JERUSALEM — Israel’s military leaders refused two years ago to put the country’s army on alert for immediate action against Iran, telling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israel was not ready to take on Iran alone, according to a new documentary that aired here Monday.
In an hour-long investigative report, the Israeli television program “Uvda” said that Netanyahu had ordered the heightened military alert during a meeting in late 2010. The report described the country’s top military and intelligence leaders, Israel Defense Forces chief Gabi Ashkenazi and the director of the Mossad spy agency, Meir Dagan, as “shocked” by Netanyahu’s move and said they both argued strongly against the measure.
Dagan argued that placing the military on heightened alert could lead to “an illegal decision to go to war,” the program said. Ashkenazi argued that putting the military on alert for an immediate strike would be a step that the country could not easily back way from, the program said.
“This is not something you do unless you are certain you want to use it at the end,” Ashkenazi was quoted as having said. “This is not something you step down from.”
In an on-camera interview for the program, Barak confirmed that Netanyahu issued the order, but he said it was not carried out because Ashkenazi said the military couldn’t carry out an attack on Iran. Ashkenazi denied that, however, and said the decision not to go forward had been a political one.
Israeli news organizations reported at the time that there had been a dispute between Barak and Ashkenazi, but the details had never been revealed.
The report renews questions about whether Israel would be able to take unilateral action against Iran over that country’s nuclear enrichment program, which Israel claims is intended to develop a weapon but that Iran says is for peaceful purposes only.
Publicly, Israel’s leaders have always said that “every option is on the table” when it comes to stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Defense analysts, however, have argued that it would be extremely difficult – if not impossible – for Israel to carry out an attack without U.S. support.
Since 2010, Iran has reinforced its nuclear facilities and, according to Israeli intelligence reports, moved much of its nuclear program below ground. Former CIA head Michael Hayden has said that a successful strike on Iran was “beyond their (Israel’s) capacity.”
In Israel, however, many believe that Netanyahu and Barak continue to favor unilateral Israeli action and have moved to replace opponents of such a move with others. Since 2010, Dagan has been replaced by Tamir Pardo as head of the Mossad and Ashkenazi has been replaced by Benyamin Gantz as head of the IDF.
In their retirement, both Dagan and Ashkenazi have been outspoken about their opposition to attacking Iran over its nuclear program.
In August, during an interview with Israel’s Channel Two news, Ashkenazi argued that sanctions and diplomacy needed to remain the priority on Iran. Asked if Israel should consider a military strike, Ashkenazi said "We’re still not there.”
Dagan has said in repeated interviews that bombing Iran would be “a mistake.”
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter: @sheeraf