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Israeli Battle Between Political-Military Echelons Plays Out Amid Censorship of IDF Chief

Yediot Gantz screenshot

Caption: ‘Not to Attack Iran’

The Battle of the Titans continues between the Israeli political and military echelons over attacking Iran.  I broke a gag here a few days ago that had been imposed by order of Defense Minister Barak against critical statements by IDF chief Benny Gantz regarding a potential Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  The chief of staff said the Israeli home front was not prepared to bear the brunt of an Iranian counter attack and that the military couldn’t land a convincing blow that would block the Iranian nuclear program.

Channel 10, which first circulated the remarks, was ordered to delete them from its website.  Luckily, it did such a bad job it maintained them at Google cache, which in turn enabled me to upload the video to YouTube (Hebrew speakers can watch it at the post linked above) in case the censor cracks down further.

Yediot wasn’t terribly happy with a gag imposed by personal fiat of a political commissar.  As a result, it used the tried and true Israeli media tactic for subverting a gag by quoting a foreign source about Gantz’s comments.  This is a legal fiction used over the decades by Israeli journalists to do an end around censorship.  The headline accompanying the article says:

Sources in the U.S. report: “the entire security high command opposes independent military action against the nuclear plants: the chief of staff, air force commander, chiefs of the Mossad and Shin Bet; an Israeli attack would achieve basic objectives, no more.

I’ve asked my Israeli source whether Shiffer’s full report actually refers to a specific U.S. source and he said it doesn’t.  This means that Yediot essentially made up a U.S. source (they could, of course have referred to this blog, but no matter) to justify its challenge to the military censor.

After Yediot got away with this, Haaretz reported it as well.  The Hebrew version of the article is considerably sharper and unequivocal than the English.  In fact, these words in the headline and opening are nowhere in the English version:

Gantz Opposes Iran Attack in Near Future…in the context of the upcoming visit of the American defense secretary, who will arrive to confirm that Israel will not launch an attack in the near future–it appears the chief of staff believes an Israeli attack would be a grave error.

Amos Harel, author of the article, also argues that Barak’s concept of a “zone of immunity” for its nuclear program that Iran would enjoy if Israel didn’t attack it within a specified period of time, was never honored within the Israeli military or intelligence community.  To them, it appeared an artificial construct having no corresponding military substance.

Bibi responded (Hebrew) to all this military back-talk with his own declarative statement:

The political echelon decides, the military echelon implements.  Only I will decide whether to attack Iran.

The only problem with this statement is that a military echelon that doesn’t believe in the battle isn’t going to do a very good job if ordered into the fray.  In fact, it looks rather pathetic for a prime minister to have to remind his generals that it is HE who makes the decisions about who and when to attack.  Though Netanyahu is many bad things, I have to believe that deep within he’s got to understand that ordering an army into battle which doesn’t believe in the fight is likely to lead to disaster.  If he doesn’t know that, then he’s even more worthless than I thought.

Ben Caspit, Maariv’s former right-wing columnist who’s developed a severe distaste for Netanyahu, said the prime minister made this statement in order to deflect attention (Hebrew) from Gantz’s earlier off-the-reservation comments:

Let’s talk about Iran rather than taxes [the budget is currently being debated].  He [Netanyahu] is strong on Iran (in words only), but a little weaker on taxes and [economic] policies.  Therefore, it’s important to do a quick switch.

As an aside, Maan News reports that a second Israeli has died of self-immolation in protest against Israel’s dysfunctional social welfare system.

Caspit also criticizes Netanyahu for using the word “I” in saying he hadn’t yet decided whether to go to war against Iran.  The Maariv columnist reminds him that this decision, unlike in the U.S., is one made collaboratively by the senior security cabinet.  It isn’t a decision he can make alone.

Caspit reinforces the comments I wrote above in this passage:

…It’s hard to imagine a situation in which the prime minister would go to war against Iran–an immense undertaking, historic and fateful, with tremendous import both for Israel, the region and the world–when the chiefs of all the major services oppose him.  There is no such animal.  In order to do such a thing, such a prime minister would have to be made of steel, with balls made of marble, and super-human composure.  That person is no less than the chief of staff himself [and not Netanyahu].

…If the chief of staff is opposed, then a black flag flies over the entire business.  Sure you could launch an attack.  It would be legal and legitimate.  But if it failed there would be scandal.

The Maariv journalist also makes an interesting new observation on worsening relations between Bibi and his defense minister, Ehud Barak:

In the context of these events it’s possible to determine a developing tension and coldness poisoning the well from which the prime minister and defense minister both drink.  Is the historic political alliance cracking?  Netanyahu wouldn’t be the first to take a knife in the back from Barak (who can ask Olmert on this subject).  But it seems to me that in this instance, Barak’s back too is scarred.

…It’s possible that even before he must decide whether to attack Iran, Bibi will have to decide whether to attack Barak.  And then decide after that whether to attack Iran.  Meanwhile, Barak himself will be having to decide whether to counter-attack.

At times like this Israel feels more like Macbeth’s castle than a modern democracy.  The petty intrigues rival in intensity the life and death decisions that must be made about launching a new Middle East war.  Frankly, as Abe Lincoln said: a nation divided against itself cannot stand.  In this particular instance, a nation that is so riven by political jealousies and policy differences cannot possibly pursue the complex undertaking that is modern warfare.  If Israel attacks, I fear it can only end badly…for all sides.

It’s a profound irony that the only thing that may save Iran from absorbing the blows of Israel’s weapons may be the dysfunctionality of Israel’s politicians and generals.  In a sense, these are two countries who deserve each other.  They are both ruled by fanatics imbued with faux religious fervor.  They are both regimes more obsessed with defending their honor than making lives better for the underclass of their own respective nations.  In both countries, the ruling class has articulated a distorted historical narrative in which each is the only thing standing between itself and national catastrophe.  A pox on both their houses.

And if this is the sort of mess into which Barack Obama wants to wade (remember that Pete Seeger song, Waste Deep in the Big Muddy?), he’s a bigger fool than I thought.

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  • Getting More And More Absurd August 1, 2012, 2:59 AM

    The pronouncements coming out of Israel are getting more than a little bizarre, no question about it.

    Take this statement: “The political echelon decides, the military echelon implements. Only I will decide whether to attack Iran.”

    Bibi, baby, the acronym IDF stands for the Israel DEFENSE Forces, not the Israel ATTACK Forces.

    A DEFENSE Force is meant to defend Israel from attacks launched against it, not to be something that you “decide” to sool onto another country like some rabid attack dog that you slip off the leash.

    Honestly, Israel’s leadership has completely lost the plot.

    The post-WW2 world is predicated upon this concept: your armed forces exist to DEFEND your own country, and when you use them to ATTACK another country then you are the “aggressor”, and it is the country that you attack that is the “defender”.

    Bizarre as it sounds, but it appears that Bibi is unaware of that principle.

  • bar_kochba132 August 1, 2012, 7:13 AM

    In a democracy, Generals are not supposed to publicly argue with the government. Of course,
    in closed circles they should feel free to say what they think, but not in public. If they don’t like
    the policy, they should resign. Remember General Douglas MacArthur and his attempt to carry
    out his own personal war in Korea? He was sacked by President Truman.
    The novel and movie “Seven Days in May” dealt with this theme.

    • Richard Silverstein August 1, 2012, 9:52 PM

      But Israel is not a democracy as almost everyone but you & Peter Beinart know. If it was a true democracy then Gantz would’ve been permitted to testify before the Knesset Intelligence committee from which he was actually barred by Barak. If it was a true democracy Gantz would not feel the need to leak his views because he would feel they’d received a full, fair airing in private. Clearly, neither he nor Dagan nor Diskin feel that way, which explains their going public.

  • Piotr Berman August 1, 2012, 6:01 PM

    bar_kochba132: thanks for qualifying your statement. It is OK for generals to argue with their government in a dictatorship, but not in a democracy.

    However, Israel is neither a dictatorship nor a democracy but a liberal theocracy, with two types of sacred institutions: rabbinates and the security establishment. In a liberal theocracy like Iran and Israel, mundane institutions run daily affairs of the state as they wish UNLESS the sacred institution instruct them to change this or that. Thus it would be a dereliction of duty of the officials of sacred institutions to go silent when the mundane President or Cabinet are about to do something wrong.