2 Israeli Leaders Make the Iran Issue Their Own (NY) TIMES) By ETHAN BRONNER JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 03/28/12)
NEW YORK TIMES
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JERUSALEM — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister
Ehud Barak have turned into the odd couple of Israeli politics in
whose hands sits the prospect of an attack on Iran. From opposite
political traditions with distinct experiences and worldviews, the
two have forged a tight bond, often excluding the rest of the Israeli
For Mr. Netanyahu, an Iranian nuclear weapon would be the 21st-
century equivalent of the Nazi war machine and the Spanish
Inquisition — the latest attempt to destroy the Jews. Preventing that
is the mission of his life. For Mr. Barak, who spurns talk of a
second Holocaust and fear for Israel’s existence, it is a challenge
about strategy: “zones of immunity” and “red lines,” the operational
details of an assault on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“All leaders have kitchen cabinets, but Netanyahu and Barak have
established a kitchenette of two,” remarked Nahum Barnea, a columnist
for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, in an interview. “They haven’t
discussed Iran with the rest of the government in weeks and have
convinced themselves there is only one way to deal with Iran — their
A top Israeli official who works closely with both leaders and spoke
on the condition of anonymity confirmed that the cabinet had not
talked lately about Iran, but noted that detailed and long-standing
preparation had gone into the possibility of a military strike. Of
the two men, he said: “One views himself as a savior, the other lives
for a good operation. They’re a strange pair who have come to
appreciate each other. Together they control this issue.”
Mr. Netanyahu is the leader of the right-wing Likud Party and grew up
in the revisionist Zionist tradition of maximizing territory,
standing up aggressively to Israel’s opponents and rejecting the
quasi socialism of David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister. Mr.
Barak grew up on a collective farm deep within the heart of Labor
Zionism, and after a long and decorated military career became
chairman of the Labor Party. He served briefly as prime minister
before losing popular support and an election to Ariel Sharon in 2001.
“On the surface they appear very different,” commented Daniel Ben-
Simon, a left-leaning Labor Party member of Parliament who worked
with Mr. Barak. “Netanyahu cannot disconnect Israel from the
Holocaust. He sees himself as the prime minister of the Jewish
people. Barak is the ultimate Israeli, the prince of Zionism. Many
thought Barak would rein in Netanyahu on Iran. Instead he joined with
him into a two-man show.”
While many here fear a catastrophe if Israel strikes at Iran, Mr.
Barak and Mr. Netanyahu increasingly argue that there may be no other
option. Their view is that given a choice between an Iran with
nuclear weapons — which they say could use them against Israel
directly or through proxies, as well as spur a regional arms race —
and the consequences of an attack on Iran before it can go nuclear,
the latter is far preferable. There will be a counterattack, they
say; people will lose their lives and property will be destroyed. But
they say it is the lesser of two evils.
“Rockets will fall on this building, but things would be far worse if
Iran got the bomb,” said a top former official who has worked for
both men, as he sat in a seaside Tel Aviv hotel lobby.
He added that Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak were “meeting one on one
with certain cabinet ministers in order to shape a majority in the
14,” referring to the 14-member security cabinet.
They have known each other a long time and have developed a strong
mutual dependence. Mr. Barak’s political career, which once seemed so
promising, now relies heavily on his relationship with Mr. Netanyahu.
And given Mr. Netanyahu’s limited military experience, without the
backing of Mr. Barak, who is seen as a military mastermind, he would
have trouble winning support for his policy.
Mr. Barak, 70, was a commander of Mr. Netanyahu, 62, in the elite
Sayeret Matkal unit in which they both served in the early 1970s.
Both have also grown relatively wealthy in recent years from speeches
and consulting when not in government, and both feel they understand
American politics especially well.
If they did decide to attack, they would need the backing of a
majority of the security cabinet. Most estimates are that they would
get that support, although the vote might be as close as 8 to 6. But
by keeping the issue off the cabinet’s agenda for now, they could be
counting on seeking an 11th-hour vote, when it would be harder for
ministers to oppose the attack.
Earlier cabinet meetings offer clues as to why they might be avoiding
the issue. In its three years, the cabinet held a number of meetings
devoted to Iran, according to top officials who add that defense
officials and several ministers opposed military action, at least so
“They haven’t done it until now,” a top official who is
unenthusiastic about an attack said. “Ask yourself why.”
Iran says its nuclear program is purely for civilian use, although
Western powers believe its goal is to produce weapons. Israel points
to repeated statements by Iranian leaders calling for its destruction
and by Iran’s financing and arming of groups fighting Israel. Still,
the United States says that diplomacy and sanctions against Iran’s
financial and energy industries need time before military action
should be considered.
Mr. Netanyahu’s recent trip to Washington is widely thought to have
gained President Obama some of that time, with no attack expected in
the next few months.
Both Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Barak say they will be delighted if
pressure on Iran leads it to drop its nuclear program. Neither thinks
it likely, however, because of the short time frame as Iran moves its
centrifuges underground, beyond Israel’s military ability to destroy
Public opinion on the matter is unclear, although Mr. Netanyahu
remains very popular and Mr. Barak is widely respected as defense
minister. In polls about Iran, different questions produce different
results. One poll asked Israelis if they favored an attack without
American help and a sizable majority, 63 percent, said no. But
another asked whether Israelis considered an attack on Iran riskier
than “living in the shadow of an Iranian nuclear bomb” and 65 percent
preferred the attack, in keeping with the Netanyahu-Barak argument.
Some say it is the unusual combination of Mr. Netanyahu with Mr.
Barak that could lead to an attack, and while some are grateful,
others are terrified. Meir Dagan, a former head of the Mossad spy
agency, has complained that the two leaders cannot be trusted to make
the right decision.
Ben Caspit, a political columnist for the Maariv newspaper, a former
Likud activist and a harsh critic of Mr. Netanyahu’s, wrote in the
paper last weekend that he viewed them as dangerous.
Using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname, he said: “Bibi is a messianist. He
believes with all his soul and every last molecule of his being that
he — I don’t quite know how to express it — is King David. He’s not
cynical in the least. The cynic here is Barak. The fortunate thing is
that Bibi’s a coward. The dangerous thing is that he’s got Barak
beside him.” (Copyright 2012 The New York Times Company 03/28/12)
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