The political firestorm triggered by former Mossad Director Meir Dagan's recent comments against a strike on Iran's nuclear installations is showing no signs of abating. Since his retirement as head of the Mossad last year, Dagan has said on several occasions that he views an Israeli military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities as "the stupidest thing I have ever heard." The former spymaster has also cast doubts over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's suitability to decide correctly over the Iranian issue. Dagan is also reportedly the source for a front-page column in Yedioth Ahronoth which stated that Barak and Netanyahu had already decided to attack Iran and were not properly consulting their fellow ministers, as well as the country's security chiefs.
Vice Prime Minister and Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe (Bogey) Ya’alon (Likud) is the latest government minister to lash out at Dagan, telling Israel Hayom on Wednesday, "What we have here is someone from within the establishment who is now outside looking in, and is trying to provoke debate by painting only a partial picture of the truth."
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Ya'alon accused Dagan of violating the trust he has pledged to uphold upon assuming his position as Mossad chief. "He signed a pledge not to compromise state secrets and had the opportunity to express his views through the proper channels. But it is unacceptable to try and hold a discussion that is supposed to be held behind closed doors," Ya'alon said, stressing the enormity of the issues at hand.
"A single newspaper story cannot capture the full scope of the debate on Iran, and readers cannot formulate their opinions on the data that they are exposed to through that venue," Ya'alon said. The former chief of staff called on Dagan to let the debate be held where it should be held - "within the professional and political echelons." The government might be hamstrung by such "reckless" public discourse, Ya'alon warned, and called Dagan's comments an attempt to manipulate the media by leaking information regarding the policy he is advocating. Ya'alon said such foreign policy issues should not be taken lightly. "These things are determined by elections," Ya'alon said.
Finance Minister Steinitz also had strong words to say about Dagan, albeit implicitly, saying that "some top officials whose former glory might have caused them to forget they have a duty to uphold, a duty to keep state secrets."
On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister and Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Dan Meridor (Likud) also spoke out against public discussion on the Iranian threat, saying in the Israeli daily Ma'ariv, "I don't think there has ever been a debate like this," Meridor said. "Not everything needs to be the subject of public discussion, it would be crazy to discuss the Iranian issue in public."
Meridor said that the ongoing public debate is far more severe than the affair involving journalist Anat Kamm. Kamm was sentenced this week to four and a half years in prison for leaking classified army documents to a Ha'aretz reporter who used some of them as the basis for an investigative report on targeted killings by the Israel Defense Forces.
Minister without portfolio Benny Begin (Likud), a member of the Forum of Eight of inner cabinet ministers that decides highly sensitive matters, on Wednesday leveled perhaps the harshest criticism of Dagan, calling Dagan's comments "despicable." "I would like to remind everyone that civil servants pledge to keep state secrets indefinitely, even after they leave their posts," Begin said. "We must view these acts, which bring about public discussion and sabotage the government's ability to make decisions, in the gravest terms possible." Dagan's comments are a "betrayal of trust," Begin said. They are "an abomination that stem from illusions of grandeur." Begin warned that the public discussion over the Iranian issue has led to unprecedented levels of irresponsibility and lawlessness among Israeli officials and the media.
Speaking at an economic forum on Wednesday, Dagan dismissed the criticism that has been directed at him, calling the government ministers' accusations baseless. "Steinitz has called me a criminal who has breached confidentiality. Me? If they really think that is who I am, let them prosecute me and say it out in the open, 'Dagan has broken the law,' and let them put me on trial," Dagan said. The former spymaster noted that cabinet ministers have leaked information on the Iranian issue before, making them vulnerable to the same accusations. "Those who make Iran top of our agenda are the prime minister and defense minister themselves, who have been saying that all options are on the table," Dagan said.
Dagan also broke with mainstream public opinion in the wake of the Gilad Shalit prisoner swap. Dagan said the endurance the abducted soldier demonstrated has been overblown, and that "Shalit is not a hero," and should not have been welcomed with such fanfare. "It was not the prime minister's job to be there when the soldier returned." He also leveled criticism over the notion that the government must do all it can to secure the release of abducted soldiers. "There was no option but to sign a deal, but not this kind of deal," he said. As Mossad chief Dagan was one of most vocal opponents of an emerging deal that Prime Minister Olmert had managed to negotiate with Shalit's captors. It is widely believed that his objections, along with others in the defense establishment, eventually thwarted the deal at the time. "The notion of doing everything to release a prisoner leads to an absurd situation. It was wrong to release 140 prisoners into the West Bank and this prisoner swap entails heavy risks." The Prime Minister's Office refused to comment on Dagan's statements. One government official said on Wednesday that Dagan's comments on Shalit "do not warrant a comment and should be dealt with through the proper channels."
The uproar over comments about potential military action against Iran began earlier this year, when Dagan publicly expressed opposition to such a move after he left office at the end of 2010. Dagan said a strike on Iran’s nuclear installations would be “a stupid idea,” and also said that military action might not achieve all of Israel's goals and could lead to a prolonged war.
Dagan later said that attacking Iran “would mean regional war, and in that case you would have given Iran the best possible reason to continue the nuclear program. The regional challenge that Israel would face would be impossible.” His remarks drew condemnation from Israeli ministers, who urged him to stop speaking publicly on the issue, and led to reports that his diplomatic passport had been revoked in response.
The public commotion over Iran returned to Israeli media's front pages once again following the publication of a front page column on the subject in Yedioth Ahronoth on Friday. The column, by veteran journalist Nahum Barnea was headlined "Atomic Pressure" and it asserted that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak had already decided between themselves to embark on a military option against Iran. An additional report on Wednesday in Ha'aretz speculated that Netanyahu and Barak were trying to garner support for a military strike from a majority of cabinet ministers.
Likud Ministers Benny Begin, Meridor, Ya'alon and Shas' Eli Yishai reportedly oppose military action, preferring to ramp up diplomatic pressure within the international community. They are said to believe that Israel cannot act alone, without coordination with the U.S., and that it is preferable to maintain political and economic pressure on Tehran.
The IAEA is expected to publish a report on Nov. 8 that is widely believed to say that Iran's nuclear aspirations go far beyond civilian purposes. Senior Israeli ministers and diplomats have said the IAEA report will have a decisive effect on the course of action the government chooses.
The debate over Iran comes against the backdrop of a Defense Ministry announcement on Wednesday afternoon that Israel successfully tested a ballistic missile, which, according to foreign reports, can carry nuclear warheads and can reach Iran.
In addition, on Thursday, the IDF Homefront Command conducted a major missile preparedness drill in the center of the country. The drill, which was announced suddenly on Wednesday, included all Homefront Command units, including chemical and biological forces, as well as all police, fire and medical teams. As part of the drill, alarm sirens were tested at 10 a.m. in major cities in the center of the country. And finally, the IDF released for publication that the Israel Air Force had conducted a major exercise over Sardinia in Italy, last week. The exercise came amid growing cooperation with the Italian armed forces, and included long-range bombing runs, aerial dogfights, mid-flight refueling, as well countermeasures against ground-to-air missiles. Ever since relations between Israel and Turkey deteriorated some two years ago, the IAF has conducted drills over Greece, Israel, and Romania.
The debate raging in Israel reverberated in Iran as well, with the Islamic Republic's top military official saying on Wednesday that Iran would inflict heavy damage on the U.S. and Israel in the event of a military strike against its nuclear facilities.
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