The breadth and scope of Israel’s internal debate and disagreement over a potential attack on Iran are unprecedented in the country’s history. International analysis naturally centres on an attack’s strategic ramifications. Domestically, though, the nature of the Iranian threat underscores four unresolved issues of governability. They’ve always been at the core of the Israeli reality, but the debate on Iran renders these issues more acute.
First is the challenge of governance. Israel’s commander-in-chief isn’t a person but an entity – a coalition government whose members often disagree. Coalition politics makes decision-making difficult at the best of times, but, to go to war, the Prime Minister needs consensus within his cabinet as well as within the public.
That need is even more pronounced when the war is what Israelis call “a war of choice” – that is, not in response to an attack. Since the 1982 Lebanon “war of choice” and subsequent widespread public opposition, Israel’s leaders have remained acutely sensitive to public opinion on matters of life and death.
While most Israelis consider the spectre of a nuclear Iran an existential threat, they’re divided on the wisdom of an advance attack. So is the cabinet. To gain the support they need, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak chose to go public in hard-hitting media interviews, thereby generating a frenzy of spin and counterspin.
Second is the question of military accountability. Israel’s military has always been involved in national security decisions even as it stays out of the public arena and officially defers to government as the ultimate decision-maker. That line has occasionally been crossed. In a dramatic example, on the eve of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic peace-making visit to Jerusalem in 1977, army chief of staff Mordechai Gur declared that Egypt was actually preparing for war.
On Iran, former military and security chiefs started the ball rolling with a series of statements questioning the wisdom of attacking Iran absent close co-ordination with Washington. Then, in background briefings and carefully worded interviews, the military’s current senior commanders, including chief of staff Benny Gantz and intelligence chief Aviv Kochavi, made their own reservations known.
Third is the question of limits on the media’s coverage of national security issues. While Israelis generally believe the media are too open, media outlets defiantly defend their professional and civic responsibility to expose all (especially since reports are screened by the military censor). Following controversy over coverage of the 2006 Lebanon war, the Israeli Press Council launched an inquiry into the media’s role during war. But the debate continues.
On Iran, there’s a constant barrage of analysis over every aspect of a possible attack. Politicians and the military use the media incessantly to promote their respective positions, and journalists have embraced the role of arbiters, thereby further fuelling the public debate.
Fourth is the issue of Israel’s relationship with its critical American ally. When Israeli President Shimon Peres spoke out against a strike on Iran, his rationale was the need to be fully co-ordinated with Washington. Every Israeli leader has had to strike a balance between the right to make independent decisions and the force of U.S. pressure. David Ben-Gurion succumbed to such pressure and withdrew troops from the Sinai after the 1956 Suez campaign. In 1967, Levi Eshkol waited to launch a pre-emptive strike against Egypt and Syria until he had a nod from Lyndon Johnson. Yitzhak Shamir conceded to U.S. wishes and sat out the 1991 Persian Gulf war while rockets hit Tel Aviv.
Barack Obama has made it clear he won’t tolerate a nuclear Iran. But Israel’s public sparring with his preference for an alternative to military action and his opacity on the timing of a possible strike has escalated to a hitherto unknown level. When Mr. Netanyahu said Tuesday that “those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel,” his request for a meeting with Mr. Obama this month was rebuffed. And since Iran and support for Israel have become election issues in the U.S., tension between the two governments has increased even more.
The four issues are inherent to the Israeli “rules of the game” and, right now, the balance in all four interconnected areas is out of kilter. The cumulative effect is serious. Mr. Netanyahu has convinced Israelis that they’ve never faced a greater threat. But he hasn’t yet convinced them that the benefits of a “go it alone” attack outweigh its risks – and that some of the damage done along the way may be irreversible.