of war obscures Netanyahu's Iran
order By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - A new twist was added to the
long-running media theme of a threat by Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to go to war
with Iran when news stories seemed to suggest that
Netanyahu had ordered the Israeli military to
prepare for an imminent attack on Iranian nuclear
sites in 2010.
Netanyahu backed down after
Israeli Defense Forces chief of staff Gabi
Ashkenazi and Mossad director Meir Dagan opposed
the order, according to the reports.
the details of the episode provided in a report by
Israel's Channel 2 investigative news programme
"Truth", which aired Monday night, show that the
Netanyahu order was not meant to
be a prelude to an
imminent attack on Iran. The order to put Israeli
forces on the highest alert status was rejected by
Ashkenazi and Dagan primarily because Netanyahu
and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had not thought
through the risk that raising the alert status to
the highest level could provoke unintended war
All the participants, moreover,
understood that Israel had no realistic military
option for an attack on Iran.
about the episode failed to highlight the
distinction between an order for war and one for
the highest state of readiness, thus creating the
clear impression that Netanyahu was preparing for
war with Iran. The stories had to be read very
carefully to discern the real significance of the
The Israeli Ynet News report on
the story carried the headline, "Was Israel on
verge of war in 2010?" and a teaser asking, "Did
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense
Minister Ehud Barak try to drag Israel into a
military operation in Iran without cabinet
AFP reported that Netanyahu and
Barak "ordered the army to prepare an attack
against Iranian nuclear installations".
The Reuters story said Netanyahu and Barak
"ordered Israeli defense chiefs in 2010 to prepare
for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities but
And AP reported that the
order from Netanyahu was for a "high alert for a
looming attack on Iran's nuclear program" and that
the episode "indicated that Israel was much closer
to carrying out a strike at that time than was
Washington Post blogger
Max Fisher certainly got the impression from the
press coverage that Netanyahu and Barak had
"attempted to order the Israeli military to
prepare for an imminent strike on Iran but were
thwarted by other senior officials..." Fisher
concluded that Netanyahu was "more resolved than
thought to strike Iran…"
The coverage of
the story thus appears to have pumped new life
into the idea that Netanyahu is serious about
attacking Iran, despite clear evidence in recent
weeks that he has climbed down from that posture.
The details of the episode in the original
Channel 2 programme as reported by the Israeli
daily Yedioth Ahronoth suggest that none of the
participants in the meeting believed that
Netanyahu had decided on actual war with Iran.
The incident occurred, according to the
programme, after a meeting of seven top cabinet
ministers at an unspecified time in 2010. As Dagan
and Ashkanazi were about to leave the meeting
room, the programme recalls, Netanyahu ordered
them to prepare the military for "the possibility
of a strike" against Iran by putting the IDF on
the highest level of readiness.
used the code word "F Plus" for the alert status,
according to the Channel 2 program.
Ashkenazi and Dagan reacted strongly to
the order, and Netanyahu and Barak eventually
backed down. But both Ashkenazi and Barak appear
to agree that the issue was not whether Israel
would actually attack Iran but the alert itself.
Ashkenazi's response indicated that he did not
interpret it as a sign that Netanyahu intended to
carry out an attack on Iran. "It's not something
you do if you're not sure you want to follow
through with it," Ashkenazi was quoted as saying.
Barak sought to downplay the order for the
high alert status, asserting that raising the
alert level "did not necessarily mean war".
"It is not true that creating a situation
in which the IDF are on alert for a few hours or a
few days to carry out certain operations forces
Israel to go through with them," the defense
Ashkenazi was not
asserting, however, that Netanyahu would be forced
to attack. Rather, he feared it would have the
unintended consequence of convincing Iran that
Israel did intend to attack and thus trigger a
The former IDF chief highlighted that
danger in commenting, "This accordion produces
music when you play with it," according to
"sources close to" Ashkenazi - the formula usually
used when an official or ex-official does not wish
to be quoted directly.
Barak also said
Ashkenazi had responded that the IDF did not have
the ability to carry out a strike against Iran.
"Eventually, at the moment of truth, the answer
that was given was that, in fact, the ability did
not exist," Barak is quoted as saying on the
Significantly, Barak made no
effort to deny the reality that the Israeli Air
Force did not have the capability to carry out a
successful attack against Iran. Instead he is
blaming Ashkenazi for having failed to prepare
Israeli forces for a possible attack.
Ashkenazi angrily denied that obviously
political charge. "I prepared the option, the army
was ready for a strike but I also said that a
strike now would be a strategic mistake," he is
quoted as saying.
Israeli military leaders
are still saying publicly that the IDF can carry
out a strike. But while Ashkenazi is quoted as
saying the army was "ready for a strike", that is
not the same as claiming that Israel had a
military option that had any chance of success in
derailing Iran's enrichment programme. And in
February 2011, he told then Chairman of the US
Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen that
references to such a military option were "empty
words" because "Israel has no military option",
according to an earlier report by Yedioth
Despite the public political
feud between them, both Barak and Ashkenazi
implied that the purpose of the high alert was to
achieve a political effect rather than to prepare
for an actual attack.
Both Ashkenazi and
former Mossad director Dagan were apparently
shocked that Netanyahu and Barak would be so
irresponsible as to run the obvious risks of
feigning preparations for a war with Iran. Dagan
concluded that Netanyahu is unfit for leadership
of the country - a point that he had made
repeatedly since leaving his Mossad post in 2011.
Netanyahu sought to manipulate the
supposed threat of military force against Iran to
put pressure on US President Barack Obama to adopt
harsh sanctions against Iran and even get him to
pledge to use force if Iran did not yield on its
nuclear programme. The firm rebuff to that ploy by
Obama last summer brought that phase of the
Netanyahu military option ploy to an end, as
indicated by his failure to include any implicit
threat in his UN address in late August.
Netanyahu continues to insist publicly,
however, that he is considering the military
option against Iran. In an interview for the
Channel 2 programme, he said, "We are serious,
this is not a show. If there is no other way to
stop Iran, Israel is ready to act."
Israeli political observers have suggested
that Netanyahu's belligerent posture has now
become primarily a theme of his campaign for
reelection as prime minister. But as the coverage
of the 2010 episode indicates, the news media have
not yet abandoned the story of Netanyahu's
readiness to go to war against Iran.
Gareth Porter, an investigative
historian and journalist specializing in US
national security policy, received the UK-based
Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for
articles on the US war in Afghanistan.