By JODI RUDOREN AUG. 21, 2015
JERUSALEM — A former Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, revealed new details to his biographers about how close Israel came to striking Iran’s military facilities in 2010, 2011 and 2012 and why it did not despite his and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s desire to do so, according to interview excerpts aired on Israeli television Friday night.
Mr. Barak, who also previously served as Israel’s prime minister, said that he and Mr. Netanyahu were ready to attack Iran each year but that in 2010, the military chief of staff said Israel lacked the “operational capability”; in 2011, two key ministers waffled at the last minute; and in 2012, the timing did not work out because of a joint United States-Israel military exercise and visit by the American defense secretary. He noted that the two ministers who balked in 2011, Moshe Yaalon and Yuval Steinitz, “are the most militant about attacking Iran” today.
The interview excerpts were aired by Israel’s Channel 2, which stressed that Mr. Barak had sought to prevent them from being broadcast, but that they had been approved by Israel’s military censor. Reached late Friday by telephone, Mr. Barak confirmed that the recordings were authentic but said he had provided the information on background to the authors, Ilan Kfir and Danny Dor, whose book, “Barak: The Wars of My Life,” came out this week in Hebrew.
“It was not supposed to be published,” Mr. Barak said. “I don’t want to comment on it. I tried to convince them not to broadcast it. But it’s true, it’s my voice. I don’t deny my voice, it can be recognized.”
Mr. Barak was known at the time to be a prime advocate for a unilateral Israeli military strike on Iran’s nuclear plants, something Washington strongly opposed.
In the weeks since the Obama administration and five other world powers signed a deal with Iran to restrict its nuclear program, Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Yaalon — now defense minister — and Mr. Steinitz have all stressed that Israel retains a military option to stop Iran from making a bomb. But most Israeli experts say a strike would be all but impossible now because of the continuing diplomatic process, and likely far more technically challenging than when it was most seriously considered, in 2012.
In the interviews broadcast Friday, Mr. Barak said “we’d planned to do it” that year. He recalled “demanding” of Leon E. Panetta, then the secretary of defense, to postpone the joint military exercise, and succeeding, but still being unable to find the right moment.
“You ask, you demand that America respect your sovereignty to make a decision that you want to do that, even if America is opposed to that and it is against its interests,” Mr. Barak said. “So you can’t, you yourself, in the opposite direction, try to force America — precisely when it is here carrying out an exercise that’s been scheduled in advance. That’s how it got tied up in 2012.”
In 2011, Mr. Barak said, Mr. Netanyahu told him and Avigdor Lieberman, then the foreign minister, that Mr. Yaalon and Mr. Steinitz were on board with a planned strike. But when military leaders briefed them as part of so-called Forum of Eight top ministers on how complex it would be, both demurred. “You can see, in front of our very eyes, them melting,” he recounted. “You see it in their reactions, their questions, their faces.”
“Had they not changed their minds, that would have created a majority,” Mr. Barak noted, “and then we might have convened the cabinet.”
Channel 2 said Mr. Steinitz, who is now Israel’s energy minister and its leading spokesman against the Iran deal, issued a statement wondering “how things of this sort get past the censor” and saying he would not confirm, deny or comment on Mr. Barak’s account. Mr. Yaalon’s office, Channel 2 said, also said he would not speak about meetings of the inner cabinet “and distorted and tendentious accounts, in particular.”
The interviews also confirmed a longstanding sense that Israel’s security chiefs held back the political leadership, particularly in 2010. Mr. Barak described a meeting “in a side room” of “a very small group” – Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Lieberman, himself, the top military man at the time, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, and the heads of the three intelligence agencies.
“In the end, we need a statement to be made by the chief of staff that the plan, as is, has ripened, has crossed the threshold of operational capability,” Mr. Barak explained. “And the answer wasn’t affirmative. That couldn’t be gotten out of him. He said that only once he’d been painted into a corner, and he realized that there was going to be a decision. And then, with that, he created a situation in which we couldn’t move ahead.”
Jonathan Rosen contributed reporting.