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Israel's security chiefs and political leaders clash over Iranian strategy

In this May 15, 2005 file photo, Yuval Diskin arrives for a meeting at the President's residence in Jerusalem. Yuval Diskin has decried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak for misleading the public.

Oded Balilty/Oded Balilty/AP

The battle over Iran's nuclear policy is already under way, not on the battlefields of Iran nor in aerial attacks on the country's hardened bunkers, but in the salons and TV studios of Israel.

The conflict pits an army of former and current Israeli security officials critical of a rush to war on Iran against a powerful force of the country's top political leaders, leaving the Israeli public to wonder just who is to be believed.

The latest scathing salvo was fired Friday by Yuval Diskin, the former director of the Shin Bet security service, who decried Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defence Minister Ehud Barak for misleading the public. An attack on Iran would not destroy that country's nuclear weapons program, Mr. Diskin argued, but only encourage it to accelerate their development.

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He told a group of retirees who meet every Friday to discuss political issues that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak had messianic complexes and risked taking the country into a major war.

"I'm telling you, I've seen them from up close," the former security adviser said. "They're not messiahs, either of them, and they are not people who I, on a personal level at least, trust to lead the state of Israel into an event of that scale."

Mr. Diskin's remarks were recorded on video and displayed on countless websites all weekend.

In response, the Prime Minister and Defence Minister fired back through associates that Mr. Diskin was "politically motivated;" even saying he was "responsible for Gilad Shalit's presence in captivity."

It was reminiscent of the Meir Dagan kerfuffle a year ago when the outgoing Mossad chief called an attack on Iran "stupid" and also questioned the quality of the Israeli leadership. More than that, Mr. Dagan suggested that Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and others in the Iranian regime were not necessarily religious crazies.

"He is a very smart man," Mr. Dagan said of the Iranian leader. "He had very good capabilities in managing the town of Tehran. He was very capable in running a few provinces in Iran in the past. He has a PhD in engineering."

The notion of Iran being ruled by rational leaders echoed last week, when Chief of Staff Binyamin Gantz said in an Independence Day interview that he considered the Iranian leadership to be composed of very rational people who had yet to decide whether to build nuclear weapons.

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"If the supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, wants, he will advance to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken," Mr. Gantz said in remarks that would have come as a surprise to the political leadership.

"I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don't think he will want to go the extra mile," he added.

Ten months ago, in Toronto at the home of businessman-philanthropist Gerry Schwartz, Mr. Gantz's predecessor, Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, laid out many of these issues.

"Israel must not allow for the possibility of a nuclear mushroom cloud in its skies," Lt.-Gen. Ashkenazi told the crowd of donors to Israel, "but this does not mean that the military option is the best one at this time."

However, he added, neither is it right for a former security official, such as Mr. Dagan, to express his views in public on such a matter.

Interestingly, the general couldn't keep entirely silent either.

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He quoted a statement by Mr. Dagan, the former Mossad chief, that during his term, it was only the trio of Mr. Dagan, Lt.-Gen. Ashkenazi and Mr. Diskin who were able "to thwart an attack on Iran."

"I'm afraid," Mr. Dagan had said, "our successors will not be up to the task."

Lt.-Gen. Ashkenazi did not dispute the veracity of the statement, but he wanted to assure the open-mouthed Toronto audience that today's security chiefs, who replaced the trio, are perfectly capable of speaking out if they have to.

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About the Author
Global Affairs reporter

As Global Affairs Writer, Patrick Martin’s primary focus is on the turbulent Middle East, to which he travels regularly. He has twice been posted to the region – from 1991-95 and from 2008-12. More

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