Israeli top brass split over plan to hit Iran

Media reports of a recent wide-scale Israeli military exercise over the Mediterranean — widely interpreted as a dry-run for a possible attack on Iran — have highlighted stark differences among the Israeli leadership over what action to take against Iran’s nuclear programme.

More than 100 F-15 and F-16 fighter planes, backed up by rescue helicopters, air-refuelling aircraft, command-and-communications and electronic-warfare planes, flew almost 1,000 miles simulating the flight-path which would be used to bomb Iran.

In favour of an operation against Iran in the near future are a significant group of current and former senior defence officials and officers: three of the influential figures pushing for such an attack are Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz, a former IDF chief of staff; MK Yitzhak Ben-Yisrael, a former general and head of the IDF’s research and development; and Major-General Eliezer Shkedi, who commanded the Israeli Air Force until a month ago. They believe the diplomatic process and any sanctions are a waste of time and that Israel should act as soon as possible.

Taking an opposite view are those who believe that a military strike would be ineffective and cause Israel more diplomatic and security damage. They see the way forward as through diplomacy and international sanctions.

The main proponent of this view is President Shimon Peres. Israeli presidents do not usually intervene in military issues, but Mr Peres, as a former Prime Minister and the man who is credited with building Israel’s nuclear programme from the 1950s onwards, is taking part in the highest-level discussions on Iran, as is another ex-PM, Binyamin Netanyahu.

Next month, Mr Peres is to receive his new military attaché. This time, the IDF has appointed — to what in the past was a mainly ceremonial post — a senior intelligence officer whose job it will be to keep the president constantly updated.

Between these two opposing views there are other positions. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has long believed assurances given to him and to his predecessor Ariel Sharon by President George W Bush that ultimately the US will attack Iran rather than allow it to achieve nuclear arms. But in his last visit to Washington, three weeks ago, Mr Olmert did not receive the reassurance he sought, giving rise to a belief the Bush administration will not act. He is now considering other options. Last week, he met Colonel (ret.) Aviam Sela, who had planned the 1981 attack on the nuclear reactor in Osirak, Iraq. 

Mr Olmert is also influenced by Mossad Chief Meir Dagan, who believes there is still time before Israel has to make a decision and that the Iranians have quite a way to go before they obtain a nuclear device. This week, Mr Dagan had his tenure at the helm of the Mossad lengthened for a seventh year.

There is a minority view that Israel probably cannot prevent Iran from getting a bomb and Israel must, therefore, start changing its strategic framework.

    Last updated: 4:44pm, June 27 2008