August 24, 2015 - Ehud Barak, Iran, PIJ and Israel’s response

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This week, Alpher discusses why Ehud Barak made his dramatic remarks about attacking Iran and why he made them now; if there are potential strategic ramifications, or if this is merely one more case of a frustrated ex-politician sounding off; whether last week’s rocket attacks on Israel from the Syrian Golan and Israel’s response suggest the possibility of imminent escalation of hostilities between Iranian proxies and Israel, and if the timing bespeaks a link to the Iran nuclear deal; actions that are perceived by Palestinians as Israeli provocations, which have resulted recently in increased instances of stone-throwing and fire-bombing against Israeli vehicles and knife attacks on IDF soldiers.

 

Q. Why did Ehud Barak make his dramatic remarks about attacking Iran and why now?

A. Barak’s statements about Israel attacking Iran are best understood against the backdrop of a number of relevant factors.

First, the timing of the release of Barak’s recorded remarks corresponds with the publication last week of a Hebrew-language book, “Barak: The Wars of My Life”, whose authors recorded interviews with him some time ago and leaked them last Friday to boost the book. Barak even denies that he intended the recordings to be published. Be that as it may, the gist of the remarks is in the book, Barak does not deny them, and publication at any time over the past year or so--or, for that matter, the next few months--would have essentially the same effect.

Second, the book and the remarks appear to reflect one or both of two objectives: to burnish Barak’s legacy as the man who ostensibly would have changed the history of the world’s relationship with Iran; and/or, to help pave the way for Barak to return to politics, either as Labor leader again or as head of an umbrella party that embraces Labor, Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid and perhaps Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu.

Third, in the view of many Israelis on the left and the right, Barak’s political career reflects a problematic legacy of failure as prime minister, failure at managing two peace processes (with the PLO and with Syria), and a failed exit from politics in late 2012 after splitting the Labor party and generally losing credibility as a reliable politician and defender of Israel’s security. As defense minister in 2011, for example, Barak went on record predicting the fall of Syria’s Bashar Assad within months--a statement devoid of any basis in sound intelligence assessment.

 

Q. Are there potential strategic ramifications, or is this merely one more case of a frustrated ex-politician sounding off?

A. The centrality of Iranian-Israeli tensions to today’s global strategic situation virtually mandates that we pay close attention to Barak’s remarks. Essentially, he stated that at no fewer than three critical junctures in the years 2010-2012 he, as defense minister, favored an Israeli attack on Iran’s military nuclear infrastructure and that PM Netanyahu and FM Lieberman concurred. The attacks did not take place, according to Barak, because additional ministers from Netanyahu’s own Likud party demurred, because senior security officials did not agree or expressed reservations, and because Netanyahu got cold feet and displayed poor leadership qualities.

Barak’s remarks are ill-considered and irresponsible for a number of reasons. First, they hurt Israeli deterrence by painting current Defense Minister Yaalon, Barak’s successor, as opposing an Israeli attack on Iran without entering into the reasons for his stand. Yaalon has characterized Barak’s remarks as “distorted and tendentious accounts”. Second, the remarks, which were approved by Israel’s military censor, hurt Israel’s overall security profile by painting the security establishment as incapable of keeping secrets.

Third, the Barak narrative ostensibly damages US-Israel security relations. It portrays an Israeli leadership seriously contemplating an attack on Iran that would almost certainly have generated retaliatory Iranian attacks against not only Israel but US forces in the Middle East as well. The attack might also have produced an Israeli request for an American security umbrella, yet without prior coordination by Israel with Washington. Here, however, it must be noted that there remains a viable alternative interpretation of all these statements and events according to which Netanyahu carefully coordinated Israel’s verbal escalation to lend muscle to US efforts to strengthen international sanctions on Iran and that, Barak’s remarks notwithstanding, Israel never really intended to attack.

Fourth, Barak’s remarks appear particularly irresponsible insofar as they offer no indication that in proposing an attack, Barak offered his fellow ministers a set of alternative options as is customary when major strategic decisions are contemplated. One such option could have been to suggest to Washington Israeli concessions that might have made possible a two-state solution with the Palestinians in return for US agreement to a joint military operation against Iran--an idea that in the past has actually been attributed to Barak. Another might have been the option associated with former Mossad head Meir Dagan: to attack Iran “only when the sword is at our throats” rather than preemptively.

The timing of publication of Barak’s remarks appears to point to a desire on his part to say to the Israeli public and the world in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal, ‘it all would have been different if you had listened to me.’ Yet it is more likely that Barak will end up validating the judgment of IDF chiefs of staff Ashkenazi and Gantz and Mossad heads Dagan and Pardo, along with then-ministers Benny Begin and Dan Meridor. They all consistently resisted pressure to attack Iran because this would have produced short-lived results at best and a counter-productive outcome at worst. On the other hand, Barak’s criticism of the decision-making capabilities of senior Likud officials, particularly Netanyahu who clearly wished to attack yet backed off, may resonate more credibly with the public, both on the left and the right.

Still, at the end of the day the public was already aware through numerous leaks and press reports of recent years that an attack on Iran had been contemplated. Indeed, questions to that effect were usually the first words out of the mouths of both US officials and well-briefed American journalists when they encountered well-informed Israeli former security officials, this writer included. Precisely because there was nothing dramatically new here, Barak’s remarks actually may not resonate beyond next week.

Barak himself, who reportedly predicted in 2012 (again without a solid foundation in responsible intelligence assessment) that an Israeli attack on Iran would eventually precipitate regime-change in Tehran, does not emerge from this affair smelling like roses.

 

Q. Meanwhile, last week’s rocket attacks on Israel from the Syrian Golan and Israel’s response appear to suggest the possibility of imminent escalation of hostilities between Iranian proxies and Israel. The timing bespeaks a link to the Iran nuclear deal. What’s going on?

A. Iran, which until now has relied on its Hezbollah proxy in Lebanon and the Golan to send aggressive messages to Israel, this time chose to work via Palestinian Islamic Jihad. PIJ is a Sunni Islamist group more extreme than Hamas that has maintained close ties with Shiite Iran despite the current struggle in the Levant that pits Sunnis against Shiites and quasi-Shiites like the ruling Syrian Alawites. Israel responded to PIJ’s firing from Syria of four rockets, two of which landed in Upper Galilee, by first attacking Syrian military emplacements on and near the Golan, then attacking and eliminating the Palestinian rocket firers as they withdrew deep into Syrian territory, and by-the-by publishing precise information naming Iran’s liaison to the PIJ movement and detailing the nature of their links.

In sponsoring the rocket attack on Israel, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Quds Force appeared to be sending a message that Tehran’s nuclear deal with the international community will not constitute grounds for Iran adopting a less aggressive attitude toward Israel. The choice of Palestinian Islamic Jihad--an organization with a presence in both the Gaza Strip and the West Bank--for sending the message reinforces the reality of direct Iranian involvement in the Palestinian struggle (a reality also reflected in recent days by reports that the more moderate West Bank leader Mahmoud Abbas was contemplating a visit to Iran). On the other hand, Iran’s use of a Sunni Palestinian proxy rather than, say, Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, is also intended to suggest that the nuclear deal did not go to the Iranians’ heads to the extent of seeking direct confrontation with Israel.

The IDF's strong response sends the message that Israel knows exactly what is going on in Syria: Iran is effectively in charge. Netanyahu and Yaalon are signaling that they do not seek escalation but will not tolerate Iranian attacks, proxy or otherwise, on Israel. When we factor in the current potential for intifada-type escalation in the West Bank and East Jerusalem--increasing instances of stone-throwing and fire-bombing against Israeli vehicles, and knife attacks on IDF soldiers in response to what are perceived as Israeli provocations--there is reason for Israelis to be wary on all fronts.

 

Q. Could you expand on those “provocations”?

A. Some were deliberate, e.g., the July 31 “price tag” firebombing that killed two members of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Douma, with two more in critical condition. Unfortunately, the Jewish settler perpetrators have not yet been brought to justice; this inevitably appears to Palestinians like deliberate Israeli negligence when it comes to Jewish offenders. In fact, Jewish terrorists can fall back on a large settler presence in the West Bank that is either sympathetic to their deeds or unwilling to take a strong and active stand against them. Hence it is inevitable that the Shin Bet security service will have difficulty finding them, even if it refuses to point a finger at the entire settlement enterprise.

In contrast, some of the perceived provocations simply reflect the modalities of an Israeli security system whose specific actions against Palestinian terrorists will have their own problematic logic as long as the occupation continues to exist. Such is the case of Muhammad Allan, a young West Bank lawyer with close ties to the very same Palestinian Islamic Jihad that fired the rockets into Upper Galilee last week. The Shin Bet argues that Allan is heavily involved in supporting PIJ terrorism. But its evidence is either too circumstantial to stand up in court or, more likely, presenting the evidence in court will compromise sensitive sources. The solution is to ask the court to invoke administrative detention, a procedure that does not require a trial and that is based on measures used by the British Mandate against Jewish resistance forces prior to the 1948 creation of Israel.

There are several hundred Palestinians, and since the Douma attack several Israeli Jews, in administrative detention, a controversial preventive act that constitutes a conscious violation of human rights and that has to be reviewed and renewed by a judge every six months. Allan’s detention led him to declare a hunger strike that, as it passed its fiftieth day recently, brought Allan close to death. This in turn inspired widespread protests and violent attacks by West Bank Arabs and Israeli Palestinians and raised the specter of Israeli “preventive” forced feeding--an equally controversial measure legislated recently by a right-wing Knesset majority and objected to on ethical grounds by most Israeli medical doctors.

As with previous Palestinian hunger strikers in preventive detention, an eleventh-hour compromise was ultimately worked out with the courts that saved Allan and enabled most other concerned parties to save face. But no one addressed the basic issues: an occupation that dictates such barely-defensible security measures, a court system that ultimately supports the occupation, draconian Knesset legislation that violates human rights--but also the threat to Israel by militant Islamists like PIJ that reject the state’s very right to exist.

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