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Roll out the ex-security chiefs

The claim that Israel's defense establishment backs the Iran nuclear deal is neither credible nor persuasive
Good hand grenade or bad hand grenade? Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo (right, with Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen) (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
Good hand grenade or bad hand grenade? Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo (right, with Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen) (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
Good hand grenade or bad hand grenade? Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo (right, with Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen) (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)
Good hand grenade or bad hand grenade? Mossad chief, Tamir Pardo (right, with Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen) (Photo credit: Kobi Gideon/ Flash 90)

When you really need to prop up your unconvincing case on the Iran nuclear deal, where better to seek out support than from within the Israeli ex-security establishment community? These are no doubt powerful, authoritative voices on a wide array of security-related topics. And recent media reports – in the Washington Post and Forward among others – have been showcasing some of these voices to try to increase support in the United States for the Iran deal.

But are the quoted members of this community all experts on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, or on nuclear issues more generally speaking? The answer is no. Some are and some are not. And are there not other comparable figures making a very different case, indeed strongly arguing against the Iran deal? Of course there are. And finally, are ex-security establishment figures as a group necessarily the most authoritative voices on this particular topic in the Israeli domestic debate? Again, the answer is no.

There are Iran experts, nuclear experts, and Iran nuclear experts, who have been following every detail for years – these individuals have vastly more relevant credentials to discuss the ins and outs and implications of the Iran deal than the ex-head of the Shin Bet. In fact, relying on some of these assessments purely because they come from “security figures”, without checking the basis for each speaker’s authority on this topic, has more than a whiff of chauvinism, and can lead to dangerously skewed results. Expertise on this topic does not automatically come with high-ranking military service. In this regard we can only envy the Congressional hearings, where experts are invited to testify based on their expertise.

But that’s not all that is wrong with the recent attempt to recruit these so-called dissenting Israeli voices for political purposes in the United States. Some of the figures – those that are authoritative – have been quoted as opposing the government’s position on the deal when they are actually trying to convey a more nuanced message than the one being framed by the media. Their message seems tailored primarily for internal consumption – to say to the Israeli public: yes, this deal is bad, but it is not a disaster. We are strong and will be able to deal with the adverse implications. Moreover, they say, Israel’s strategic ties with the US are of paramount importance and cannot be jeopardized by trying to influence an internal American debate. These arguments are quite valid, but they are not arguments in favor of the deal. They are arguments saying that we in Israel have no choice but to try to make the best of a bad situation over which we have no direct control.

Some say that they favor the deal because it keeps Iran from nuclear weapons for 10 or 15 years. But does it? That’s exactly the essence of the very serious debate going on these days in Congress! The holes in the deal make that statement precarious at best. Moreover, what happens after 15 years? Unfortunately, Israeli ex-security establishment figures are no less prone than some Americans to focusing on short-term rather than long-term solutions. The current deal was always meant to be comprehensive and final, and yet it is nothing of the sort. This is an issue with serious ramifications for global security down the line, and a simplistic “well we’ve delayed the disaster…maybe”, especially when dealing with nuclear capabilities, is the height of recklessness.

Interestingly, the recent articles on the Generals vs. the politicians in Israel are only the latest in a string of attempts to reveal the so-called “true Israeli position.” In January of this year, just as the discussion was heating up in Congress over sanctions legislation, a story appeared in Bloomberg claiming that Netanyahu was at odds not only with the P5+1 about Iran’s nuclear intentions, but with his own security establishment. The claim was that in discussions with US Senators visiting Israel, Mossad head Tamir Pardo told the group that the legislation would be like hurling a “hand grenade” on the nuclear negotiations. The prominent US official quoted in the article is none other than US Secretary of State John Kerry. So we were meant to believe that while Netanyahu was pushing for legislation to step up pressure on Iran in the negotiation, a top Israeli security official that answers to him was flatly contradicting his message in a meeting with US Senators that Netanyahu had approved.

Within 24 hours, a statement was issued by Pardo flatly denying the assessment in the Bloomberg story. There was no follow-up, but from Pardo’s statement it sounded like what might have happened is that Pardo indeed said it would be like a hand grenade, but meaning this as a perhaps positive development. In other words, it might shake things up – maybe even cause Iran to leave the table temporarily – but when Iran came back (and it would because it needed sanctions relief), the international negotiators would be on stronger footing. We don’t know, but that did not stop J.J. Goldberg from noting in his recent piece in the Forward on the current opposition to Netanyahu, that Tamir Pardo in January “told a group of senators that imposing new sanctions on Iran…would undermine the nuclear talks.” No footnote, no reference to Pardo’s denial, just stated as fact.

And then in February, Al-Jazeera and the Guardian disclosed “revelations” about more internal divisions in Israel over the nature of Iran’s nuclear program, specifically its military intentions. At issue was a secret Mossad report from a few years back that seemingly contradicted the gist of Netanyahu’s speech at the UN General Assembly in September 2012. Netanyahu at the time warned that Iran was on the verge of moving to a nuclear weapon capability, while the Mossad report assessed that Iran had not yet made that decision. The obvious motive of this story was to “expose” that while Netanyahu was warning of Iran’s military intentions, the prestigious Mossad thought otherwise. Social media were immediately rife with experts voicing one message: the Al Jazeera implication was absolute nonsense. Indeed, a review of the Mossad document reveals its assessment that Iran was preparing the components of an option to move to a military capability at a time of its choosing, although it seemed to have not yet made that choice. Not quite the split the media had promised.

Is there a pattern here of serial attempts to discredit Netanyahu’s criticism by recruiting the influential security establishment against his positions? Perhaps. At least there seems to be the intent to say to people: you see? You think this is bad for Israel, but the Israelis don’t think so. But this is manipulation, pure and simple. For some of the Israelis quoted, there are likely internal political considerations, perhaps a desire to weaken Netanyahu. Be that as it may, what is at stake is not whether and how Israel makes the best of a bad situation, but rather the merits of the deal – most importantly, whether it will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

Unfortunately, the US administration is trying to advance two messages simultaneously: that this is a good deal, and that it is better than the alternative. But it is either one or the other. If it is a good deal, focus on that. And if the debate is actually over alternatives, then explain why the administration has, from the start, cut off any discussion of alternatives by placing all critics who suggested them (regardless of where they live) in the impossible situation of not being allowed to say anything before the deal is revealed, nor after. But of course, it is with regard to the question of alternatives that the Israeli voices now being quoted are most useful to proponents of the deal. Israel Ziv, one of the retired generals mentioned in the Forward, demonstrates how that works when he argues that the deal is better than the alternatives, like a military strike. But he also notes that “there is no one in Israel who thinks the nuclear agreement is a good agreement,” even if he thinks that that should not be the focus of discussion. Go figure.

The recent attempt to say to Americans that they should listen to one set of Israelis rather than another is one more attempt to divert attention from what should be the only focus of attention in the current debate over the nuclear deal: the serious flaws in this deal that will legitimize Iran’s dangerous nuclear threshold status, and that could ultimately pave the way to Iran becoming a nuclear state. That scenario would be irreversible, and the Iranians know it. And when looking at this through Iranian eyes, 15 years is no time at all.

About the Author
Emily B. Landau is Head of the Arms Control program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University. She is author of 'Decade of Diplomacy: Negotiations with Iran and North Korea and the Future of Nuclear Nonproliferation'
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