As I wrote earlier, the headline coming out of the dueling interviews of President Obama and Mitt Romney on CBS’s “60 Minutes” last night was the president’s assertion that he wasn’t going to be diverted from defending the interests of the American people by any “noise” coming from Israel about Iran. This was a clear statement that the administration didn’t have the honesty to admit that its Iran policies have failed and that a course correction was needed. But the show’s producers weren’t content with merely contrasting the president’s position with that of Romney, who strongly criticized Obama for his decision to distance the U.S. from Israel. Instead, seeking to capitalize on the increasing tension between the two countries, they dug up an interview with former Mossad chief Meir Dagan out of their archive.
Dagan is a bitter critic of Netanyahu, and in the piece first broadcast in March he disparaged the prime minister’s sense of urgency about the threat from Iran, claiming more covert operations as well as efforts to promote regime change in Tehran would be smarter than a direct attack on its nuclear facilities. While Dagan is someone whose views on the subject deserve a hearing, the re-rerun of his interview is problematic for several reasons. As I first wrote after the original broadcast back in March, Dagan has personal motives for his public vendetta against Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that are not referred to in the segment. But the real problem is that as shaky as Dagan’s case was in March, it is barely relevant today.
Remember when Meir Dagan, upon leaving office as head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency, gave a briefing to the press, where he warned against hasty military decisions and said that “Israel should not hasten to attack Iran, doing so only when the sword is upon its neck”?
In a clear reference to Dagan’s words, Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak, has just said, in a lecture delivered earlier today at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies that “the metaphorical sword is now on our neck.”
Israel is the only country in the world that launched, not once but twice, a preemptive strike on an adversary’s nuclear facilities. These words should not be taken lightly by Western policymakers intent on stretching the ongoing negotiating round with Iran at least until the November U.S. presidential elections.
The international press is doing its best to hype critical remarks about Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu uttered by Yuval Diskin, the retired head of the Shin Bet security service, into a sign the government is in trouble. Diskin, a respected figure who retired last year, is the latest veteran spook to express his disdain for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and their stance on the nuclear threat from Iran. That there is a debate in the highest intelligence circles about the best strategy for dealing with Iran has never been a secret. But what Diskin’s comments and other attacks on Netanyahu from former Mossad chief Meir Dagan reflect is not so much a revolt of the experts against the politicians but a standard trope of Israeli politics in which those who are frustrated about the fact that their ideas have not won the support of the Israeli public seek to overturn the verdict of democracy by appealing to the press and international opinion. It is no more likely to succeed now than in the past.
Though foreign news outlets treated Diskin’s remarks as a huge story that can be spun as part of a negative trend for Netanyahu, even the left-wing press in Israel is skeptical about that. Haaretz’s Yossi Verter noted that the personal nature of Diskin’s rant against Netanyahu and Barak at what he termed a “gathering of defense establishment pensioners” undermined their credibility. Unlike the foreign press, most Israelis are aware that Dagan’s animus against Netanyahu and Barak stems from the fact that he was fired from his post. That Diskin was passed over to replace Dagan may also explain his hard feelings. Moreover, the utter lack of public support for alternatives to Netanyahu or his policies makes farcical the claim in today’s New York Times that there is an “avalanche” of criticism about his stand on Iran.
One of the standard themes of those who claim there is no need to take action to halt Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability is that intelligence experts dispute the notion that this program poses a threat to Israel or the West. The star of this campaign is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who will be featured on CBS’ “60 Minutes” this Sunday. The interview is being hailed by some as debunking what they consider to be the alarmism expressed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, therefore giving cover to those who wish to table the entire subject rather than to ramp up the pressure on Tehran.
But as with many previous statements by Dagan, the excerpts of the interview that have been released are bound to disappoint Iran’s apologists. Though Dagan is fiercely antagonistic to both Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak and opposed to an air strike on Iran now, he clearly views Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to Israel and believes it must be stopped. His differences with Israel’s government center on how much time we have before it is too late and what measures would be most effective in doing the job.