To see the very public squabble over Iran between Benjamin Netanyahu and various members of Israel’s current and former defense and intelligence staffs, one has to wonder: What kind of government can’t seem to speak with one voice on so urgent a matter?
The answer is: a democracy.
In recent weeks, three of Israel’s former security chiefs have gone public to express their disagreement with the prime minister’s strategy on Iran. Yuval Diskin, the former head of the internal intelligence agency Shin Bet, doubts the effectiveness of the military option. So does Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief. Gabi Ashkenazi, the former IDF chief of general staff, is known to favor sanctions over military intervention as the best way to head off Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
Perhaps the most important of these dissenters is the current chief of the General Staff, Benny Gantz. In an interview with Ha’aretz, Gantz conveyed that a nuclear Iran would have dire, even existential, consequences for Israel, the region, and the world. However, Gantz also insisted that sanctions and diplomatic pressure are proving to be effective and should be allowed to play out. Most controversially, Gantz suggested that Iran’s leaders could be more “rational” in their calculations than Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak, allow. (Gantz, one should hasten to add, is no Pollyanna, admitting that a nuclear “capability, in the hands of Islamic fundamentalists who at particular moments could make different calculations, is dangerous.”)
Whether it was the criticism coming from the former “chiefs” or the prospect of looming elections, many commentators in Israel and abroad believe that the chances of a military strike on Iran are less imminent than they had recently appeared to be. Sanctions are having a real and dramatic effect in Iran, and the P5 + 1 talks (United States, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany), while not racking up any breakthroughs, still offer the possibility for real progress. For all sides in the debate, that has to be encouraging news. The endgame is not winning or losing political points, but keeping Iran from setting off an arms race, emboldening terrorist groups, and threatening Israel’s very existence.
One needn’t take at face value the statements by the former “chiefs.” Their motivations for speaking out could range from political ambition to personal pique. Some Israelis have questioned the ethics of high-ranking former appointees who challenge their democratically elected civilian leaders.
But the notion of such heated and public debate at the top draws yet another distinction between Israel and its neighbors in the region. Israel is not and never was the monolith that its critics pretend it to be, whether the issue is Iran or the Palestinian conflict. The climate of debate is a trademark of its robust and, yes, often chaotic democracy. And if the current debate seems to be particularly fraught — well, the greatest challenges to democracy always come at times of deepest crisis. In a rebuke to its critics, Israel is yet again meeting such challenges.