The Israelis Who Prevented a War With Iran

Netanyahu came close to ordering airstrikes in 2010 — but was thwarted by his own security chiefs.

An Israeli tank in the southern Gaza Strip on Sep. 1, 2005. (Abid Katib/Getty Images)
An Israeli tank in the southern Gaza Strip on Sep. 1, 2005. (Abid Katib/Getty Images)

As the shadow conflict being waged between Israel and Iran in Syria has intensified in recent days, the risk has grown that the two countries — among the strongest in the region — may soon find themselves in an all-out war.

But this isn’t the first time Israel and Iran have approached the precipice. Nearly a decade ago, at the start of Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term as prime minister (he’s now well into his fourth), the Israeli leader seriously considered launching air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities. U.S. President Barack Obama leaned hard on Israel to hold its fire. But when Netanyahu ordered his military to go on high alert anyway, in a possible prelude to war, his own top defense officials were the ones to block the plan.

The story is told in Anshel Pfeffer’s new biography of the prime minister, Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu. What follows is an excerpt.

When Netanyahu returned to office in March 2009, he inherited Meir Dagan as Mossad chief and Yuval Diskin as head of the Israeli domestic security service, the Shin Bet. Both had originally been appointed by former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and their old boss’s deep disdain for Bibi had rubbed off on them. Sharon liked to refer to Netanyahu as “the male model,” a reference to his impressive television appearances and what Sharon saw as a lack of substance or backbone. Dagan, in particular, enjoyed rubbing Netanyahu the wrong way. He had been close to Sharon since the early 1970s, when as a young officer under Sharon’s command he had led an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) hit squad, eliminating Palestine Liberation Organization fighters in the close alleyways of Gaza. Dagan detested the sight of Netanyahu sitting in Sharon’s chair. He regaled his friends, and even journalists, with stories of the prime minister’s lack of decisiveness.

Dagan was the only person in government who allowed himself to clash openly with Netanyahu. In their weekly meetings to approve sensitive operations outside Israel, he insisted that the prevaricating Netanyahu take responsibility and give precise instructions. On one occasion, while he was briefing Netanyahu at the prime minister’s residence, the prime minister’s wife, Sara, walked in. Bibi asked him to continue, as Sara was privy to all his secrets. Dagan inquired whether she had official Shin Bet clearance. Sara left, and Dagan was never asked back to the residence.

In some ways, the two men resembled one another. Like Netanyahu, Dagan believed Iran was a mortal threat to Israel. In his office at Mossad headquarters hung a photograph of a religious Jew kneeling down before Nazi soldiers. For Dagan, it symbolized his grandfather just before he was murdered. He would say that he looked at the picture every day and promised that the Holocaust would never happen again. But Dagan believed the clandestine war he waged as Mossad chief in 2002 was the only way to fight Iran. A military strike would be a blunt and ineffective instrument, to be used only as a last resort.

Diskin had similar feelings about a military assault on Iran — and about Netanyahu. Like Dagan, Diskin has been appointed to his job by Sharon. He had headed the Shin Bet for four years by the time Netanyahu was elected. Netanyahu seemed to him obsessive about Iran and simply not up to the task at hand. “I don’t believe in a leadership that makes decisions based on messianic feelings,” he would say later about his old boss and the people who surrounded him. “I fear very much that these are not the people I’d want at the wheel.”

Not all of Israel’s military leaders shared Diskin and Dagan’s opposition to a strike against Iran. But the two had a crucial ally in the IDF’s chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi. A gruff and aggressive infantryman from the Golani Brigade, Ashkenazi disliked the sophisticates from Sayeret Matkal, Israel’s vaunted special operations unit. (Its alumni included Ashkenazi’s direct boss, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and the prime minister, Netanyahu.) Ashkenazi was a soldier’s soldier, and he never shied away from a fight, whether in the field or in the corridors of the Defense Ministry. But he believed that a long-range operation against Iran would unnecessarily expose Israeli pilots to being shot down by Iranian anti-aircraft missiles and captured. It could also jeopardize cooperation with the U.S. government. Tough as they were, however, opposing their elected political masters was no easy matter for these service chiefs. Supporters of Netanyahu have described their actions as tantamount to “a military coup.”

Ashkenazi was both responsible for preparing a military strike against Iran and at the forefront of trying to stop it from taking place. In 2010, he twice played a key role in preventing action. Barak had ordered the army to ready itself for an operation; Ashkenazi responded that in his professional opinion, the IDF lacked the intelligence and logistical preparations needed to guarantee success. Barak disagreed with Ashkenazi’s assessment but had no choice but to defer. He ordered the necessary preparations to be made as soon as possible.

A few months later, Ashkenazi joined Dagan and Diskin in an even more dramatic showdown against Barak and Netanyahu: the fiercest clash between Israel’s military and political leaders since the eve of the Six-Day War in 1967, when the generals had demanded that then-Prime Minister Levi Eshkol order them to attack Egypt and Syria. This time, the roles would be reversed, with the generals holding back the politicians.

During a meeting at Mossad headquarters north of Tel Aviv, Netanyahu and Barak ordered Ashkenazi to place the IDF on its highest alert status, essentially on a war footing. The status alert, known in Israeli military slang as derikha — “cocking the gun” — involved discreetly calling up essential reserve personnel, canceling all leave, placing aircraft and missiles on 24-hour readiness, and opening emergency storage facilities for munitions and civil defense gear. It would cost the army millions of shekels a day and allow it to launch a strike in hours. Sensing that the politicians were trying to sneak something behind the rest of the government’s back, Ashkenazi said that “cocking the gun” was equivalent to an act of war and by law had to be authorized by the full Cabinet. Barak insisted it the order was legal, and a heated exchange ensued. “If you play with this accordion, music will come out,” warned Ashkenazi. “You could be making an illegal decision to go to war,” added Dagan. Netanyahu remained silent during the argument, and eventually Barak backed down.

In addition to direct confrontation, Ashkenazi and the officers close to him sought to sway public opinion, telling journalists that an attack on Iran would cause Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, to counterattack immediately by firing thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel. “We are facing a war with thousands of civilian casualties,” warned one of the officers in an off-the-record briefing. “It’s going to be like nothing we’ve experienced before.”

Barak suspected that his opponents were also leaking details of the ongoing argument within the Israeli leadership to the Obama administration. “We assumed the Americans knew everything about the operation and also about the opposition to it,” he said in April 2017. “There was someone among us talking to them on a daily basis.” Barak considered Dagan among the main suspects.

Barak seems to have had good grounds for suspicion: in an interview that aired posthumously on Israeli TV in 2016, Dagan (he died in March of that year) said that he had contacted then-CIA Director Leon Panetta directly when he felt that Barak was not truthfully presenting the Obama administration’s objections to an attack on Iran to the Cabinet. Panetta, in a subsequent interview, said that Dagan had “indicated the frustrations with them [Netanyahu and Barak] moving forward.”

“I think he was worried that decisions were made for political reasons and I think that troubled him,” Panetta recalled. Dagan, Panetta said, was “very concerned that somebody [would] push the wrong button.”

Whether Dagan and his colleagues ever actually colluded with a foreign government to thwart Israel’s elected leaders remains unclear. Naturally, views in Israel on what actually happened and whether such actions were proper split along political lines. Right wingers argue that in speaking to the Obama administration directly, Dagan and his colleagues committed treason. Israelis on the left praise the same men for doing whatever was necessary to prevent a potentially illegal order and avert a disastrous war.

Anshel Pfeffer has covered Israeli politics and global affairs for two decades. He is a senior correspondent and columnist for Haaretz and the Israel correspondent for the Economist. He lives in Jerusalem. Twitter: @AnshelPfeffer

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