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How Israel’s military stopped Netanyahu attacking Iran

Speaking for himself: Netanyahu at the UN, 2012. United Nations

A release of top-secret documents indicates that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has exaggerated – and possibly lied – with his repeated claims that Iran is on the brink of a nuclear bomb.

In September 2012, Netanyahu, armed with a cartoon, put it very bluntly at the UN General Assembly:

By next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, [Iran] will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.

However, as Netanyahu spoke, his military and intelligence services were assessing that Tehran was not enriching uranium to a level beyond that needed for a civil programme. They conclude: “Iran at this stage is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons.”

With the prime minister trying to block a nuclear agreement between Iran and the 5+1 powers (US, Britain, France, Germany, China, and Russia), the timing of the leak is significant. But it’s only part of a bigger story.

In autumn 2012, the Israeli military and intelligence community were holding Netanyahu back from air strikes on Iran that could have sparked a regional war.

The final reckoning

As early as 2010, Netanyahu and the then defence minister of Israel, Ehud Barak, issued orders for the military to be on notice to attack Iran within a few hours. The military’s chief of staff, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, and the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, both objected.

According to a report by Irael’s Channel Two, Ashkenazi said air strikes would be “a strategic mistake” because of the risk of war, while Dagan said they were “illegal” and called for a decision by the full cabinet decision.

Rather than press a confrontation, Netanyahu withdrew the orders. But he remained defiant: “In the final reckoning, the responsibility lies with the prime minister and as long as I am prime minister, Iran will not have the atomic bomb.”

In the summer of 2012, Netanyahu and Barak then tried once again to lay the foundations for an attack. Despite ongoing nuclear talks between Iran and the 5+1 powers, Tehran was increasing its stock of centrifuges and 20% enriched uranium. The amount was still short of that for further enrichment yielding even one warhead; however, Netanyahu declared that a “red line” had been crossed. Barak reportedly told his US counterpart Leon Panetta that: “If you take military action, we will greatly appreciate it and give you full credit. However, if you fail to act, we will take action.”

Thinking big. EPA/Gali Tibbon

Israel’s top military and intelligence staff faced a key decision: accept the air strikes or stand up to the prime minister. Unanimously – from the chief of staff, Benny Gantz, to the air force and army commanders to the head of Mossad – they chose to oppose action.

Barak held a series of meetings with the commanders, but they held firm in their warnings of the consequence of a regional war, even if the initial attack on Iran was successful. Frustrated, the defence minister said the generals had been frightened because of Israel’s far-from-successful conflict with Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006.

The military and intelligence staff had checked Netanyahu’s initial push – but, with the prime minister preparing to go to the UN, they still had to hold the line.

Fortunately, the Obama administration was on their side.

Enter The Americans

Weeks after Barack Obama became US president in 2009, General Ashkenazi, went to Washington with the message that Israel considered air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities a “serious option”.

The response of US diplomatic and military officials was direct: we are seeking a political resolution to the challenge of Iran’s nuclear program. Do not attack.

So, while Netanyahu’s hostility to Obama simmered and was put on display through leaks from the prime minister’s office, the Israeli military and intelligence community were reinforcing the channel with their US colleagues, sharing information not only on Tehran’s latest manoeuvres but of those of their commanders-in-chief.

In summer 2012, that channel was used for a message to Washington: we need help with Netanyahu.

Obama dispatched the vice-chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James A Winnefeld, to Israel. Officially, Winnefield was sent to “discuss the countries’ continued military co-operation”. Officially, Winnefield would “discuss the countries’ continued military cooperation”. Behind the scenes, he was bolstering the objections to the Iran attack.

And beyond the discreet US-Israeli co-operation, Tehran was also playing its part in blocking Netanyahu. In summer 2012, it began conversion of much of its 20% uranium into oxide powder, which cannot be further enriched to the 90% level needed for a bomb. Doing so, Iran ensured that its 20% stock remained below 210kg – the amount needed for potential enhancement to one nuclear weapon.

This change in Iran’s strategy – maintained to this day, with more than half of its 20%-enriched uranium converted into oxide powder and some into fuel plates – underpinned the Israeli intelligence assessment that has now been leaked. It undercut any basis for Netanyahu’s claim of an imminent “existential threat” requiring air strikes, even as he so confidently brandished his cartoon in New York.

Not backing down

So Netanyahu was blocked from beginning military action. But he never concedes defeat – and, sure enough, on March 3 2015, he will address the US Congress in the hope of disrupting Iran’s negotiations with the 5+1 powers and prevent a deal from being made by the July 1 deadline.

The irony is that Netanyahu will continue to have more support from many in Congress than from his own officials. His trip to Washington has been criticised by many in Israel as electioneering, coming as it does just ahead of polls for the Knesset on March 17. And Mossad seems to be briefing against Netanyahu still: in February 2015, representatives of Mossad reportedly warned “US senior officials” against any attempt to collapse the nuclear negotiations, for example, through new US sanctions on Tehran.

That claim may have been enhanced for the press by an Obama administration that wants to prevent any spoilage of the negotiations by Netanyahu. Still, this week’s leaked documents highlight the challenge Netanyahu faces: if the discussions with Iran do finally collapse, he will still have to overcome his own military to take the action he wants.

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