In August 2012, Israeli officials appeared increasingly divided over the need for imminent military action against Iran because of its controversial nuclear program. Israeli decision-makers and military elites now fall into three broad camps.
One group surrounding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has started calling for unilateral action against Iran if the United States hesitates. A second camp, personified by President Shimon Peres, is advising Israel to wait for American support. A third camp, composed of generals who fought in earlier Israeli wars, is urging caution and even questioning the government’s timetable.
In the first camp, Netanyahu charged on Aug. 12 that the Islamic Republic’s nuclear potential “dwarfed” all other threats faced by Israel. And Michael Oren, ambassador to the United States, said on Aug. 16 that talks between Iran and the world’s six major powers had failed to produce a diplomatic deal. “We’ve come to a very critical juncture where important decisions do have to be made,” he said.
But in the second camp, President Shimon Peres is now suggesting that Israel should not go it alone—and seems to even challenge the sense of urgency. The Nobel Peace Prize winner, who also opposed bombing Iraq’s Osirak Nuclear Reactor in 1981, backed waiting for the United States to make a decision. Peres’ remarks have sparked a firestorm of condemnation from the Israeli right.
Several ministers and senior officials immediately blasted President Peres for publicly disagreeing with Netanyahu. One of the nine members of Netanyahu’s inner cabinet, bluntly said Peres “should stick to ceremonial duties.” An Israeli press report cited one official who said Peres has undermined Israeli national security. And a Netanyahu aide charged on Aug. 16 that Peres had "forgotten what the role of Israel's president is. He has forgotten that he made three major mistakes in regard to Israel's security ... His greatest mistake was in 1981, when he thought bombing the reactor in Iraq was wrong and, to the fortune of Israel's citizens, Prime Minister Begin ignored him."
Former Israeli military officials have implicitly backed Peres. Some even went further in calling for restraint and questioned the need to act in the coming months. Uri Sagi, the former head of the Military Intelligence Directorate, told an Israeli press source that Israel’s leaders are creating “an orchestrated and timed hysteria – artificial or not – that is instilling fear in the country.” He characterized Tehran as a “harsh” but not “existential” threat to Israel. Like Peres, Sagi concluded that any strike “would not be possible without coordination with and consent from the Americans.”
The following are key quotes reflecting the wide range of views among senior Israeli political and military officials.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, August 6
“This is a regime that has broken every rule in the book. They [Iranians] very likely could use weapons of mass death.”
Michael Oren, Ambassador to the United States, August 6
“A combination of truly crippling sanctions and a credible military threat—a threat that the ayatollahs still do not believe today—may yet convince Iran to relinquish its nuclear dreams. But time is dwindling and, with each passing day, the lives of eight million Israelis grow increasingly imperiled. The window that opened 20 years ago is now almost shut.”
Avi Dichter, new Home Front Defense Minister, August 19
“There are those that represent a strategic threat from Lebanon, from Gaza and from Syria, and an existential threat from Iran for the first time since the establishment of the State of Israel.”
President Shimon Peres, August 16
"I am convinced this is an American interest. I am convinced [Obama] recognizes the American interest and he isn't saying this just to keep us happy. I have no doubt about it, after having had talks with him.”
"Now, it's clear to us that we can't do it alone. We can delay [Iran's nuclear program]. It's clear to us we have to proceed together with America. There are questions about coordination and timing, but as serious as the danger is, this time at least we are not alone."
Shaul Mofaz, Kadima Party leader and former defense minister, August 16
“You [Prime Minister Netanyahu] are headed for a rash confrontation at an unnecessary cost while abandoning the home front. Over the past few months, Israel has waged an extensive and relentless PR campaign with the sole objective of preparing the ground for a premature military adventure."
Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, former Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, August 14
“We will still have the option (of striking Iran) even after the elections in America and therefore we shouldn't rush. We shouldn't present it as though it must happen in the autumn, as I read in the papers.”
Uzi Dayan, former Deputy Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff, August 15
“There is a window of opportunity. This window is closing, but if the United States would be much clearer and stronger about the sanctions on one hand and about what can happen if Iran won’t make a U-turn — there is not a lot of time, but there is still time to make a difference.”
Garrett Nada is a Program Assistant at USIP in the Center for Conflict Management.