As Israel’s defense minister, Ehud Barak was determined to carry out a military strike against Iran’s nuclear program. His book provides the tools to examine the limitations of the U.S.-Israeli relationship and the considerations Israeli leaders put into the decision to go to war.
By Shemuel Meir
“My Country, My Life: Fighting for Israel, Searching for Peace”, Ehud Barak, St. Martin’s Press, 2018.
The title of Ehud Barak’s recently published autobiography My Country, My Life declares that it is a book not just about Barak’s life, but also a first person account of some the most important moments in Israeli history, told by a politician and senior military official who was in the room. The book recounts not only achievements, but also mistakes and missed opportunities, and by presenting lessons to be learned, the book challenges the reader to take an analytical approach.
Barak discusses at length Israel’s wars, the withdrawal from Lebanon, and the opportunities missed in the peace process with Syria and with the Palestinians. Of particular interest, however, is the Iranian nuclear issue. In the book, Barak provides an important and dual point of view: firstly, the perspective of the security cabinet and its interaction with senior military officials; and secondly, that of Israel’s primary negotiator with the Americans — from the military and political echelons all the way up to Presidents Bush and Obama.
Although he at time seems to speak in riddles, through his book, Barak gives us an opportunity to examine a number of unanswered questions. What was his assessment of the Iranian nuclear program? Is he giving us the complete picture or has he left out important stages in the Iranian nuclear crisis, and if so, why? And the biggest question: did Ehud Barak earnestly promote an Israeli attack on Iran? And if so, why did it not happen?
According to his autobiography, the Iranian nuclear issue was the reason Barak decided to serve as defense minister in the Olmert and Netanyahu governments from 2007 to 2013. From the moment he entered Ehud Olmert’s government, Barak writes that he ordered Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi to prepare a plan for a “surgical strike” to destroy most of Iran’s nuclear facilities. When Barak understood that Israel did not have the capability for such an attack (it lacked of midair refueling aircraft and the necessary bunker busting bombs), he writes, “I was determined to do all I could to change that.”
Interestingly, despite agreeing on the need to stop it, Barak leads us to conclude that he did not agree with Netanyahu’s assertion that the Iranian nuclear program posed an “existential threat” to Israel. The main issue in Barak’s eyes was a potential change in regional balance of power if and when Iran gained nuclear weapons, which could lead to a nuclear arms race and the emergence of new nuclear countries, and as a result – without explicitly saying so – the loss of the Israel’s monopoly.
Preparations for an Israeli “surgical attack” increased during 2011-2012 as Barak came to believe that President Obama’s efforts to dismantle the Iranian nuclear program according to the “Libyan model” – through peaceful methods, including both pressure and incentives – would not succeed. From his talks with senior U.S. officials, it became more and more clear to Barak that the Americans had no intention of attacking Iran themselves. “[T]he question wasn’t whether to take military action against Iran…It was to ensure that we actually had the military capability to strike before the Iranians entered their ‘zone of immunity,’” he writes, clearly referring to a preventive war. If Iran was allowed to enter a “zone of immunity,” that would pull out the rug from a military option. It was therefore necessary to preempt.
Zone of immunity was a key concept for Barak. He chose to define it in the abstract terms of operations research – the point from which it would not be possible to significantly damage the Iranian nuclear program — but his intention was far from abstract. In fact, it was very concrete: the underground fortified centrifuge site at Fordow. This facility, which was at the heart of the operative preparations for a “surgical strike,” is not mentioned by Barak in the book. Fordow was the only place where uranium was enriched to a 20 percent level, which made it the most dangerous component of the Iranian nuclear program. Until the JCPOA, the Fordow facility was Iran’s fast track that would enable uranium to be enriched to the high military levels necessary to create fissile material for a bomb. As a result of the JCPOA there is no longer uranium enrichment at Fordow. If the Iranians were to withdraw from the nuclear agreement following President Trump’s violation of it, however, Fordow would be the site of greatest concern.
Barak also provides us with a detailed description of his effort to convince the inner cabinet (the “group of eight”) to authorize an attack on Iran. The height of the secret efforts was the end of 2010 through the autumn of 2012. After Barak considered the preparations to be complete and believed the military capability had been reached, he asked the cabinet to authorize an immediate attack (i.e. before that Iranians entered the “immunity zone”). He did not want to completely destroy the Iranian nuclear program, but rather to damage some critical facilities. Doing so, he estimated, would make the Iranians understand that “we could always attack again” and that it would not be worth rebuilding their nuclear facilities.
In order to assuage opposing cabinet ministers’ misgivings (the book gives a full account of the plan’s opponents) about the dangers of an Iranian counter attack, Barak writes that he argued an Iranian counter attack would be relatively minor: “Some Iranian retaliation was inevitable but the options would be limited. They would probably involve, at worst, a period of escalated use of two familiar weapons: terror operations abroad and missile attacks by its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, in southern Lebanon.”
In an unusual comment during an Israel Radio broadcast in late 2011, responding to comments by Mossad Director Meir Dagan, who opposed an attack on Iran, Barak went even further and mocked what he termed “the panic festival.” Barak said on live radio that “war is no picnic. There is no scenario in which there will be 50,000 or 5,000, and not even 500 fatalities.”
Yet there is nothing in the book about the dangers of complications that could arise as the result of declaring war on Iran, nor of the possible unanticipated and undesired results of a preventive war. The manner in which Barak chose to formulate his downplaying of the dangers is an indication that he based his own thinking on operations research and quantitative abstract calculations. Traditional military intelligence is not able to provide such answers; the most prominent example of a politician who based his war management decisions on similar calculations was Robert McNamara during the Vietnam war.
The American objection
In Israel, the prevalent view is that the military option against Iran was not implemented because a majority decision was not reached in the inner cabinet. According to that narrative, it was opposition by senior military officials, led by Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi, who argued that in spite of the preparatory planning, training, and military intelligence, they “had not yet crossed the threshold of operational capability.” Barak was surprised and angry, but it highlighted something he should have known from his own time as chief of staff in the 1990s: the Israeli cabinet will not reach a majority decision on a strategic attack without the chief of staff’s consent. Barak neutralized that opposition by installing a new chief of staff, Benny Ganz, who, according to the book, supported the military option.
In theory, with Gantz on his side, everything needed for the cabinet to approve a military strike had been made. But there was still an insurmountable obstacle: the United States government. And not only, as Israelis like to think, President Obama. From the outset, a condition (if not in Barak’s eyes, a necessary one) for an Israeli attack was ensuring American approval.
According to Barak, he only gave the Americans a general understanding of Israel’s military plans, but they understood none the less. Barak writes that President George W. Bush told him and Olmert in a closed meeting in Jerusalem in 2008 that as an F16 pilot he could connect the dots: “I want to tell both of you now, as president, the formal position of the U.S. government: we are totally against any [Israeli] action to mount an attack on nuclear plants.” To avoid any doubts and to prevent any misunderstanding, the president reiterated that he expected Israel not to attack. “And we are not going to do it, either, as long as I am president.” When Barak later tried to get American approval for an Israeli attack once again, this time from President Obama, he received the same refusal.
From Barak’s depiction of his meetings with senior U.S. officials and with Presidents Bush and Obama, it is clear that he spoke to them of concrete plans for Israel to attack Iran. This is in contradiction to the prevailing view that Barak’s goal was to take an indirect approach: to convince and influence the Americans — with hints accompanied by real military preparations for an attack — so that United States would do the work for it. The Americans understood, and answered him clearly that they opposed both an American attack or an Israeli attack. Barak therefore concluded that American diplomacy had been exhausted and that it was now time for Israeli action.
The latest possible date for an Israeli attack before Iran entered the “immunity zone” was the summer of 2012. Barak, in the book, makes clear that American opposition to the attack is what ultimately took the subject off the table in October of that year. From a close analysis of the text it appears that Israel never had a chance of getting a “green light” from the Americans, but beyond the fear that an Israeli attack would drag the United States into an all-out war, Washington had two concrete reasons to object. The first, the intelligence assessments, which are completely absent from Barak’s book, is essential for understanding the attack that never happened. The second, Washington’s secret diplomacy, was not known to Israeli figures in real time. Both remain relevant today and are worth examining in more detail.
The first reason the United States stood in the way of an Israeli attack, of which Barak was aware but chose to ignore in his book, was the November 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). According to the 16 American intelligence agencies’ integrative report, U.S. intelligence judged “with high confidence that in fall 2003, Teheran halted its nuclear weapons program.” The NIE, which is the most authoritative intelligence document in the American system, fell on Israeli intelligence agencies and decision makers as “thunder on a clear day” — and they chose to ignore it. Presidents Bush and Obama, on the other hand, were bound by it.
U.S. Presidents cannot ignore their own National Intelligence Estimate, especially after the failed war against Iraq in 2003, which had been justified by misleading intelligence and an assumption of the existence of nuclear weapons. Barak and most other Israeli decision makers had a hard time understanding that a U.S. President cannot attack a country that is a Non-Nuclear Weapons State (NNWS) party to the NPT and already under IAEA monitoring, when, on top of it all, the entire American intelligence community had declared with near certainty that Iran was not developing nuclear weapons.
Under these circumstances, the United States also could not authorize an ally to attack. It is worth noting that the Final IAEA report published before the JCPOA entered into force confirmed the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate’s findings. According to all the IAEA quarterly reports since, Iran has been complying with the agreement.
The second reason for Washington’s opposition to an Israeli attack in 2012 (the “decisive year” in Barak’s view), and which was apparently not known to the Israeli government in real time, was the secret talks that were taking place in Oman. The president of the United States could not start a war with Iran or green-light an Israeli attack when its representatives were carrying out intensive talks with Iran about the nuclear issue, which were kept secret until the Interim Nuclear Agreement with Iran was reached in November of 2013. (The Interim Agreement was the basis on which the final JCPOA Iran deal was reached in Vienna two years later.) It seems that in spite of Israel’s intimate intelligence cooperation with the United States, Israel’s intelligence agencies and defense minister were not aware of the Oman track — there are still secrets the United States keeps to itself.
In conclusion, what does Ehud Barak think about the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018? It would appear that today he has come around and is in favor of it. In spite of the faults that he found in the deal, Barak summarizes in the epilogue that as more details became clear, it seems to him that the JCPOA provisions are “more comprehensive and effectively policed than I had expected.”
Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog in Haaretz, where a version of this article first appeared in Hebrew.