Israeli Military, President, and Intelligence Services at Each Other’s Throats Over Attacking Iran

Ehud Bara(Pictured: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak.)

Behind the recent appointment of Israel’s new military chief of staff are several months of bitter infighting among Israeli generals and intelligence agencies over whether to attack Iran, and, in the event of such an attack, how to rope the U.S. into the war.

The replacement of Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi with Maj. Gen. Benny Gantz is the outcome of a seesaw battle between a wing of the Israeli army, allied with the intelligence services, that have cautioned against a war with Iran, pitted against Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and a coterie of more aggressive generals. The feud has become so intense that veteran military analyst Ron Ben-Yishai says, “The state of Israel is sinking into anarchy.”

According to the Asia Time’s Victor Kotsev, Ashkenazi, backed by Israel’s intelligence chiefs, and possibly with quiet support from Washington, maneuvered to block Barak’s choice for a new chief of staff by torpedoing the candidacy of Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant, and then blocking the Defense Minister’s attempt to appoint the hawkish Maj. Gen. Yair Naveh as acting chief of staff.

The civil war, according to Kotsev, reflects “a split in Israeli political and military circles on whether to attack Iran. According to [veteran Israeli journalist Aluf] Benn, the outgoing chiefs of the army and the intelligence …are firmly opposed to a unilateral military intervention, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak have stacked their political fortunes on a strike.”

The falling out between Ashkenazi and Barak began last year when the former opposed the defense minister’s proposal to attack Iran, remarking, “Initiating such a war will only bring disaster on Israel.” Barak responded by shortening Ashkenazi’s tenure and replacing him with Galant, the controversial general who led operation “Cast Lead,” the brutal assault on Gaza in December 2008-January 2009 that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians.

According to the Israeli Daily Haaretz, Galant was seen as “more aggressive on Iran and will not block Netanyahu and Barak, who are eager to go into battle against Iran.”

But Galant had to withdraw when it was revealed that he had appropriated public land that surrounded his villa in northern Israel, and Barak blamed Ashkenazi—almost certainly correctly—for leaking the scandal. Barak had already alienated the military by trying to shift the blame for last year’s disastrous interception of the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara onto the army and intelligence agencies.

The whole brouhaha has weakened Barak, who lost whatever base he had when he recently pulled out of the Labor Party to start up a more centrist organization. “Barak suffered one of the toughest routs of his life, second only to his loss of the Prime Minister’s post in the 2001 elections,” says Israeli journalist Amir Oren.

Israeli analyst Benn suggests that Washington might have had a hand in the affair by encouraging resistance to Barak within the Israeli military. Gantz is seen as a general with close ties to his American counterparts, and word has it that the Pentagon was chilly toward Barak during his recent visit to Washington. With Barak badly wounded by the fight, there are a number of players on the sidelines, including rightwing Likudites Moshe Ya’alon and Dan Meridor, who are hankering after his job.

This fight is hardly a split between doves and hawks. According to columnist J.J. Goldberg of the Jewish weekly Forward, while the new Chief of Staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, has “spoken scathingly” of the “short-sighted strategic vision of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak,” he is hardly part of some peace faction. Rather the division seems to be between aggressive right-wingers supported by the settler movement and opposed to any agreement with the Arabs, and a more “cautious faction” that includes Ashkenazi.

Ashkenazi favors “covert action”—military-speak for targeted assassinations—and returning the Golan Heights to Syria as a strategy to divide Damascus and Teheran, “a view shared unanimously by the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies” says Goldberg.

But the now-retired chief of staff is hardly some kind of peacenik. In his farewell address, Ashkenazi talked of “tectonic changes” in the Middle East and gave a generally gloomy view of an Israel surrounded by growing Islamic fundamentalism in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and possibly Egypt. His opposition to attacking Iran has less to do with the political fallout than the fear that Israel would do so “unilaterally.”

It is not clear where Gantz or the newly appointed intelligence heads stand on the matter of Iran, but Reuters reports that “the new crop of generals and spymasters could prove more cooperative to war orders” from the civilian administration.

There are powerful forces arguing for attacking Iran, many of them among the newly resurgent American neo-conservatives. U.S House Resolution 1533, introduced last year by 46 Republicans, supports Israel using “any means necessary” against Iran. While H-1533 languished in the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled the House, the resolution is certain to re-emerge with Republicans in charge.

The charge to war, according to Gareth Porter of IPS, is led by neocons like Reuel Marc Gerecht, the former director of the New American Century, a think tank that can claim much of the credit for getting the Bush Administration to invade Iraq. “What is important to understand about this campaign,” says Porter, “is that the aim of Gerecht and the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu is to support an attack by Israel so that the United States can be drawn into a direct, full-scale war with Iran.”

The neocons want more than surgical strikes aimed at Iran’s nuclear industry, they want a real war—“No cruise missiles at midnight to minimize the body count” says Gerecht—and regime change. As David Wurmster, former vice-president Dick Cheney’s key advisor on the Middle East, put it, “If we start shooting, we must be prepared to fire the last shot. Don’t shoot a bear if you are not going to kill it.”

The campaign is aimed at creating domestic pressure on the Obama administration to back Israel once it attacks. Israel has a powerful air force and navy, but unless it used some of its nuclear arsenal—an act that is hard to contemplate but by no means out of the question—it can’t do the job on its own.

Would most Americans back such an attack? Polls show that a majority of Americans don’t want a war with Iran, but that they also strongly support Israel. If the Iranians can be demonized enough—the current regime’s crackdown on dissent is already doing a pretty good job in that regard—might those numbers shift? Gerecht thinks they will: “If the Israelis bomb now, American public opinion will probably be with them, perhaps decisively so.”

In the meantime, the Netanyahu administration is doing its best to whip up anti-Iranian sentiment. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the recent transit of two Iranian warships through the Suez Canal a “provocation,” even though the canal is an international waterway and recently saw several Israeli warships pass through it on their way into the Persian Gulf. “Unfortunately, the international community is not showing readiness to deal with the recurring Iranian provocations,” Lieberman said. “The international community must understand that Israel cannot ignore these provocations forever.”

Bombast? Certainly the Israeli Foreign Minister is renowned for that, but in this case he has strong support in the Tel Aviv government, among the powerful settler movement, and with at least some of the military. As the Israeli daily Haaretz notes, “2010 went by without a war with Iran. In the winter no one goes to war because the clouds limit air force operations. But in 2011, a conflict is brewing.”

It is a conflict that could escalate from a regional calamity to an international disaster if the U.S. joins in.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches From the Edge.