Is Bibi Bluffing on Iran?

In Israel, the debate over bombing Iran has been tamped down by the belief in national security circles that Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu may be bluffing about going to war but that the bluff requires the world to think he may do it, Gareth Porter reports from Tel Aviv for Inter Press Service.

By Gareth Porter

A striking feature of the Israeli political landscape in recent months has been the absence of a serious debate on the issue of the threat of war with Iran led by national security figures.

It is well known that many prominent former military and intelligence officials believe an attack on Iran would be disastrous for Israel. However, last year, after two former high-ranking officials delivered an initial blast at the idea of striking Iran, very little has been heard from such national security figures.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu

The reason for this silence on the part of the national security sector, just as the Israeli threat of war was escalating sharply, appears to be a widespread view among Israeli national security analysts that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s threat to attack is a highly successful bluff.

Still, some critics of Netanyahu’s threat to go war against Iran have expressed concern about the failure of national security figures to speak out publicly against the policy. Former Jerusalem Post columnist Larry Derfner, who now blogs for the independent web-based magazine 972, wrote last month that there are “crowds” of former military and intelligence officials who privately oppose an attack on Iran and could slow the “march to war” by speaking to the news media. But he complained that “Israelis aren’t hearing their voices.”

Yossi Alpher, a former Mossad analyst and later head of the Jaffee Center for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, has noted the same problem. “Plenty of people are calling for public debate on the issue of striking Iran,” he told IPS in an interview. “But it isn’t happening.”

Former Mossad director Meir Dagan launched the first attack on Netanyahu’s policy by a former national security official last June, asserting that an attack on Iran would provoke a regional war and would ensure that Iran would acquire nuclear weapons.

Maj. Gen. Shlomo Gazit, who was chief of military intelligence in the 1970s, also disassociated himself from the policy, declaring, “An Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear reactor will lead to the liquidation of Israel.” Like Dagan, Gazit warned that it would cause Iran to immediately decide to become a nuclear power and he added that it would increase international pressures for the abandonment of “the territories.”

Those shots across Netanyahu’s bow have not been followed, however, by similar criticisms by other former military and intelligence figures. In fact, Gazit himself appeared to backtrack from his earlier harsh verdict on the option of attacking Iran in a recent television interview.

On Russia Today on March 12, Gazit did not voice any of his previous objections to the threatened Israeli strike against Iran. Instead he emphasized the readiness of Israel to carry out a strike, even without U.S. approval if necessary, played down the cost to Israel of an Iranian response, and said an Israeli strike would result in delaying the Iranian nuclear program by “two or three years at least”.

Gazit reaffirmed to IPS, however, that he has not changed his mind about the dangers to Israel attending a strike against Iran he had raised last June.

The publicly discussed reason for the absence of dissent from the national security sector is lack of information. Nathan Sharony, who heads the Council of Peace, with over 1,000 former high-ranking security officials with dovish views, told Derfner the reason ex-national security officials were not speaking up was that they lack the “solid information” necessary to do so.

Gazit gave IPS the same explanation for the failure of former officials to oppose a strike against Iran publicly. But the main reasons for opposing war with Iran do not require access to inside information. The more compelling explanation for the silence of former military and intelligence officers is that they, like journalists and other policy analysts, think that Netanyahu is probably bluffing and that they perceive the bluff as working.

Retired Brig. Gen. Uzi Rubin, the former head of Israel’s missile defense program, recalls being on a television program a few months ago with Ari Shavit, senior correspondent at Haaretz, on which Shavit declared, “Netanyahu is playing poker for all of us. We shouldn’t call out his cards.”

Shavit was suggesting that the success of the prime minister in the high stakes poker game requires that influential Israelis not question his claims about Israel’s willingness and capability to attack Iran’s nuclear sites. That struck a Rubin as a significant factor in the politics surrounding Netanyahu’s policy.

“People who think we shouldn’t attack Iran believe Netanyahu is playing poker,” said Rubin in an interview with IPS. “So they think they shouldn’t speak up.”

“Netanyahu speaks like he’s very convinced Iran has to be stopped by force,” said the former missile defense chief. “Does he mean it?” Rubin said he doesn’t know the answer.

Alpher, the former Mossad analyst, agrees. He told IPS the reason high-profile expressions of dissent by Dagan and a few others have not provoked more lively debate on Iran policy among national security figures is that “they don’t want to spoil Bibi’s successful bluster.”

Netanyahu’s bluffing on Iran has “kept the international community on edge,” Alpher suggested, and thus achieved the latest round of sanctions and heavier pressure on Iran. Both the poker game metaphor and the view that he has been successful at it have been central elements in media coverage of Netanyahu’s policy in recent weeks.

While the prime minister was in Washington last month, Aluf Benn, the editor-in-chief of Haaretz, wrote that Netanayhu had “managed to convince the world that Israel is on the verge of a preemptive war” and that he is “playing poker and hiding his most important card – the IDF’s true capabilities to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations.”

Just last week, Benn’s colleague, Ari Shavit, referred to the threat to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities before the end of 2012 that he and a handful of other journalists had heard from senior officials. Shavit acknowledged, however, that “we cannot exclude the possibility that senior Israeli officials briefing us are bluffing,” noting that the officials had a “vested interest” in exploiting such a threat.

One factor that may have fed the reluctance of some former military and intelligence officials to go public with criticism of the option of war against Iran is that Netanyahu has a reputation for being far less aggressive on Iran in practice than his rhetoric would indicate. Benn told IPS there is a perception of Netanyahu as a “hesitant politician who would not dare to attack without American permission.”

A former national security official, who did not wish to be identified, told IPS some people who have worked with Netanyahu have said he is less decisive than former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Iran, although he personally disagrees with that assessment.

The widespread impression among the Israeli national security elite and press corps that Netanyahu’s threat of war against Iran is a bluff does not guarantee that Netanyahu will not attack Iran. But it does help explain why there has not been a much bigger outcry against a war option that is widely regarded as irrational for Israel.

Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006. 

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5 comments on “Is Bibi Bluffing on Iran?

  1. Judah The Lion on said:

    What a bunch of hypocrisy! Arab leaders have done the same thing for decades; Heaven forbid a Jewish leader does it in reverse!

  2. Iran is still not an Arab country.

    Also Iran hasn’t invaded anywhere in a long time. You can’t say the same for Israel.

    • Zbig on said:

      To be precise: Iran (Persia) has not attacked any neighbour within the past 1000 years.

      • Zbig:

        Careful some, not me, would go after your use of the word “attacked”. For example, I’m pretty sure you can honestly say that Iran attacked Iraq after Iraq started to invade Iran in 1980. That’s the reason I picked the word “invaded”.

  3. Iranian leadership have, all along, been predicting correctly that Israeli, or even American, leadership will never have the guts to attack Iran even if they had capability to do so. That’s why Iranian leaders and it’s citizens hardly ever expressed any panic or anxiety in this regard. Israel,however, has, it appears, succeeded in creating panic among it’s allies and to muster their political backing to bring another round of sanctions against Iran.