Although no decision has been made yet on whether to attack Iran, it seems a real war broke out in Jerusalem on Thursday between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres over the merits and timing of such an attack.
In a succession of interviews on Thursday, Peres warned that Israel "cannot go it alone" in striking Iran. In two separate television interviews on Israel's two major commercial television channels Peres said that while a nuclear Iran would amount to an existential threat to Israel, Israel must not act unless it first secures U.S. support for the move.
"I have no doubt that should Iran obtain nuclear weapons it would be a grave threat and that we must treat this matter very seriously," the president said. On the reports that the U.S. considers it premature to launch an attack now, Peres said, "it is clear that we cannot do this single-handedly and that we must coordinate with America."
One official in Jerusalem said Netanyahu was "angry and disappointed" over Peres' remarks, adding that "Peres has forgotten what the role of president of the State of Israel entails. He has overstepped the boundaries of his authority and forgotten that he was wrong three times on national security issues." A senior source elaborated that Peres "was wrong when he thought the Oslo Accords would herald in a new Middle East; it turned out that the peace process claimed the lives of more than 1,000 Israelis."
"Peres was wrong when he said that the 2005 disengagement plan [when Israel evacuated settlements from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria] would bring peace to the Gaza Strip; instead Israelis have had to face rocket fire from Gaza," the official continued. "His biggest mistake was in 1981, when he opined that the bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor by the Israel Air Force was a mistake, but luckily, as it turned out, Prime Minister Menachem Begin ignored him." The top official stressed that "only two days ago Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that Israel would be wiped off the map; this regime must not be allowed to lay its hands on a nuclear bomb."
One of the ministers belonging to the so-called Forum of Nine inner Cabinet told Israel Hayom that Peres' comments were "very serious; this amounts to a direct challenge to the very legitimacy of the political echelon. When all is said and done, the political leaders call the shots, not the president, who should stick to his ceremonial duties. Such statements compromise Israel's maneuverability on the world stage and also inflict damage on its democracy."
Another official said that "the remarks compromise Israel's security; when the ayatollahs in Iran hear what he said they will conclude that they can continue developing a nuclear bomb and still sleep well at night."
The frosty relations between Netanyahu and Peres reached an all-time low about two weeks ago in the wake of the president's meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in Jerusalem. The prime minister's office accused Peres of meddling with policy on Iran and adopting views that undercut the efforts led by the political leadership.
In the run-up to the 1981 strike on Iraq's Osirak reactor, Peres, as leader of the opposition, tried to dissuade Begin from launching the attack. The mission was postponed several times due to concerns over a breach in field security and other issues. Nuclear scientist Prof. Uzi Even reportedly leaked word of the materializing top secret plans to Peres, who proceeded to write a letter to Begin in which he laid out his strong disapproval of the move. "Having seriously considered the matter and the national implications, I feel this is my ultimate civic duty to advise you to refrain from this action. I am among those who believe you should not do this, particularly not at this current point in time and under the current circumstances. My voice is not a lone voice."
When he was asked Thursday about his opposition to the 1981 strike, Peres said that attack was counterproductive in that it convinced Iraq to seek a centrifuge-based uranium enrichment program that would have continued had the U.S. not attacked Iraq in the Gulf War. He also said that when the Osirak reactor was bombed, its threat to Israel was insignificant as it lacked certain essential components. "I was right then and I am right today," Peres told Channel 2 on Thursday.
Peres' media blitz also angered politicians, who were quick to respond Thursday. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud) said the president had "broken the rules of the game and stepped into the political and diplomatic fray. His views on political and security matters have been proven wrong time and again. He opposed the attack on Iraq's reactor and prior to the 2005 pullout from the Gaza Strip, he argued with me that the agricultural greenhouses that Israel was set to leave behind would become flourishing gardens and that half of Gaza's population would engage in agriculture."
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) also said the president should not have expressed his views in public. "I hold the president in high regard, but I believe he erred when he publicly stepped into the fray on an issue that is clearly defined as within the prerogatives of an elected government, regardless of what the right decisions on this matter are," Sa'ar said. "We should also be cautious lest we make statements that could reduce some of the international pressure on Iran."
Coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin (Likud) said it was "unfortunate that the president has reverted to the same Peres of the Oslo Accords who wants us to once again roll the dice when it comes to the security of the citizens and to adopt an 'everything will be alright' attitude."
"We cannot act recklessly when it comes to the state's security just because of hugs and medals from overseas," he said, referring to Peres' recent high-profile visit to the U.S. in which he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.
Environmental Protection Minister, Gilad Erdan (Likud) said that "Peres' predictions cannot be taken seriously. In 2005 Peres told Le Figaro that Club Med hotels would be built where the settlements stood in the Gaza Strip when Israel leaves; instead, these areas turned into desolate ruins and rocket-launching havens."
"The Iranian leadership always reacts with gleeful joy whenever someone questions the threat posed by the Islamic republic, regardless of whether the words are uttered by the president or not" Erdan told Army Radio on Friday.
Close associates of the president told Israel Radio on Friday that Peres refused to be dragged into a war of words or any kind of confrontation with the prime minister. Peres voiced his position very clearly, said one associate. Peres respects Netanyahu and will continue to work with him, they said.
Haim Ramon, a former Labor and Kadima MK who is considered close to Peres, came to the president's defense on Friday, telling Army Radio that Netanyahu had no right to attack Peres as he himself has used his services on multiple occasions, dispatching Peres to various diplomatic forums as the representative of the Israeli government, including on sensitive matters. "Netanyahu is the one who effectively made it acceptable for Peres to address politically charged issues," Ramon said.
Labor Party Chairwoman MK Shelly Yachimovich was also among those shielding Peres, saying the "prime minister's attack on the president is aggressive and rude; the fact that he is hiding behind associates does not reduce the harshness of his reaction to the president's comments, in which he voiced deep concern over Israel's status and security in a responsible way."
Meretz Chairwoman MK Zahava Gal-On also thought that Peres' comments were a coherent, sane voice "in the face of a crazy government."
MK Nachman Shai (Kadima) attacked the prime minister's associates, saying that the "attempts to silence the president are ridiculous and pathetic. The president's comments stem from a sense of responsibility and even from his authority as an elder statesman; he should be listened to."
MK Aryeh Eldad (National Union) said that "Peres opposes saving Israel from an existential threat: Once the secret transcripts are declassified we will learn that he also opposed conquering Canaan during biblical times, when Joshua led the tribes into the Land of Israel."