Why Netanyahu Backed Down

For three years Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, seemed to be united in urging an early military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But last week that alliance collapsed, with Mr. Netanyahu accusing Mr. Barak of having conspired with the Obama administration, in talks behind his back.

The clash came as a surprise in Israel, but in hindsight, there was a prelude — the speech Mr. Netanyahu delivered a week earlier to the United Nations General Assembly. In a memorable cartoonish graphic, Mr. Netanyahu depicted a “red line” that he said Israel would not let Iran cross. But he also acknowledged that Iran would not be able to cross it until next spring or summer. In doing so, he essentially reset the urgency of his warnings and ended speculation that Israel might mount a unilateral attack on Iran before the American presidential election.

The public row with Mr. Barak illustrated the magnitude of Mr. Netanyahu’s retreat and his difficulty in explaining it. He was left with implying that he had been undermined, if not betrayed by, his own defense minister. But that was not the full story of why he had blinked.

In fact, Mr. Netanyahu’s about-face resulted from a long-building revolt by Israel’s professional security establishment against the very idea of an early military attack, particularly one without the approval of the United States.

For months, former and even serving chiefs of Israel’s defense and intelligence communities have vigorously and publicly opposed Mr. Netanyahu’s case for attacking Iran sooner, rather than after all other means have been exhausted. Meir Dagan, the much respected former head of Mossad, did so to an American audience in an interview with Lesley Stahl broadcast last March by CBS’ “60 Minutes.” In Israel earlier, he had been quoted as saying that such an attack was “the stupidest idea I have ever heard.”

In addition, Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak had proved unable to win sufficient support for early military action from other members of the government. Despite months of sustained effort, Mr. Netanyahu was not able to muster a majority even in his nine-member informal inner cabinet, much less Israel’s larger security cabinet, whose agreement he would need before attacking.

And in August, Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, took the occasion of his 89th birthday celebration to decisively reject any unilateral Israeli attack. The country’s pre-eminent elder statesman and the father of Israel’s own nuclear project, he broke with the nonpolitical traditions of Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency to argue that the central issue was the harm that going it alone could do to future American-Israeli relations.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, the Obama administration was conducting a quiet campaign that would strengthen the view, already circulating among Israeli security professionals, that prematurely attacking Iran would not advance Israel’s interests and would damage Israel’s relationship with America. Instead of holding Israel at bay or threatening punitive action, the administration was upgrading American security assistance to Israel — so much so that earlier this year Mr. Barak described the level of support as greater than ever in Israel’s history.

This increase was manifest at every level: intelligence sharing that resulted in a convergence of assessments about Iran’s nuclear efforts; joint cyberoperations to slow Iran’s nuclear program; support of Israel’s development of antimissile defenses; and reaching a common declared strategic approach to Iran’s nuclear program. That approach now focuses the two countries’ efforts on preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, while also ruling out the option of a retreat to containing and deterring a nuclear-armed Iran.

Equally important, increased American assistance has been accompanied by closer institutional links between the two countries’ defense and intelligence communities, as well as more intimate personal ties between both communities’ top echelons. Through numerous meetings in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Washington, the Obama administration has used these connections to convey an unambiguous message: Do not attack before all nonmilitary efforts to roll back Iran’s nuclear program have been exhausted.

Ever deeper American-Israeli defense ties have created what might be labeled a “United States lobby” among Israeli security professionals, who now have a strong interest in continuing the close partnership. It is no accident that the security institutions have become among the most vocal opponents of attacking Iran. No one knows better than they what is at stake if they ignore Washington’s concerns.

And their views have resonated with the Israeli general public: a poll conducted jointly last month by the Truman Institute at Hebrew University and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 77 percent of Israelis now oppose a military attack on Iran that is not approved by Washington, although 71 percent would support an attack with American consent.

The plain fact is that the Obama administration achieved its objective of persuading Israel to refrain from a premature attack largely without explicit or implied threats. Instead, it has built a closer relationship with Israel’s defense community, and has capitalized on it.

And that should be a model for the future.

Especially when allies are as close as Israel and the United States, the relationship between them should not depend on whether the personal chemistry between their leaders is strong or weak. Instead, it should be based on firm mutual respect for the enduring national interests each side has. On that score, the professional security officials on both sides can be counted on to put domestic politics aside and to try to find a mutual approach to thorny problems, so long as they can talk candidly, and often, with each other.

A related conclusion is that an American administration will be most successful when it speaks, publicly and privately, with one voice — with the same message coming from the White House, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs. Then, its interests and priorities will be unmistakable to Israeli leaders, all of whom know how important American largess is to their own country.

These are important lessons not only for the future American-Israeli discourse on Iran, but also in the event that the next American administration, re-elected or new, will attempt to resurrect efforts to achieve Arab-Israeli peace. In that case, too, the United States is most likely to gain Israel’s cooperation by coupling a demonstrable commitment to the country’s security with a clear, unambiguous and sustained articulation of American national interests. And a thick, multilayered conversation between the national security elites in Israel and the United States could ensure that the two countries remain in sync, even when their leaders are not.

Graham Allison is director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. Shai Feldman is director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

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