Something has gone very wrong with Israel's posture on Iran's nuclear program. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak lead a confrontational approach -- including dramatic interviews and speeches to U.S. audiences that have convinced many that Israel might soon strike Iran's nuclear facilities -- the former heads of Israel's intelligence agencies have come out publicly against the government's position. First, Meir Dagan -- who headed the Mossad until late 2010 and coordinated Israel's Iran policy -- called an attack on Iran "the most foolish thing I've heard." In April, Yuval Diskin -- the previous head of the domestic intelligence service, the Shin Bet -- voiced a scathing and personal critique of Netanyahu and Barak. Diskin questioned not only the leaders' policy, but also their very judgment and capacity to lead, warning against their "messianic" approach to Iran's nuclear program.
Given these differences, should the United States -- and Iran -- fear an Israeli strike more, or should they relax as Israel busies itself with internal arguments? Although it may be tempting to think that the Dagan-Diskin campaign lessens the chance of confrontation, in truth it raises two dire possibilities. First, if the former spy chiefs are correct about Netanyahu's and Barak's lack of judgment, this is hardly cause for comfort. If, however, Dagan and Diskin are mistaken and Israeli strategy is in fact calculated and sober, then undermining Israel's credibility -- as they themselves have done -- makes an Israeli strike more likely, not less. The less credible the Israeli threat, the more likely Iran is to try to call an Israeli bluff, and thus the more likely Israel is to try to back up its words with deeds.
At the core of the question is how one interprets Israel's confrontational approach to Iran. Some view the Netanyahu-Barak strategy as a deliberate attempt to push the United States and the international community into decisive action, including tough sanctions and the threat of U.S. military action, lest Israel strike unilaterally. Israel, in this view, is acting as a "rational madman," calculating that appearing reckless will compel the United States, the international community, and Iran to heed its warnings. In an interview with the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom, Barak in effect said as much: The critics "travel the world, and their words weaken the considerable achievement of Israeli policy, where we made the Iranian issue a major, urgent issue, not only for Israel but for the world." For Barak, Israel's strategy has been manifestly successful, focusing the attention of a reluctant, distracted international community on Iran's nuclear program and producing stifling sanctions on the Iranian banking system.
But not all view the Israeli strategy this way. Some observers, both foreign and Israeli, are convinced that Netanyahu and Barak are genuine in their doomsday rhetoric and resolve to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. If Netanyahu is willing to evoke the Holocaust and warn of the Iranian "existential threat," the argument goes, he cannot mean anything less -- nor can he politically afford anything less -- than overt military action. Netanyahu indeed has been preoccupied with the Iranian question for decades and may view stopping Iran's nuclear ambitions as a generational challenge that will define his term. In this view, the Netanyahu-Barak rhetoric is meant to prepare the international community for an Israeli strike, which, according to Barak, would require international legitimacy.
The confusion over what Netanyahu and Barak actually mean is no accident. The key to deterrence is the credibility of the deterrent; the key to a "rational madman" strategy is that others do not see his posture as a bluff. From outside the prime minister's office, therefore, the two explanations for Israel's position are, by design, functionally equivalent.
One's view of the Dagan-Diskin critiques therefore depends on one's assessment of Netanyahu and Barak. If Diskin is correct about the leaders' lack of judgment, the former spy chiefs are breaking their silence to stave off a grave danger. But if Diskin is wrong, the former spy chiefs' words hold serious consequences for Israeli strategy -- by undermining the credibility of the threat of military action. On the face of it, accusations of messianic tendencies fit perfectly with a madman posture, further scaring the world into action. Dagan in particular was exposed to -- and indeed produced -- the most classified intelligence on Iran's program; he helped manage Israel's covert response to the program for years and participated in some of the most sensitive meetings with the political leadership. If the former intelligence chiefs, who should know best, are so concerned as to speak publicly against their own leadership -- something that appears odd to most Israelis, as it does to many abroad -- then surely foreign observers should believe the sincerity of the Israeli warnings.