Iran seeks nuclear threshold status to preserve its regime, Barak says

In an exclusive interview with Israel Hayom, Defense Minister Ehud Barak says the Islamic Republic’s ayatollahs seek to reach a point from which they can assemble a nuclear bomb within 60 days • Says that public officials used to act more responsibly and understand the limits to their power.

Shlomo Cesana
Bomb builders? Iranian leaders Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Photo credit: AP


Reckless endangerment: Defense Minister Ehud Barak says officials are acting irresponsibly when it comes to Iran.


Photo credit: KOKO


Bomb builders? Iranian leaders Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.


Photo credit: AP


Several quotes hang framed on the walls of the Independence party office in the Knesset, including a few notable sayings by Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. One of them reads, “Zionism is a messianic movement. It yearns to change man and the world. Only thus does it find the essence of its purpose.”


Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who cannot refrain from self-ridicule and cynicism, said with a serious face, “In light of new developments and emerging political prophets, I have decided to take that quote off the wall.”


Barak was referring to statements made by former Israel Security Agency chief Yuval Diskin last Saturday. Diskin charged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Barak with “messianism,” in various aspects of fateful decision-making. As examples, he cited the question of whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, and the peace process with the Palestinians.


Barak is angry. Recent public remarks by former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, Diskin, and former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert deal with the Iranian nuclear issue and the leadership’s decision-making process.


“There are things that cannot be discussed publicly without damaging the issue that is at stake,” Barak explained this week in an interview with Israel Hayom. “There is no choice: In the life of a nation, one has to entrust these issues to elected officials. There must be some public debate about our willingness and our responsibility to take certain risks to ensure the security and future of Israel. It is only natural that not everyone agrees. After all, these are not simple decisions.


“There was no majority in the provisional government’s People’s Council when we had to establish the state. There was no agreement when former Prime Minister Menachem Begin decided to carry out the Iraqi nuclear reactor operation [Israel’s 1981 air strike on the reactor]. There was even major opposition. On the other hand, some decisions that are made with overwhelming agreement must later be explained in inquiry commissions, where the confusion that led to such decisions needs to be justified.


“Beyond the uncouth manner and style in which these statements were made, they really do damage, in their attempt to undermine the decision-making process. You can trust me when I say this: In the history of the state, there has never been such as orderly decision-making process – both in terms of decisions regarding peace and those regarding war. It’s true, there are no guarantees. But for people who are supposed to be public servants to exaggerate that into a baseless claim that stems from a desire to fear-monger? I’m not here to judge these people’s motives. But the pattern of behavior that allows them to express themselves in this manner is perhaps more problematic.”


Barak continues, “In the end, there is no room for confusion. In a democratic country, it is the job of public servants – whether they are veteran officials or heads of organizations – to express their opinions in their fields of expertise. Diskin addressed the Iranian issue, which was not in his field of expertise or in his realm of authority.


“It is their job to voice opinions and our job to listen. But it is the cabinet that ultimately has to make this decision. And again, no subject has ever been debated so seriously, time after time, in a variety of forums, and in collaboration with ministers and professionals. Therefore, there is no real danger that the proceedings have been compromised. And this group [of critics] participated in the process.”


So do we need to take a harder line in terms of the „cooling-off” period for military, security and intelligence chief who wish to run for public office?


“It is possible that the current ‘cooling-off’ law is appropriate but could be made more stringent. In the U.S., for example, a chief of staff is forbidden from becoming a secretary of defense for 10 years. And the U.S. is not a non-democratic nation. I moved very quickly from the army into the government. And I am not the only one. There were Haim Bar-Lev, Mordechai Gur, Ezer Weizman, and Rafael Eitan. But there was never such reckless debate. It didn’t happen! Service people knew that they had a responsibility. There were always differences of opinion – both practical and professional. But there is no place for the type of debate that causes damage – not when it comes to Iran or other policy issues. Even after these officials are discharged, they must act responsibly, and equip themselves with self-control and the judgment necessary to avoid inflicting damage. They are dragging down the public debate.


“There’s the Olmert gang, which flies abroad and says the things it says. It’s easy to see whom this serves: Iran and its supporters. This weakens the considerable accomplishments of Israeli policy, which has transformed the Iranian issue into an important and urgent topic, not only to Israel but to the world. On the other hand, these remarks also strengthen Israel’s critics in the international arena. Anyone with eyes in his head can see that the Palestinians are also responsible for the deadlocked peace process, but now that person is at loggerheads with this group.


„Once, there was discipline”


How do these statements harm Israel’s position in international debates about Iran?


“We are preparing for discussions, and we want the world to present a united front on Iran. Then Israeli officials come along and weaken this claim. Yet these officials are no role models for good judgment. Take the Second Lebanon War in 2006. I don’t remember them objecting to that or predicting the outcome. This is true of some of them, except for one. I remember the same group of people and their statements regarding the release of [kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad] Schalit. With the possible exception of one of them, they were full of self-confidence and assertiveness. They warned us about what could happen and that prevented Olmert from making decisions, and deterred Netanyahu at first as well.


„Now we also see that their claims are unjustified. It is disturbing that people who work intimately with the prime minister and defense minister, who seek to extend their terms, would act this way. Anyone who values privacy and being a team player should be shocked by this.”


Have values diminished?


“There used to be more proper discipline and a better understanding of one’s limits. There’s been a blurring of the boundaries surrounding public debate, which has become more about assigning blame than taking personal responsibility, both in the press and the system. The Israel Security Agency’s motto is “The Unseen Shield.” Thankfully, the shield still exists. But the “unseen” aspect of anything relating to former figures is being shamefully eroded. There are things about which the British customarily say, ‘It isn’t done’ but that seems to be losing meaning here.”


„There is no easy way”


In your Israel Independence Day address to the Yad Lebanim association for memorializing fallen soldiers, you recommended reading a speech that former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani delivered in 2003. What did you learn from that speech?


“Rafsanjani was president then, and was considered a moderate. The statements bear witness to the depth and breadth of Iranian thought. There are some 20 Muslim nations and then there is Israel. He analyzes the balance of power in the world, under the shadow of the nuclear bomb. There is Russia, China, and the U.S. Each of them is essentially a continent. Each of them is capable of destroying the other. This is why the leaders of these nations ultimately make collective decisions, and why they make judicious decisions. This strategy worked and achieved calm, because each of the players understood that it was forbidden to allow any local conflict to arise – that this poses a danger of mutual destruction.


“Rafsanjani concludes that this is not the case with Israel and the Muslim nations. In his estimation, Israel is not like Japan, which, despite that two Japanese cities were erased by an atomic bomb, returned to being a player and an international power within 15 years.


“In his opinion, Israel is so small and vulnerable that it is a ‘one-bomb’ nation. If one bomb were dropped on it, this nation would not return to its former glory. In his speech, he analyzes Israel’s ability to respond. He said that we would retaliate against the nation that attacked us, but that there would be 20 additional nations waiting at the front against Israel. After the exchange of blows, he said, Islam would remain and Israel would not remain as it was. He also noted that there need not be any clear markers on the bomb as to where it came from. It could be transported in a shipping container that arrives at some port and simply explodes.”


How do you respond to people who say that the preoccupation with the Iranian issue has been blown way out of proportion?


“They ask, ‘Why are you harassing the Iranians? After all, this is an international problem. We don’t like to think about things like that.’… This nation produces not only rugs and pistachios, but it truly seeks to acquire nuclear arms. The texts that Rafsanjani refers to have long been mentioned, not only in public addresses but behind closed doors. That is why I do not delude myself. The moment of truth is approaching. We have to decide what to do about this if the sanctions and diplomacy fail.”


What should we do?


“Some say let’s trust the world. No matter how hard it is and there is risk involved and it is difficult to predict the outcome, I say that in the end we can deal with Iran now or deal with a nuclear Iran that poses a far greater danger. That group [of opponents] presents this as if I am portraying a false picture. As if on one hand, there will be a nuclear Iran, and on the other hand, there won’t. That’s not true. We speak constantly of delay, of competition: What will happen first? Will the regime fall first or will it obtain a nuclear weapon first? If it obtains a nuclear weapon, it will be very hard to bring it down. Now they are trying to seek immunity for their nuclear program. If they achieve military nuclear capability, for arms, or a threshold in which they can assemble a bomb within 60 days, they will acquire another form of immunity – for the regime.


“There is a school of thought in Dagan, Diskin and Olmert’s statements: I do not have another nation, and I remember what happened in the Yom Kippur War. I remember the Yom Kippur War better than those people. What happened in 1973? The entire cabinet was blinded and we were forced to pay the price on the battlefield. In this case, there is an explicit and responsible debate of all the issues. It’s possible that these people don’t agree with some statements that have been made, but to claim that the government is ignoring this issue or has failed to address it?”


Did you talk to the current Mossad and Israel Security Agency heads about the statements of the former officials?


„No. That seemed to me to be inappropriate. They conduct themselves in a manner befitting their positions and I hope this continues. Statements from these former officials depict things incorrectly and cast a shadow on the heritage of the important organizations in which they developed.


Will imminent elections disrupt tactical decisions?


„The political-security system will make decisions as needed, even under challenging circumstances. We must separate the issue of Iran from the subject of elections.”


Can the Israeli homefront sustain an attack?


„No one is looking for challenges to the homefront or seeking to test it. But this is the region in which we live. We are surrounded by enemies and we have to be on our guard. It’s enough to listen to the news to understand this.”


How can Israel initiate an operation when the homefront is so vulnerable?


„What is vulnerable? Some of this is psychological, and some of it is connected with reality. The decisions obviously must be made with profound judgment and we have to constantly improve the homefront’s preparedness. We will be in a much better position to make decisions about conflict in a few years, when the Magic Wand, Arrow, and Iron Dome missile-defense systems are complete. The problem is that sometimes you can’t determine the timing for decisions.”


Barak praises the American administration for its support and funding of Israel’s defenses, particularly of the Iron Dome system.


„We have reached a point of extraordinary coordination with the Pentagon and with Congress. Make no mistake about this administration: It supports Israel in a manner that I would describe as almost unprecedented. You hear this from President Obama as well as the Pentagon, which would not act without the president’s backing.


„Israel’s need for a multi-level interception system is crucial. This does not replace an army with attack capabilities, but it is an important element that gives the political echelon freedom to maneuver and also improves overall defense. I considered this a cornerstone in decisions made as early as during Amir Peretz’s term [as defense minister].”


„I inherited my optimism from Peres”


Barak held a press conference this week to launch the election campaign of his Independence party. Barak said that in his meeting with the U.S. president, he did not conceal his envy of America’s fixed elections date. He compares an elected American president with a race-car driver on an airport runway, and an Israeli prime minister with a tightrope walker, who falls whenever one of his coalition partners wishes.


„The need for elections this time around stems from the fact that there are multiple obstacles pending and it is not safe to assume that a fourth-year cabinet will succeed in confronting them. This includes everything from the Tal Law [which allows full-time yeshiva students to defer army service] to settlement outposts sitting on Palestinian land to the budget.”


What are your chances of passing the electoral threshold in order to enter the Knesset?



Polls indicate otherwise. Where does your optimism come from?


„I inherited my optimism from [President] Shimon Peres. But I constantly reinforce and nurture it.”


Why don’t people like you?


„I’m not looking for love. I seek to have influence and be effective and have the ability to contribute to this country. Besides that, there are lots of people who do like me. It’s true there are a few newspapers that don’t like me, and there are a few people who have good reason not to like me, because they have a score to settle with me. I distanced myself from some of them, like [convicted former Interior Minister] Aryeh Deri, [convicted former Vice Prime Minister] Haim Ramon, and [indicted former Prime Minister] Ehud Olmert. There are journalists and newspapers that traditionally attack me. And then there are scores to settle as well as political and financial interests. I assume some of these things have to do with them, and yes, some of it is also me.


Will the social protest return this summer?


„I don’t know, but I think that the protest left an important legacy behind. I hope that the debate surrounding it will be renewed. The protest leadership made a mistake in not giving it a political character, given the understanding that this will not be determined on Rothschild Boulevard but in the voting booths. There was a response from the government to some extent, and I believe that this also softens the positions [of the protesters].”


What do you expect from coming elections?


„It is not clear who will form the next government. It is safe to assume that the Likud will be the biggest party, but a situation could arise in which the boundary is blurred between the blocs. The multiplicity of centrist parties is not just a blessing.”


What is your opinion of candidate Yair Lapid’s plan to replace the Tal Law?


„I haven’t examined the plan in depth. I heard the headlines, and it sounded like [former general] Elazar Stern’s plan after an injection of Botox. I don’t think that the solution will be a five-year deferment for all [full-time yeshiva students]. This would not pass in the High Court. We have to replace this law and to determine clear foundations: The IDF will draft whomever it chooses. The others will perform civil service in the community.


„This is one of the subjects that will help shape the discussion about the formation of a new government. I would not advise the Likud to get complacent. All in all, the developments concerning this issue are important. It provides an answer to those who seek an equal sharing of the burden, and participation in the responsibility for the nation’s fate.”


You were elected in 1999 on the „service for all” ticket, which ended up being a disappointment. Why should people believe you now?

„Before the election, I handed out hundreds of thousands of copies of a card listing five commitments to the public. I fulfilled them all. We proposed the Tal Law to achieve a solution. We tried. It didn’t work. Now we’ll take a stab at something else. When I was elected, people shouted, „Anything but Shas [a reference to the ultra-Orthodox party for Jews of Middle Eastern or North African descent].” And I said, ‘It isn’t right to discount an entire sector of the Israeli public.’ We have to be open to other segments of the population. One of our problems is that walls are built between different groups in Israeli society.”