WASHINGTON — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convinced that Iran is on the verge of acquiring a nuclear weapon. He believes that the Iranians cannot be deterred through diplomacy, and he views the Iranian threat as one that may bring about a second Jewish Holocaust.
His generals disagree.
In one of the most astounding public breaks by the Israeli national security establishment with a sitting Israeli prime minister, Netanyahu’s own military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, said in an interview with the Israeli daily Haaretz, “I think the Iranian leadership is comprised of very rational people. … Iran is moving step by step toward a point where it will be able to decide if it wants to make a nuclear bomb. It has not decided yet whether to go the extra mile.”
In the past several months, as Netanyahu has ramped up his warnings about Iran, this statement reflects how senior Israeli national security leaders from the military and intelligence communities have pushed back. In addition to Gantz, the current head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Tamir Pardo, has stated that Iran does not pose an existential threat to Israel. And many more retired military and intelligence leaders echo the same sentiment.
Gantz and Pardo are not an aberration. They are the consensus. Their professional views mirror those of their counterparts in the United States — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper — who have said that Iran hasn’t decided to make a nuclear bomb and whose leadership makes rational decisions.
Their views reflect the position of the International Atomic Energy Agency, which assesses that Iran has not yet decided to build a bomb. They also reflect the majority sentiment of the Israeli population, which views Iran as a threat — as do these security leaders — but does not support taking military action to deal with its nuclear program.
Perhaps that’s because the Israeli people, like their national security leaders, do not want to live in a world of hysteria. This serious moment merits a reasoned debate, not the one that, as described by Likud member Benny Begin, is “ … a crazy free-for-all … simply disgusting.”
In this charged environment, it’s now clear that the Israeli generals feel obligated to speak up. Their courage may have just helped to create a public debate in Israel about the limits of military action against Iran, as well as the real state of the Iranian nuclear program.
This is a conversation worth having, both in Israel and the United States. Israelis understand the cost of war. They understand that right now, their economy is growing at record levels. They have a thriving technology sector that is a magnet for foreign investment. Israel is the epitome of the modern society.
Because Israeli debates help create an open debate in the United States, Israeli debates deserve our attention. They are living in the direct line of fire with Iran. They have suffered from more than six decades of war in their rough and unpredictable neighborhood.
This is why it is so crucial for Americans to listen to Israelis as they plot their future on Iran. We are their friends and allies. We need to listen to the Israelis — including to what their respected security leaders and the Israeli people themselves are telling us.
This is why we cannot abandon diplomacy with Iran. Israelis — their national security leaders and the population — do not want war with Iran. Yet they are also not in a clear position to make peace with Iran. We must factor in these very real Israeli fears and limits to our Iran policy. The Iranian nuclear program is a challenge not just for Israel, but for the whole international community.
It is a challenge that is being met, head-on, through effective American leadership. As Vice President Biden said in his recent speech at New York University, “The president’s smart, tough diplomacy turned the tables on Tehran and secured the strongest unilateral and international sanctions in history; all the major powers, including Russia and China, participating. Now, Iran is more isolated and the international community more united in their effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than ever before.”
Smart, tough diplomacy with Iran is working. It will only continue to work if we listen to our allies. We must listen to the Israeli generals and the Israeli people. We must help ensure that they do not get dragged into a war because they see no other solution to their fears. We are the essential players in this drama. We owe it to our friends in Israel to listen to their debate to help find a peaceful resolution to this daunting challenge.
(Joel Rubin, director of policy and government affairs at Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of Ploughshares Fund.)