Alpher answers questions about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program, and the status of Israeli civil-military relations.
Q. Jeffrey Goldberg's "Atlantic" article on the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program is causing quite a stir. What's your take?
A. The article contains a lot of interesting perspectives and is worth a read. But I believe Goldberg inadvertently exaggerates or misunderstands a number of issues.
First, he cites the consensus assessment of the 40-some Israeli decision-makers, past and present, that he spoke with, to the effect that "there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July", then adds, "They were not part of some public-relations campaign." I beg to differ; they were. Most of these people knew exactly whom they were talking to and how influential he is in certain circles in Washington. Most of them without a doubt believe that it is possible to influence President Obama's ultimate decision--if and when sanctions fail--as to whether the US itself should attack Iran. They understand (as Goldberg himself notes) that the US can do the job far better than Israel and that an Israeli attack not coordinated with Washington that Goldberg writes about would be disastrous for Israel's relations with the US as well as the rest of the world.
So, some or all of Goldberg's interviewees didn't "lay it on thick" for him in an effort to increase the pressure on both Iran and Washington? That's a naive supposition. After all, as Goldberg recognizes, the Israeli strategy for dealing with Iran is premised on the need to persuade the international community to deal with Iran as an international, not just Israeli, problem. Goldberg's article is one more tool for achieving this objective.
Second, had Goldberg spoken to Iran experts and not just "decision-makers", whether in Israel or the US, he would have heard that, overall, the Iranian leadership (and not just President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad) for the most part is not based on "a messianic apocalyptic cult" as Netanyahu is quoted as opining and that the messianic types are not at the center of Iranian decision-making. And those Iran experts, including in IDF and Mossad intelligence, can be expected to have a say in any decision to attack Iran. It is no accident that current IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazi is described by Goldberg as being skeptical about the wisdom of an attack.
Third, largely because of his father, PM Binyamin Netanyahu is described by Goldberg as being "different" in that (quoting Israel's ambassador in Washington, Michael Oren), "He has a deep sense of his role in Jewish history." Well, so had every Israeli prime minister in the country's history. With or without his father's influence, Netanyahu is neither more nor less committed to preventing another Holocaust than was Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Shamir or Yitzhak Rabin.
Then there is the argument, attributed by Goldberg to Ehud Barak and Ephraim Sneh, that if Israel is obliged to live under an Iranian nuclear threat, the country will suffer a huge brain drain and effectively wither away. I don't buy it. To his credit, neither does Goldberg. Reading between the lines of his article, he didn't hear this from most of his Israeli interlocutors. Accordingly, this certainly should not have been alluded to by Goldberg as a compelling reason to go to war.
On the other hand, what Goldberg does not talk about is that an Israeli decision to coexist with an Iranian nuclear threat would oblige Israel to raise its own nuclear profile. Could this conceivably generate a stable balance of mutually assured destruction that might be preferable to a destructive war? Goldberg doesn't ask.
Then there is a second area of Israeli thinking about war with Iran that Goldberg has neglected. This is unfortunate, because it is important for both Israelis and Americans to punch holes in it. More than three decades after the Islamic revolution in Iran, there are some prominently placed Israelis who actually believe an attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure would somehow bring down the ayatollahs' regime and restore the "good guys" to power in Tehran. This is a dangerous case of nostalgia for the periphery doctrine of Israel's early decades, when we made common cause with Iran, Turkey and other non-Arabs or non-Muslims in the region against Arab nationalism and aggression driven by Nasserism.
Israel's current outrage at Turkey's regional policies is another instance of poorly controlled periphery-nostalgia. Today, Israel's primary enemy is militant Islam as embodied in non-Arab and non-state actors in the region. The Arabs are potential allies, though due to the weakness of the Arab state system this doesn't mean much. One way or another, there is every reason to believe that an attack on Iran would only strengthen the Iranian regime. Certainly, regime-change in Tehran should not be a factor in Israeli or American decision-making concerning an attack on Iran.
Q. Can you yourself conceive of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure?
A. Yes, but only if all the following conditions are fulfilled, some of which Goldberg seemingly ignores or underestimates:
1. The regime in Tehran continues to call for Israel's destruction.
2. The Iranian nuclear program is crossing a "red line" and the timetable for obtaining the capacity to attack Israel with nuclear weapons has become extremely short.
3. All international efforts based on diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions are understood unequivocally to have failed.
4. All clandestine efforts to slow the Iranian program (which have apparently been very effective over the past 15 years) are understood to have failed.
5. It is clear to Israel that neither the US nor any other international actor is prepared to deal militarily with Iran. If possible, Israel obtains at least a "yellow light" from the US.
6. Israel has safe physical access for its aircraft via one or more of the countries separating it from Iran.
7. An Israeli attack can set back the Iranian military nuclear program for a significant period of time.
8. A sober cost-benefit analysis persuades Israeli planners that the benefit of significantly damaging the Iranian program outweighs the very heavy potential ancillary costs of the strike: rocket attacks on Israel from the north and south and missile attacks from Iran; regional and international outrage and isolation; an historic crisis in Israeli-American relations; dangers to Diaspora Jewish communities from terrorist attack; etc.
If indeed, all these conditions are fulfilled at some time in the future, I can imagine any Israeli leader, even one who hails from the left or center and whose father is not Ben Zion Netanyahu, concluding that the future of the Jewish people and certainly of the Jewish state rests on his/her shoulders.
But we are not there, and are not likely to be there next spring.
Q. One of the subtexts of your analysis above is civil-military relations in Israel. Civil-military tensions appear to have surfaced in the course of the Turkel commission investigation into the Gaza flotilla incident and, separately, concerning the "Galant document". Can you elaborate on the ramifications?
A. In the course of the past ten days, the Israeli public has indeed witnessed two very graphic and troublesome illustrations of the tensions inherent in the country's civil-military relations. Of course, such tensions exist in virtually every country that has an army. But because Israel is on a near-constant war footing, they are particularly sensitive and significant in its case.
In the Turkel commission investigation of the mistakes and misjudgments involved in the violent interception of the Mavi Marmara last May 31, the public testimony offered last week by the leading figures in that drama was disturbing. Essentially, PM Binyamin Netanyahu placed responsibility on the shoulders of Defense Minister Barak and absolved his own informal decision-making body, the "Cabinet of Seven", of having discussed anything but public-relations aspects of the affair. Then Barak testified that the Cabinet of Seven had discussed operational aspects in great detail, but he nevertheless dumped most of the responsibility on the IDF.
Both leaders made a lot of irrelevant remarks, too, about international terrorism and the like, as if seeking to overwhelm the commission and whitewash their failures. In passing the buck of responsibility, they seemed to be unaware of their constitutional responsibilities regarding national-security decision-making. Moreover, that neither Netanyahu nor Barak realized that IDF intelligence, naval intelligence and the Mossad were not working in tandem on understanding the aggressive nature of the flotilla activists is surprising and disappointing. Nor was mention made by them of the National Security Council, which was set up specifically to coordinate inter-agency planning for operations like this.
Within a day of their testimony, when Netanyahu and Barak became aware that in the public eye they were understood to be passing the buck of responsibility, their PR advisers sought to spin their testimony to make it look better--which only made them look worse.
Then along came IDF Chief of Staff Gaby Ashkenazy and lived up to his far more credible image in the public eye by humbly taking full responsibility. He even avoided pointing the finger at Israel Navy commander Eli ("Chiny") Marom, though the latter undoubtedly bears a good part of the blame for the botched operation.
But then Ashkenazy made a remark that underlined the entire problematic nature, particularly for civil-military relations in Israel, of the Marmara operation. The lesson he has drawn from the unfortunate bloodshed, he stated, is that next time around, the IDF should employ snipers to take out the thugs waiting on deck for the naval commandos to land. That's all. As if, from Ashkenazy's standpoint, the only problem being investigated is how the commandos landed directly into a lethal brawl. As if the IDF is unaware that combating a variety of non-state Islamist antagonists in the twenty-first century requires a far-reaching rethinking of its tactics.
It is generally understood that the Turkel commission was appointed by Netanyahu as an alibi for avoiding an international investigation of the flotilla affair and that, accordingly, the prime minister severely limited its mandate and manned it with three "geriatric" personalities (and two international observers). Meanwhile, Netanyahu has been obliged to acquiesce in an investigation sponsored by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Worse (for the prime minister), Justice Turkel has surprised many by demanding an expanded mandate and adding two (slightly younger) commissioners. (He also now faces a High Court demand that, in accordance with Israeli law, he appoint a female commissioner too; but that's a different story.)
The best thing Turkel could do now is to further expand the focus of his investigation to where it should have been all along: not asking "who gave the order?" or "how would you do it better next time?" but rather inquiring as to how we ended up enforcing an economic embargo on the Gaza Strip, primarily on land but also by sea, that was clearly counterproductive at least a year before the flotilla incident. That is a question that concerns only Israel's civilian echelon and one that it obviously would rather not deal with. But the answer would go a long way toward explaining how we got into the flotilla mess in the first place.
This is not likely to happen. Instead, the Turkel commission will, at best, end up releasing a list of persuasive measures that should be taken to repair a faulty government decision-making process regarding issues of national security and to improve civil-military relations in Israel. As such, it will follow in the footsteps of the Agranat commission that investigated the Yom Kippur War of 1973 and the Winograd commission that investigated the 2006 Second Lebanon War. Not a lot has changed in government strategic decision-making since those problematic wars and the important recommendations they generated.
Turning to the "Galant document", we encounter the presentation of a set of PR measures, many of them mendacious and nasty, that a well-known Israeli PR firm ostensibly recommends be adopted clandestinely to advance the candidacy of Major General Yoav Galant, currently OC Southern Command, for the job of IDF commander-in-chief (Ashkenazy's replacement). The document was leaked to the media ten days ago. Both Galant and the PR firm deny any connection to it and allege it to be a counterfeit attempt to make mischief.
The entire issue is relevant because Defense Minister Ehud Barak, whose poor relations with Ashkenazy are public knowledge, has decided that the popular and generally successful chief of staff will not serve a fifth year and that his replacement will be chosen not three months in advance, as usual, but six months, thereby turning Ashkenazy into a lame duck and severely constraining his capacity to make senior appointments. Moreover, Galant is thought to be Barak's preferred candidate.
Why would an Israeli general seeking advancement within the IDF need a PR firm? Who has an interest in "spinning" this or any other candidate? Can the relations among Barak, IDF generals and the army of civilian "consultants", lobbyists and spin doctors in the civilian sector that live off politics conceivably be deemed healthy? The attorney general has decided to investigate. Meanwhile, Barak has been instructed to put on hold the process of prematurely choosing a new IDF chief of staff.