Daniel W. Drezner

The deep strangeness of Israel’s national security debate

The deep strangeness of Israel’s national security debate

Buried within James Risen’s interesting New York Times front-pager about the easing of Iran tensions is an even more interesting story about the deep weirdness that is going on within Israel’s national security establishment on Iran: 

At the same time in Israel, the conservative government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been rocked by a series of public comments from current and former Israeli military and intelligence officials questioning the wisdom of attacking Iran.

The latest comments came from Yuval Diskin, the former chief of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security service, who on Friday said Mr. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak should not be trusted to determine policy on Iran. He said the judgments of both men have been clouded by “messianic feelings.” Mr. Diskin, who was chief of Shin Bet until last year, said an attack against Iran might cause it to speed up its nuclear program.

Just days before, Israel’s army chief of staff suggested in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that the the Iranian threat was not quite as imminent as Mr. Netanyahu has portrayed it. In his comments, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz suggested that he agreed with the intelligence assessments of the United States that Iran has not yet decided whether to build a nuclear bomb.

Iran “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile,” General Gantz told Haaretz. He suggested that the crisis may not come to a head this year. But he said, “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress, the worse the situation is.”

Last month, Meir Dagan, the former chief of the Israeli spy agency Mossad, said he did not advocate a pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear program anytime soon. In an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes,” Mr. Dagan said the Iranian government was “a very rational one,” and that Iranian officials were “considering all the implications of their actions.”

As someone who thought the Iran rhetoric coming from Jerusalem was decidedly overheated, I nevertheless have more mixed feelings about these developments than, say, Peter Beinart.  What’s disturbing is that even though Israel’s actual opposition party is evincing many of the same sentiments as the former military officers quoted above, they are not the ones moving the policy debate — it’s the ex-military/intel guys. 

That’s a problem.  As much as candidates for higher office like to talk about "consulting the commanders on the ground" and the like, big decisions about national security policy should be the province of elected leaders.  Civilians need to be in control of these decisions — the moment that elected leaders give up this control, then the voters have forfeited the most vital decisions of a republic.  This is why, in the United States, one of the rare sources of continuing bipartisan agreement is that when military commanders voice their policy opinions to the press in a way that contradicts the President, they need to be canned

Now, recently retired military and intelligence officials are in a slightly different category, but there’s still a danger here.  I respect that these ;people should have a voice, particularly if they feel their country is on the precipice of a policy disaster — but should their voice be louder than that of the main opposition party?  I don’t think so, and it’s a sign that there’s a problem with Israeli democracy if that’s the case.  I don’t think this is entirely the fault of ex-IDF and Shin Bet leaders, mind you — Netanyahu and Barak are part of the problem as well.  Still, at least the latter people won elections and must go back to the voters again. 

Developing… in a  very problematic manner.