An extraordinary interview with an anonymous subject has appeared in Haaretz, the Israeli newspaper. In over 3,200 words of prose, the man answering the questions is referred to only as “the decision-maker”. But the piece is filled with hints about his identity, to the point where anyone with the slightest grasp of Israeli politics can work out that the anonymous interviewee must be Ehud Barak, the defence minister. (To take one example, the “decision-maker” is interviewed in a room that boasts a “black grand piano”. Barak is a concert pianist – there cannot be many others in the Israeli hierarchy).
The significance of the interview is that the “decision-maker” says quite plainly that Israel cannot rely on America to take whatever action is necessary to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weapons capability. And Israel’s own window for launching a preventive strike is closing more rapidly than Washington’s.
“The gap between the two countries derives from the fact that the US and Israel have different abilities,” says the interviewee.
“As the Iranians continue to fortify their nuclear sites and disperse them and accumulate uranium, the moment is approaching when Israel will not be able to do anything. For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone − because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times. But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone.”
Then the “decision-maker” (or Barak) reaches the crux of his argument: “And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States. Israel cannot allow this to happen. It cannot place the responsibility for its security and future in the hands of even its best and most loyal friend.”
Israel was founded to protect the Jewish people from existential threats. In the final analysis, the country’s leadership will trust no one else with this supreme responsibility. But Israel faces the danger of allowing the power to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold to slip from its hands, leaving the country with no option but to trust the US. And the interviewee is adamant that Israel would prefer to go to war rather than allow that moment to arrive.
In fact, he gives the impression that the crucial decision has already been taken: unless American goes to war within Israel’s own time-frame for taking action (he lets slip that another year cannot be allowed to go by), then Israel will do the job itself.
“If Israel forgoes the chance to act and it becomes clear that it no longer has the power to act, the likelihood of an American action will decrease. So we cannot wait a year to find out who was right: the one who said that the likelihood of an American action is high or the one who said the likelihood of an American action is low. We can’t wait to find out one morning that we relied on the Americans but were fooled because the Americans didn’t act in the end. We need to look at the reality right now with total clarity. Even a cruel reality must be looked at with total clarity. Israel is strong and Israel is responsible, and Israel will do what it has to do.”
The logic of these words is that Israel will act soon. Given the imminence of the US election, that probably means before November.
Let me emphasise a few notes of caution. First, I’ve written in the past about the possibility that Israel lacks the military capability to strike decisively against Iran’s nuclear plants. Israel may simply be unable to do the job, however much its decision-makers might be convinced of the need for action.
Second, whenever Israel talks up the possibility of war, America toughens its own rhetoric against Iran and more sanctions are imposed. This gives Israeli “decision-makers” a direct interest in upping the ante and making verbal threats.
Finally, if the Israelis really were about to go into action – assuming they have the capability – they would not tell us beforehand. No tub-thumping belligerence would precede a war; on the contrary, it would come as a bolt from the blue.
Nonetheless, this interview provides an extraordinary insight into Israeli thinking. Here’s what I find most striking: the whole tenor of the subject’s comments suggests that the key decision has already been taken: Israel will go to war if America does not take action itself. All that remains to be settled is the timing. If that’s a bluff, it is an extremely dangerous one.