One of the consequences of the disparities in threat perception and capabilities between the U.S. and Israel when it comes to Iran is that Israel has a strong incentive to pressure the U.S. into acting. Israel faces a graver and more imminent threat than the U.S. from an Iranian nuclear weapon given its proximity to Iran, the fact that Iran has repeatedly threatened Israel with violence and annihilation (and noting this does not automatically mean that Israel should strike at Iran, but by the same token pretending that this is not the case makes those who invoke the argument appear to be naively foolish), and the fact that Israel has been a frequent target of Iranian-sponsored terrorism that will only increase once Iran has a measure of nuclear deterrence. This is combined with the fact that by all accounts Israel is not equipped to destroy the Iranian nuclear program in its entirely but only to set it back a year or two, while the U.S. is assumed to have the aerial capability and munitions to destroy Iran’s nuclear sites in their entirety. The obvious result of all this is that Israel is engaged in a delicate dance to portray itself as willing to attack Iran at any time while working to convince the U.S. that Iran presents as large a threat to Israeli interests as it does to U.S. interests and thus is a job for the U.S. to take care of. Lest anyone accuse me of advancing pernicious theories about the Israel lobby (which would be a strange thing coming from me in light of this and this), let me state in the strongest possible terms that Israel’s actions on this front are both entirely understandable and entirely out in the open, and nothing more than run-of-the-mill statecraft.
Israel’s strategy to convince the U.S. to act has been to play up Iran’s willingness to use a bomb should it acquire one, reiterate its view that Iran is so far not being deterred by verbal threats and sanctions from ending its nuclear program, and insist that Iran has made greater progress on developing a weapon than has been realized. This strategy reached its climax yesterday when Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak first claimed that President Obama had received a new National Intelligence Estimate that was in line with Israel’s claim about Iran’s accelerated progress toward reaching nuclear capability, and then backtracked on the N.I.E. claim but said that there was an American intelligence report backing Israel’s view of the situation. John Schindler blogging at The XX Committee highlights how irregular and unprecedented it is for Barak to publicly release information about U.S. intelligence assessments, and Barak’s claims were immediately disputed by the U.S.
It is hard to overstate just how head scratching this move was by Barak. If the recent AP reporting that the CIA considers Israel to be a top counterintelligence threat is accurate, it is simply dumbfounding that Barak would go and publicly trumpet highly classified information coming from the U.S. that Washington clearly does not want getting out. It is also only going to understandably enrage the Obama administration, which has been publicly stating that Iran presents a vital threat to U.S. interests and that it will not tolerate Iran developing a nuclear weapon, all the while providing Israel with extra funds for military expenditures like Iron Dome, but keeping to its own timeline on Iran. Assuming that what Barak said is accurate, the White House is right to feel betrayed that classified intelligence it shared with Israel was blithely repeated to the press by Israel’s defense minister in an effort to pressure the U.S. into acting before it is ready to do so. If what Barak said is not accurate, then it is even worse. No matter what, it is not going to contribute to better U.S-Israeli coordination, and if anything it will make the U.S. think twice before sharing significant information with Jerusalem going forward. Barak’s leak is also not going to successfully pressure the U.S. into attacking Iran before it thinks it is necessary to do so, and one has to wonder what happened to Israel’s most decorated soldier’s penchant for strategic thinking.
On the one hand, it is surprising that Barak would do something like this considering that he appears to have a better relationship with Obama and other administration figures than Bibi Netanyahu does. Barak is the one who is constantly touting the unprecedented military and intelligence cooperation between Israel and the U.S. under Obama, and Obama has hinted that his relationship with Barak is stronger than it is with Netanyahu, telling Jeffrey Goldberg, “I think the prime minister — and certainly the defense minister — would acknowledge that we’ve never had closer military and intelligence cooperation.” If an Israeli official was going to do something boneheaded that damaged the level of trust with the U.S., I would not have guessed that Barak would be the man to do it. On the other hand, there is a reason that Barak, despite being Israel’s most decorated soldier and a former IDF chief of staff and prime minister, is widely distrusted and even reviled in his own country. The knock on Barak is that he has no convictions and is willing to do or say anything to secure his own position, explaining his recent bolting from Labor and forming his own Atzmaut (Independence) Party in order to remain as defense minister once Labor left the government coalition. His political instincts are anything but stellar, and his military instincts have come into question in recent years as well as he has publicly feuded with a succession of IDF chiefs of staff. In many ways, the casual leak of classified American intelligence is classic Barak, as he does anything necessary to further his own goal of pressuring the U.S. to strike Iran irrespective of what relationships get burned in the process. This time, however, Barak has actually undermined his own cause, and one can only hope that he has not caused long term damage to Israel and its relationship with the U.S.