how hard the United States would have to work to keep Israel from unilaterally striking Iran, which could spark a wider conflict. In other words, if the United States doesn't do enough to deter Iran's nuclear program – through, for example, sanctions or cyber warfare – then Israel is more likely to take a unilateral military strike. Now, based on this new report, it would seem that Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, his defense minister, are significantly more resolved than commonly thought. So resolved that, two years ago, they actually tried to set an attack in motion. 

But there's another new, important piece that this report adds to the Israel-U.S.-Iran puzzle. Yes, Netanyahu and Barak tried to set an attack in motion, but in at least this 2010 incident, they weren't actually able to follow through, stopped by their own government. Gabi Ashkenazi and Meir Dagan, the heads of the military and the intelligence service, opposed the strike both because they said Netanyahu needed the cabinet's approval and because the military lacked the capability. Both have since left the Israeli government and publicly oppose a strike on Iran.

So, in this specific moment in 2010, Netanyahu might have been resolved to attack Iran, but the state of Israel was not. It's an important reminder that Netanyahu and Israel are not synonymous when it comes to striking Iran. Israel's internal politics and its military capabilities both seem to have ultimately overcome Netanyahu's personal willingness to set a strike in motion.

Still, this was two years ago, and both Netanyahu's resolve and Israel's capability might have changed. It's entirely possible that the Israeli leader's thinking has changed and that he does not currently desire an attack as he did in 2010. It's also possible that he has since overcome the internal disagreements and the military shortcomings that stopped him in 2010. "Publicly – or at least, outside their command posts – the [Israeli military] leadership says today it can pull off a strike," The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg writes. "But maybe this is a bluff."

In other words, the things that were true in 2010 when Netanyahu and Barak tried and failed to set a strike in motion might no longer be true. But it seems awfully significant that, in at least that moment, the Israeli leader was more resolved to strike Iran than many in the United States thought, but the country he leads was not.

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Max Fisher · November 5, 2012