JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s military chief objected last year to a proposal to attack Iranian nuclear sites by Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who retaliated by cutting the general’s tenure, an Israeli newspaper reported Wednesday.
Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi, who retires next month, believed that “initiating a war will only bring disaster upon Israel” and won Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “promise that his view would be heard,” the Haaretz daily said.
“This had a fatal impact on (Ashkenazi’s) relationship with the defense minister,” said the unsourced report by columnist Aluf Benn, who has broken stories on secret cabinet debates.
Ashkenazi, a career infantryman, took command of Israel’s armed forces in 2007 after his predecessor, Dan Halutz, resigned in disgrace over the inconclusive Lebanon war the year before.
Citing professional considerations, Barak announced last April that Ashkenazi’s four-year term would not be extended by a year, as is customary. The defense minister named Yoav Galant, the general in charge of Israel’s Gaza front, to succeed him.
“The impression is that Galant is more aggressive on Iran and will not block Netanyahu and Barak, who are eager to go into battle” against Iran, the Haaretz report said.
The Netanyahu government has been publicly circumspect on resorting to force against Iran. Israel sees a potential mortal threat in its arch-foe’s nuclear program but would face big tactical and diplomatic hurdles in trying to take it on alone.
Some analysts assess that the prospects of an imminent Israeli war on Iran have ebbed, thanks to the perceived success of diplomatic and covert actions against Tehran..
Israel has endorsed international sanctions designed to get Iran, which denies having hostile designs, to curb its uranium enrichment. Netanyahu said Tuesday these measures should be shored up by the United States and other world powers posing a “credible military option” against the Iranians.
Haaretz described a rift between Israel’s two most powerful elected leaders and the heads of the security services, who it said have been “moderates” like Ashkenazi when it came to Iran.
One of those officials, Mossad director Meir Dagan, stepped down last week, saying in a valedictory briefing that Iran would not be able to produce a nuclear bomb before 2015 and that Israel should not rush into military confrontation.
Another official named by Haaretz, military intelligence general Amos Yadlin, retired last month. The third, Shin Bet domestic security chief Yuval Diskin, ends his term in May.
Haaretz said “2010 went by without a war with Iran. In the winter no one goes to war because the clouds limit air force operations. But in 2011, a conflict is brewing.”
While the new crop of generals and spymasters could prove more cooperative to war orders from the Netanyahu government, its inexperience may also make Israel vulnerable to reprisals from Iran and its Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian allies.
Jahangir Arasli of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis, a Dubai- and Beirut-based think-tank, said Israel’s enemies could even be “emboldened to test the water” by firing first.
That risk, Arasli said in a report, “will potentially increase significantly, culminating by summer 2011. However, the stage is getting prearranged and a spiral may start to unfold as early as this spring.”
Editing by Mark Heinrich