Inside Bibi's Bunker

How Israel's prime minister is stacking his cabinet for a strike on Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's use of a cartoon bomb to illustrate Israel's red lines regarding the Iranian nuclear program may have elicited guffaws among the foreign-policy punditocracy, but the issue is no laughing matter. In fact, Israel's entire defense bureaucracy has long been engaged in an exhaustive assessment of what is undoubtedly among the most difficult decisions Israel has ever faced -- and perhaps the most difficult since David Ben-Gurion declared independence.

Israelis remain divided over what to do about Iran's pursuit of a nuclear weapon. Many believe that a nuclear Iran poses an existential threat, in the truest sense of the word, and that Israel must do everything within its power to prevent such an outcome. Others believe that the threat is "merely" dire, though probably not existential, that Israel should do everything within reason to prevent it -- but not necessarily everything possible -- and that Israel could, in extremis, live with a nuclear Iran.

In the past year these differences became public, with former senior officials accusing Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak of irresponsible behavior, and various ministers and senior defense officials indicating that they oppose military action at this time. Conversely, Netanyahu and Barak issued a number of statements in August aimed at preparing the Israeli public for a conflict with Iran. With his speech at the United Nations, Netanyahu has now begun preparing the international community as well.

How these debates will be resolved depends on Israel's unique policymaking process. The question of whether to strike Iran is not just up to Netanyahu: In Israel, like other parliamentary democracies, the premier is merely "first among equals" -- not the chief executive or commander in chief, as in the United States. With the exception of very limited circumstances, such as responding to imminent attacks, the Israeli prime minister requires cabinet approval for all national security decisions. Indeed, even compared with other parliamentary systems, the Israeli premier's prerogatives are quite limited.

National security decision-making in Israel, at the highest level, is conducted in four forums. First, the cabinet plenum, which is made up of all government ministers, is the senior statutory forum for decision-making. It has, however, become so large, politicized, and leak-prone that it is rarely the true locus of policy formulation. Second, the Ministerial Committee on Defense (MCoD) is designed to be a forum for expedited and discreet decision-making -- but it suffers from the same pathologies as the plenum and thus is often not where decisions are really made. Third, informal subcabinet committees such as the current "Forum of Nine," a ministerial body assembled by Netanyahu to deal with high-level security issues, lack legal authority to make formal decisions but are nevertheless the arena where much substantive policy debate takes place. And finally, the informal consultations convened by the premier, which include the defense minister and a handful of trusted ministers and relevant senior defense officials, are also an important venue for policy formulation.

Positions adopted by the Forum of Nine and in the premier's consultations have no legal standing and thus are not binding -- the cabinet and MCoD are free to adopt any decision they wish. These positions do, however, carry great, possibly crucial, weight. The membership of the Forum of Nine includes the most senior and respected ministers, as well as representation from across Netanyahu's governing coalition. A consensus achieved by the forum or in the premier's consultations is more than likely, at the end of the day, to sway the cabinet plenum or MCoD.

To date, virtually all decision-making on the Iranian nuclear program has taken place in the Forum of Nine and informal consultations convened by the premier. Given the sensitivity of the topic, the final call will likely be made by the MCoD, not the plenum, even though it has not dealt with the issue extensively so far.

Given the legal requirement for cabinet or MCoD approval for military action, such as a strike on Iran, Netanyahu must build a majority in favor of such action. Although unanimous support is not required, Netanyahu would likely be hesitant to make such a historic decision with anything less than broad, if incomplete, consensus. Netanyahu has clearly been working to build such support, and many Israeli analysts think that his recent decision to expand the former "Octet" into the current Forum of Nine by adding Avi Dichter as minister for homeland defense was partially designed to tip the balance in favor of an attack.

Due to the severity of the threat, most Israeli politicians and former officials have been careful to keep debate over the Iranian nuclear program -- unlike debate over most major national security issues in Israel -- largely free of partisan politics. Even those who have expressed the strongest opposition to a strike, such as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin, President Shimon Peres, and less explicitly, former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi, have focused their criticism on the merits of the issue and, with few exceptions, have refrained from partisan point-scoring. One prominent exception has been Kadima party leader Shaul Mofaz, a former defense minister and chief of staff, who said that the consequences of a strike could be "catastrophic" for Israel. Nevertheless, the absence of much political squabbling certainly strengthens the position of the premier and defense minister, greatly easing their ability to obtain cabinet approval.

The Israeli public clearly has misgivings regarding a possible strike. It is fully cognizant of the risks of military action, greatly prefers a diplomatic resolution if possible, and attaches significant importance to the need for U.S. support, whatever Israel decides to do. At the same time, Israelis are deeply concerned by the Iranian threat, and support for a strike, though limited, is growing. In August, 32 percent of Israelis were in favor of an attack, up from 23 percent in March, whereas those opposed had decreased from 56 percent to 46 percent. Surprisingly, just over half of Israelis believed in September that Israel was in some or even significant danger of destruction in the event of a war with Iran.

Although this is hardly resounding support for military action, there is little doubt that Netanyahu and Barak will succeed in building the necessary public and cabinet support for a strike on Iran. There is a broad national consensus on the gravity of the Iranian threat and the need to resolve it one way or the other. In numerous statements, Netanyahu has stressed the failure of sanctions to effect a change in Iranian nuclear policy and has repeatedly drawn an analogy between the present situation and the Holocaust -- with its implied lessons being that tyrants must be stopped before it is too late and that Israel can ultimately rely only on itself. Barak has been more circumspect and his public position has wavered at times, but he appears to be fully in favor of military action at the appropriate time.

Indeed, Netanyahu probably already has a majority in favor of an attack in the Forum of Nine, and all indications are that he will easily win the next election -- widely expected to be held in the spring, but by law no later than November 2013 -- thereby further strengthening his hand. For Netanyahu, who views a nuclear Iran through the prism of the Holocaust and believes that its prevention is the primary challenge of his premiership, doing so is a matter of deep personal commitment.

At the bureaucratic level, Israeli Military Intelligence and the Mossad, Israel's equivalent of the CIA, are the primary sources of information on the Iranian nuclear program and have presumably been involved in providing staff support for strategic planning. The Mossad was named the lead coordinating agency for all prevention efforts, while the Israeli Air Force and the Israel Defense Forces' Planning and Operations branches will play a crucial role in advising the cabinet on the prospects and ramifications of an attack. The Foreign Ministry, rarely an important player in policy formulation, does not appear to be highly influential at this point.

Over the decades, Israel has achieved resounding national security successes and has suffered painful failures. The failings of its national security decision-making processes are often significant and recurrent. Nevertheless, it is hard to think of any other issue in recent decades to which Israel has devoted longer, deeper, and more sophisticated thought -- carefully considering and reconsidering the ramifications of every possible scenario and policy option. Even the voices of opposition emanating from within the defense establishment reflect the depth and sobriety of the planning process. The stakes are so momentous for Israel that nothing less would be acceptable.

Netanyahu and Barak will be excoriated whatever they do -- either for having failed to prevent the emergence of an existential threat to Israel, or for having led the country on a reckless misadventure. But one thing is abundantly clear: No one in Israel approaches this issue lightly or is "trigger happy."

A decision to attack, should one be made, will occur only if Israel believes that time is truly running out and that all other options have been exhausted. A strike will be controversial, and different people will have legitimate, and vehement, disagreements. The cartoon bomb that Netanyahu wielded at the United Nations may have been a useful prop, but Israel's exhaustive decision-making process is not so easily caricatured.

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National Security

Justice Delayed

Why is it so hard to figure out who killed Christopher Stevens?

The Obama administration has been vigorously criticized for a hesitating, inconsistent, slow, and confused response to the deadly attack on the consulate in Benghazi. But the record suggests that hesitation may be more the norm than the exception. Difficulty in attributing responsibility for terrorist attacks has always been an obstacle to responding effectively -- no matter how strong the desire to do so. Attribution needs to be both timely and credible, but these two requirements are often incompatible. It takes time to identify the perpetrators -- and, even then, history shows that it's not always possible to bring them to justice.

Clearly, the circumstances in Benghazi are going to make attribution difficult. The attack occurred amid high insecurity following rapid changes in authority. The actors involved are multiple, shifting, and fragmented. Their allegiances are uncertain, probably obscure even to themselves. Al Qaeda is involved in some way but is not in control. Leaving aside the question of whether the FBI's methods and mission are appropriate for the task, the situation is so volatile and dangerous that its official investigation has to be conducted from a distance. The scene of the crime, so to speak, has already been contaminated. It is difficult to see how evidence can be gathered and the perpetrators identified with any confidence, no matter how intense our effort.

Indeed, even in much more favorable circumstances, the United States has had significant trouble with attribution and punishment. A memorable case is the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers Air Force housing complex in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American military personnel and wounded hundreds more. President Clinton promised swift justice; no stone would be left unturned, he said. The trail led to Iran and Hezbollah, but Saudi Arabia was reluctant to cooperate with the FBI investigation. The Saudis wouldn't allow even allow American agents to interview suspects until -- at FBI Director Louis Freeh's request -- George H.W. Bush personally intervened with Crown Prince Abdullah.

But blaming Iran didn't seem politically wise at the time since the United States had hopes for a moderating trend in Iranian internal politics, and Saudi Arabia was not keen on supporting the charge. (It didn't help that American policymakers were also divided about attribution. Some insisted that Osama Bin Laden was responsible -- an idea the 9/11 Commission later hinted at as well.) Eventually, suspects were indicted in the United States -- under the George W. Bush administration -- but they weren't tried. In 2006, ten years after the bombing, a lawsuit against Iran filed by survivors of the victims was thrown out by the presiding judge for lack of evidence. Freeh testified on behalf of the plaintiffs, to no avail. So, in the end the process was neither swift nor conclusive.

Another prominent case with a confusing aftermath is the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole, which killed 17 Navy personnel and inflicted massive damage on the ship. Efforts to establish a case were slow and frustrating -- it was months before the United States was reasonably sure that al Qaeda was to blame. The Yemeni authorities were even less cooperative than the Saudis, and the FBI investigation was short and unpleasant on all sides. Ambassador Barbara Bodine objected to the methods employed by the FBI and even denied agent John O'Neill re-entry into the country after he went home for Thanksgiving. (O'Neill was killed in the attack on the World Trade Center the next year.) Contentious issues apparently included the conduct of property searches and interviews, and critics charged the FBI sent too many agents with too few cross-cultural skills. Over the years, Yemen allowed suspects it had detained to escape, or it simply released them from prison. In 2007, American courts finally held Sudan responsible for the bombing. After 2002, several of the suspected perpetrators were killed in unilateral drone strikes, most recently in May of this year. Since the Obama administration does not publicly explain its grounds for choosing drone targets, we can only rely on press reports to judge whether it got the right guys.

An intriguing failure to establish attribution despite years of effort involves the 1985 bombing of the El Descanso restaurant outside of Madrid, not far from the American-leased air base at Torrejon. This case didn't officially involve American authorities, since no U.S. military personnel were killed (although some were wounded). The attack also occurred before passage of the Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, which expanded American jurisdiction over terrorist attacks against American citizens abroad. It is possible that American soldiers were the targets and the actual victims (18 Spanish killed and over 80 injured) were unlucky bystanders.

There were multiple claims of responsibility as well as multiple accusations (both ETA and Hezbollah were named, in addition to the Popular Front for Palestine-General Command), resulting in two inconclusive court trials. The first closed without result in 1987, and the second opened in 2005 following the discovery of new evidence implicating Abu Musab al-Suri, the famous jihadist ideologue. In 2005, the United States captured al-Suri in Pakistan and in 2006 turned him over to his country of origin, Syria, but he was apparently released in December 2011. U.S. officials do not comment on these transfers, but it could be that the CIA thought Syria could obtain information that they could not -- or at least that he would be kept out of commission without Washington having to talk about his whereabouts or treatment. Syria's motives for releasing him are mysterious, since Sunni jihadists and the Assad regime are at odds. He has not presented himself to Spanish authorities.

Tuesday, the New York Times reported that the CIA and Joint Special Operations Command are preparing "target packages" for killing or capturing those responsible for the Benghazi attack if and when the president gives the order. Drawing up a list of possible targets in Libya is prudent contingency planning. Bringing the perpetrators to justice or justice to them is another story.