Israel’s Iran Debate Takes New Turn

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Israel’s Iran Debate Takes New Turn

Benjamin Netanyahu’s bellicose rhetoric over Iran has prompted push back from former intelligence chiefs. But a new coalition member is unlikely to help moderate his policy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Iran policy has come under intense criticism recently, most notably from former Mossad Chief Meir Dagan and Yuval Diskin, former head of domestic intelligence agency Shabak. The intensity of these unprecedented attacks can’t be ignored. But the big question that should be asked is – why are they doing this?

Although Dagan and Diskin haven’t elaborated on this point, it’s unlikely that they would have created such a fuss if they thought the chances of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak following through with an attack on Iran was zero. Indeed, the very fact that they have been so vocal in their opposition to such a strike is a clear sign that the possibility of a unilateral Israeli attack against Iran can’t be completely ruled out.

This specter of military action looms despite warnings by former Israeli Defense Force intelligence chief Shlomo Gazit that such an attack could actually speed up Iran’s nuclear program, as well as damage relations with the United States. What seems to particularly concern Diskin is what has been described as Netanyahu and Barak’s “messianic belief.” This is a stinging criticism in Judaism of individuals who see themselves as the savior of Israel and its people.

If Diskin truly feels Netanyahu and Barak might base their decision to attack Iran on their belief that they are rescuing the Israeli people, rather than arriving at their decision based on cold, hard intelligence, then Israel’s citizens have much to worry about. Yet judging by the reaction of Diskin and the support that he received from Dagan, this could really be the case and would explain why they’ve decided to oppose the government’s Iran policies in such a vocal manner now, rather than waiting.

The latest public dispute comes at a time when the debate in Israel over how to handle Iran is becoming poisoned with personal attacks. When Dagan criticized the government’s Iran strategy, for example, he was accused of “sabotage against democratic institutions in Israel.” Similarly with Diskin, his view was dismissed as seeking revenge because he didn’t get the job as head of Mossad.

But Netanyahu’s statement on Holocaust Remembrance Day, that “those who dismiss Iran’s threats as exaggerated or as mere idle posturing have learned nothing from the Holocaust,” took the public debate on Iran to a new low. By framing his Iran arguments using the Holocaust, Netanyahu is effectively suggesting that opponents of his policy are willing to allow Jews to face genocide once again.

The use of the Holocaust is inappropriate and counterproductive in a democracy like Israel. The emotional scars of the tragedy shouldn’t be used as a way of assessing the future behavior of a Middle Eastern regime in 2012, one that’s faced with a quite different – and much more powerful – opponent than the individuals that Hitler’s regime picked off. Rather than looking back seven decades, the Netanyahu government should look at Iran as it stands in 2012 – a country that for all its faults isn’t as powerful nor genocidal as the Nazi-led regime of the 1930s and 1940s.

Indeed, rather than rallying the country, Netanyahu’s use of the Holocaust could spark a backlash. It should be noted, for example, that Diskin’s attack against the government’s Iran policies came nine days after Netanyahu’s remarks at the Holocaust memorial.

But use of the Holocaust isn’t the only thing that risks undermining Netanyahu’s hard line strategy – the success of the United States and European Union in imposing wide ranging sanctions against Iran’s banking and oil industry is also creating a backlash against the prime minister and defense minister.

For most Israelis, Iran just isn’t the number one issue, and would have been unlikely to be even had elections been held in September as scheduled, before they were called off this week after the opposition Kadima party, headed by Shaul Mofaz, joined Netanyahu’s coalition government.

Interestingly, Mofaz has been one of the biggest public critics of the Netanyahu government’s Iran narrative and policies, so it will be interesting to see what effect his joining the government will have. Will he have a significant moderating effect? This seems unlikely given that Mofaz has already extracted two concessions in return for joining the coalition: Netanyahu’s support for Mofaz’s proposal to replace the current Tal Law, which enables ultra Orthodox youths to defer national service, as well as changes to Israel’s electoral system.

No mention has been made of Iran.

The reality is that Mofaz enters the current coalition from a position of weakness. According to recent polls, if elections were held as planned, Kadima could have lost more than half its parliamentary seats – 17 to be exact, from its current 28. Netanyahu’s Likud, in contrast, was on course to fare better, and was set to increase its seats from 27 to 31, according to one poll.

Such weakness, and the fact that Iran policy doesn’t seem to have been part of the deal, means it’s unlikely that Mofaz will bring about much change in the government’s position on Iran, and nor would he be able to restrain it if it decides to go ahead with a unilateral strike.

It is, of course, by no means certain that Israel will decide to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. What is clearer, though, is that despite the formation of a new coalition, the intense debate over – and the unprecedented criticism of – the government’s Iran policy is likely to continue.