Reading the New York Times account of an interview with Benny Gantz, the chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force, that was first published in Haaretz is like a children’s game of “telephone.” What Gantz actually said wasn’t reflected in the misleading headline of the Israeli newspaper. That headline, rather than the actual content of the piece, was repeated in the Times article, so what comes out in America’s so-called newspaper of record had more to do with the editorial agenda of the press than the reality of Israel’s security dilemma.
The Haaretz headline was an attention-grabber: “IDF Chief to Haaretz: I do not believe Iran will decide to develop nuclear weapons.” Yet nowhere in the piece was there a quote that matched this startling assertion that was repeated in the Times headline that read: “Israeli Army Chief Says He Believes Iran Won’t Build a Bomb.” What Gantz tells Haaretz is that while the Iranians are actively working on a nuclear program, they have yet to activate the final stage of the project that would convert the material to a nuclear bomb. This is no revelation, as not even the most alarmist account of Iran’s efforts has stated that this final stage has been reached. Nor did Gantz express a belief that Iran wouldn’t build a bomb. Rather, he said the Iranians would do it only if they felt themselves “invulnerable.” He said he thought the ayatollahs were “rational,” but added that a weapon in their hands would be “dangerous.”
So while the tone of Gantz’s interview was not as sharp as the statements made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Defense Minister Ehud Barak, the substance isn’t very different. Which makes the claims made by the Times and the misleading headline in Haaretz a transparent attempt to portray a stark division within the councils of Israel’s leaders where there may be none.
Here’s the text published by Haaretz:
Asked whether 2012 is also decisive for Iran, Gantz shies from the term. “Clearly, the more the Iranians progress the worse the situation is. This is a critical year, but not necessarily ‘go, no-go.’ The problem doesn’t necessarily stop on December 31, 2012. We’re in a period when something must happen: Either Iran takes its nuclear program to a civilian footing only or the world, perhaps we too, will have to do something. We’re closer to the end of the discussions than the middle.”
Iran, Gantz says, “is going step by step to the place where it will be able to decide whether to manufacture a nuclear bomb. It hasn’t yet decided whether to go the extra mile.”
As long as its facilities are not bomb-proof, “the program is too vulnerable, in Iran’s view. If the supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants, he will advance it to the acquisition of a nuclear bomb, but the decision must first be taken. It will happen if Khamenei judges that he is invulnerable to a response. I believe he would be making an enormous mistake, and I don’t think he will want to go the extra mile. I think the Iranian leadership is composed of very rational people. But I agree that such a capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.”
While Gantz expressed some hope that international sanctions might work to influence Iran’s decisions, he said nothing that could be construed as a belief that Iran’s goal wasn’t a nuclear weapon or that Israel could live with the Islamist regime possessing such a capability. Indeed, he made it very clear that it was his job to prepare a “credible” military threat to Iran the purpose of which would be to convince Tehran to back down.
All that can be said of this interview is that Gantz did not mention the Holocaust and that his tone was calm and professional with more attention to the technical business of his specific military responsibility than an emotional call to action. But why would we expect a military leader to sound like a politician even if the substance of his approach left little daylight between his position and that of his boss?
It is true that this sounded a lot different from Netanyahu’s interview on CNN, where he made it clear that international sanctions on Iran had better work quickly lest the Iranians use the time they are gaining from protracted negotiations to get closer to their nuclear goal. But nothing Gantz said contradicted Netanyahu’s assertion that an Iranian nuke was an existential threat to Israel that must be stopped.
There is no basis to claim, as the Times does, that Gantz’s interview meant he agreed with Netanyahu’s critics and others who take a more relaxed view of the Iranian threat. Nor does the paper point out that even former Mossad chief Meyer Dagan, who is among the most vocal of those disagreeing with Netanyahu, believes Iran must be stopped from gaining a nuclear weapon.
The effort to hype Gantz’s interview is part of a campaign on the part of Israel’s critics to portray Netanyahu as being “hysterical” — the term used by the Times — about Iran. But as Gantz said, Israelis “aren’t two oceans away from the problem — we live here with our civilians, our women and our children, so we interpret the extent of the urgency differently.”