The Decider

Opponents of an Israeli strike on Iran have focused their ire on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But it's his hawkish defense minister, Ehud Barak, who is really driving the talk of war.

TEL AVIV — Twenty years have passed since Israel first raised the alarm over Iran's nuclear program, 10 years since Iranian dissidents revealed the enrichment plant at Natanz, and roughly two since pundits started predicting an Israeli attack against the Islamic Republic. Today, never have so many Israelis from across the political spectrum agreed that a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities could arrive within months.

Channel 2, Israel's leading newscast, reported earlier this month that the foremost advocates of a strike -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak -- are nearing a final decision on whether to push the button. Meanwhile, Haaretz editor-in-chief Aluf Benn wrote that Netanyahu wants to attack "in the coming weeks" -- and Yossi Melman, the paper's former intelligence reporter, estimated the "window of opportunity" for a strike at 80 days.

Efraim Halevy, the former head of Israel's Mossad spy service and an outspoken opponent of a strike, echoed the same sentiment. "If I were an Iranian, I would be very fearful of the next 12 weeks," the laconic, British-born septuagenarian said early this month.

While the media often depict Netanyahu as the prime mover behind a strike, it is Barak -- the one-time standard-bearer of the Israeli left  -- who over the past two years has emerged as the unlikely champion of military action. This support from Netanyahu's political polar opposite has been crucial in leading Israel to the brink of war.

"Barak is much more of a hawk than Netanyahu," a security analyst and former longtime member of Israel's National Security Council told FP. "The idea that Bibi is the hawk and Barak is a good little boy serves Israel -- it's the good cop, bad cop routine -- but I don't believe there's much of a difference between them on this issue."

"Barak is the stone-cold analyst: What are the objectives? What are the risks?" the former official said. "Bibi comes from a different perspective -- that of the historical leader. Jewish history weighs upon him, and he's leader of the Jewish state, the country with the world's biggest Jewish population."

Netanyahu and Barak view the Iranian nuclear threat in roughly the same terms, analysts told FP, but where they stand on the issue depends largely on where they sit. "Netanyahu is much more prudent, because he's the prime minister and has to make sure he has broad legitimacy from the cabinet and the public," said Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University. "Nonetheless, both are of the opinion that something must be done."

According to Rabi, Israeli officials' interminable warnings of an impending strike could be an attempt to prepare the Israeli home front, and international public opinion, for the inevitably messy aftermath of any such action. "What Barak and Netanyahu have done over the past month or so is tell everyone -- the Iranians, Americans and Israeli public -- that a military option could be in the offing," he said."

The duo has also won support -- both inside and outside the government -- for military action. Shabtai Shavit -- a former head of the Mossad spy agency and the last Israeli intelligence attaché in shah-era Iran -- told Channel 2 he doesn't trust American assurances of keeping Tehran in check. "I don't believe it -- even [from] our friends and greatest allies," he said. "When we're talking about my fate, my existence, my survival, I don't let any outside actor to handle it."

That's Netanyahu's mindset too: Visiting the site of a thwarted kidnap attempt this month along the Egyptian border, the prime minister said that when it comes to securing its own citizens, "Israel must and can rely only on itself." The Jerusalem Post editorialized that the remarks appeared aimed at Washington and Tehran.

Judging by an interview with an unnamed Israeli "decision maker" published last weekend in Haaretz, Barak appears to share those sentiments in spades. Most Israelis immediately recognized the interviewee as the defense minister -- the "decision maker" spoke ominously about the "immunity zone," a pet Barak phrase for the point at which a strike that could significantly damage Iran's nuclear program would be beyond Israel's capabilities.

"For the Americans, the Iranians are not yet approaching the immunity zone -- because the Americans have much larger bombers and bombs, and the ability to repeat the operation a whole number of times," the "decision maker" said. "But for us, Iran could soon enter the immunity zone. And when that happens, it means putting a matter that is vital to our survival in the hands of the United States."

The interviewee also cast doubt on U.S. President Barack Obama's repeated promises to prevent Iran from going nuclear, noting that despite similar pledges, Ronald Reagan didn't keep Pakistan from building a nuclear bomb, nor did Bill Clinton stop North Korea from doing the same. "We mustn't listen to those who in every situation prefer non-action to action," the source said. "Even a cruel reality must be looked at with total clarity. Israel is strong and Israel is responsible, and Israel will do what it has to do."

The interview is long and its argumentation meticulous, but its overall thrust is clear: A military strike would a dangerous and unfortunate -- but possibly inevitable -- choice, one far superior to the alternative of living with a nuclear Iran.

A willingness to use force should come as no surprise to those familiar with the defense minister's political and military background. Barak, 70, is the embodiment of "old Israel" -- the Laborite establishment that settled and farmed the land, built the country's institutions, and dominated its government for three decades after independence. That socialist elite also directed the bulk of Israel's wars and counter-terror operations, and Barak -- the most decorated soldier in Israeli history -- has rarely hesitated to beat his plowshare into a sword.

In 1972, as commander of Sayeret Matkal, the army's most elite unit, Barak led the storming of a hijacked plane at Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion Airport. Dressed as air technicians in white overalls, Barak and his troops -- who, incidentally, included Netanyahu -- stormed the plane, and within 10 minutes had captured or killed all four hijackers.

The following year Barak, dressed as a woman, snuck into Beirut as head of a hit squad that assassinated dozens of Palestinian guerrillas Israel held responsible for the Munich Olympics massacre. Barak was also a key planner of the 1976 Entebbe operation, in which Israel dispatched special forces to Uganda on a night raid to free 101 Israeli and Jewish hostages held by Palestinian and German hijackers (this time the ruse included a replica of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin's black Mercedes).

Barak, however, has also overseen withdrawals of Israeli power. As prime minister (and simultaneously defense minister) in 2000, he ended Israel's ­22-year military occupation of south Lebanon, and the same year entered into the (ultimately unsuccessful) Camp David peace talks with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasir Arafat.

Barak, however, remained ready to use force when he deemed it necessary: Reappointed defense minister in 2007, he oversaw the following winter's three-week offensive on the Gaza Strip aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire on Israeli communities. The same year, he reportedly "personally directed" the Israeli air strike on a nuclear reactor being constructed in Syria with the help of Iran and North Korea. Jerusalem had given no prior warning of the operation, and skeptics this time around say all the loose talk of a brewing strike is a signal the warnings are little more than posturing.

"A country that is debating whether to attack or not to attack usually doesn't spill its guts," said veteran journalist Motti Kirshenbaum. "I personally believe that it is all really a propaganda show on the part of Barak, that it's all make believe," wrote Ben Casspit in the mass-market daily Maariv.

A number of Israeli political leaders, however, have said they doubt Netanyahu and Barak are bluffing, and have instead warned that the two are edging the country toward disaster. Shaul Mofaz, head of the opposition Kadima party and an ex-army chief and defense minister, warned a strike could not only damage relations with Washington, but also lead to a full-blown regional war. On Aug. 16, Mofaz -- born Shahram Mofazzakar in Tehran -- accused proponents of an attack of "risking our children's lives" for the sake of political gain.

That same day, Israeli President Shimon Peres said in a pair of televised interviews that the country "cannot go it alone" against Iran. While Peres acknowledged that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an existential threat to the Jewish state, he argued that Israel must not act in the absence of American support. Officials close to Netanyahu issued a stinging rebuke, accusing the president of overstepping his bounds. "When all is said and done," said one minister, "the political leaders call the shots, not the president, who should stick to his ceremonial duties."

Yoel Guzansky, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said the disagreement between Washington and Jerusalem goes beyond the difference in the two countries' military capabilities.

The crux of the issue, he said, is that the United States appears willing to let Iran reach the nuclear "threshold" -- the point where, with little effort and in minimal time, it could "break out" to build a nuclear weapon (a White House spokesman recently said Washington would know if Iran made a dash for nukes). From Israel's perspective, however, Tehran must be prevented from even approaching that threshold at all costs.

The White House has loudly promoted its success in passing several rounds of U.N. Security Council resolutions sanctioning Iran, and believes diplomatic avenues have not yet been exhausted. Barak, Netanyahu and fellow advocates of a strike -- reportedly as many as 11 of the 14 members of the Security Cabinet -- are convinced sanctions have been ineffective, negotiations are at a dead end and military action inevitable.

"President Obama doesn't even know if he'll still be sitting in the Oval Office come spring," the anonymous "decision maker" told Haaretz. "And if Mitt Romney is elected, history shows that presidents do not undertake dramatic operations in their first year in office unless forced to."

For proponents of a strike, autumn could be the ideal time frame. First, Barak and company argue that Iran could reach the "zone of immunity" within months, after which an Israeli attack would have little effect. Second, the clear fall weather is more conducive to an airstrike than Iran's cloudy winter skies. Third, a strike during the U.S. election season is less likely to earn Obama's condemnation -- and might even draw passive U.S. support -- than after the president's potential reelection.

Self-reliance is a pillar of Israel's ethos, and Barak has said the country would "absolutely not" deliberately drag America into war. "A country does not go to war in the hope or expectation that another country will join it," he said this month. "Such an act is an irresponsible gamble." Michael Oren, Jerusalem's ambassador to Washington, said this weekend that the timing of a potential strike has nothing to do with U.S. politics and everything to do with Israeli security.

The precise rationale behind when to strike may remain known only to Israel's most senior decision makers, but the question of whether to do so appears all but settled -- this week, Israeli television reported Barak and Netanyahu are "determined" to strike before U.S. elections. Israeli analysts, meanwhile, are convinced American officials underestimate the risks that the decades-old Israel-Iran feud will come to a head before November.

"I recently met a former very senior American diplomat who said the consensus in Washington is that Israel is bluffing, that Barak and Netanyahu are trying to wag the dog and get the U.S. to attack Iran," said Guzansky. "If that's the case, I told him, they've fooled me too."

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images


Murder in Marikana

Jacob Zuma might survive the Marikana tragedy. But can South Africa survive Jacob Zuma?

CAPE TOWN — The Aug. 16 massacre at South Africa's Lonmin's Marikana mine, in which police shot dead 34 illegally striking miners and wounded 78 others, has annihilated whatever remained of the illusion of Africa's largest economy as a harmonious, post-apartheid state.

Lonmin is the world's third-largest platinum producer, and employs 28,000 workers at its Marikana mine, in the country's North West Province. The miners live either in informal settlements on the outskirts of the mine or in overcrowded hostels, reportedly earning a pitiful $541 a month. The violence began on Aug. 10, when 3,000 rock-drill operators, after demanding that their salaries be increased to around $1,500, downed their tools and picked up traditional weapons such as machetes and clubs known as knobkerries.

The inability of either side to compromise quickly turned an issue of welfare into one of warfare. Ten people were killed in the week before the massacre -- including security guards and miners who resisted joining the splinter trade union that is alleged to have encouraged the strike. The miners hacked to death two policemen and mutilated their corpses. Miners also discovered the body of a miner believed to have informed on his union; his head was split open, and he had been crucified: The Mail & Guardian newspaper reported that the corpse was "left on display the whole day as a warning to non-strikers."

What happened next remains unclear. The standoff took place on a hill, with police and miners facing each other. Seconds before the shooting began, the policemen appeared to be stepping backward, while the miners advanced, several hurling what were either grenades or petrol bombs. Footage from Al Jazeera reveals a miner aiming what appears to be a handgun at police, and what sounds like a shot fired from the miners' side of the hill. Two minutes later, 34 miners were dead.

A week later, the country is still reeling. The Marikana massacre, recalling apartheid-era violence and portending potentially devastating conflict, is South Africa's "Back to the Future" moment. It reminds an already fragile nation that it lacks responsible leadership, basic public services like safety and security, and, too often, rule of law. The country remains one of the most violent in the world, with 43 murders reported every day. Many remember the apartheid-era police, who saw black people as inhuman and therefore eradicable, and see this inhumanity echoed in the actions of today's police force.

For many South Africans, Marikana reminded them of the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, when the apartheid police killed 69 black people who were peacefully protesting against a government that was systematically denying them their rights. Sharpeville was the day that peace died, quite literally, as the massacre encouraged the country's largest liberation movement, the African National Congress (ANC), to replace pacifist activism with violent resistance. Sharpeville mobilized international support against the South African government's racist policies, and -- though it took decades of increasingly aggressive sanctions -- was the beginning of the end of apartheid, which finally fell in 1994.

Marikana and Sharpeville are similar in their scale and sense of awful spectacle, in their brutality, lack of accountability, and use of excessive, authoritarian force. But unlike in Sharpeville, the Marikana miners were striking violently, not peacefully. And the narrative of Sharpeville -- a racist minority against a vibrant majority, oppressor against oppressed, black against white, right against wrong -- was altogether more coherent. The Marikana crisis is more confused.

Marikana represented a struggle between labor and corporatism, but was also a turf war between rival unions. The National Union of Mineworkers is the largest union in the country. But an aggressively expanding upstart, the Associated Mining Construction Union (AMCU), has been attempting to neuter NUM. According to the majority union, AMCU promised the miners the unrealistic increase in salary that incited the strikes. But the upstart union denies responsibility, and blames NUM for a lack of leadership. NUM is part of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which, along with the ANC and the South African Communist Party, forms the country's all-important political union, the tripartite alliance. (The former New York Times Johannesburg correspondent Donald G. McNeil Jr. quipped in 1995 that South Africa is "the most acronym-mad milieu this side of the United States Army.") With Zuma's ANC unwilling to antagonize COSATU before an important ANC election in December, the government initially ignored the spiraling violence at Marikana.

While the unions engage in a tug-of-war game of blame, Lonmin's reaction to the crisis has been counterintuitive and self-destructive. Lonmin's CFO, Simon Scott, said on state television on August 19 that "the way to get stability is to get back to work ... we will allow time, in due course, to recognize the tragedy." It sounded as if Scott was telling not only his traumatized employees but all South Africans to pull yourself together and get over it. Scott also said that the crisis was "greater than a Lonmin problem, it's a South African problem." While undoubtedly true, this sounded to some like a not-so-canny corporate attempt to evade accountability. On camera, Scott came across so glibly and coldly that Lonmin had to apologize for appearing to be "arrogant."

Lonmin has demanded that miners return to work this week or lose their jobs. As of Tuesday, 33 percent of the workforce has returned. The company is losing billions and may already also have lost the public relations war.

If there are any winners in this tragedy, the list surely includes Julius Malema, the former ANC Youth League president expelled in 2011, officially for "sow[ing] division and disunity in the ANC." Malema blames his expulsion on Zuma, an ally turned enemy, whom he is agitating to overthrow. And in Marikana, he sensed an opportunity, journeying to the massacre site on Saturday, telling miners, "President Zuma is murdering our people. President Zuma will continue to murder our people." (Never mind that in 2008, Malema informed a rally, "We are prepared to die for Zuma. We are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma.")

As for Zuma, he now finds himself in a difficult position, afraid of intimidating COSATU and incapable of criticizing either the miners or the police, who have their own politically powerful union, before his December election.

While he was initially slow to respond to the crisis, Zuma has been impressively empathic since Friday. Perhaps he remembered how his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, was criticized for failing to immediately address a wave of xenophobic violence in 2008 against African migrants that left 60 dead. The president cut short a diplomatic trip to Mozambique to visit Marikana, where he met with the families of the victims. He declared a week of mourning. He established a judicial commission of inquiry into the killings, but instructed South Africans to reflect on events and to try and refrain from blame. Unlike Scott, he at least sounded sincere.

But Zuma, much as he pleads against pointing fingers, is far from blameless. His government remains complacent, corrupt, and quick to coddle special interests. Marikana and its aftermath illuminate Zuma's lack of leadership and indecisiveness by curtailing either a police force run amuck or unions who have become so politically powerful -- and whose leaders have become obscenely wealthy -- that they think themselves untouchable. With strong pockets of support in strategic areas, Zuma will probably survive Marikana and win re-election in December. The question is: Can South Africa survive Jacob Zuma?