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Where does the Israeli security establishment stand on attacking Iran?

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Ariel Schalit/AP/File

(Read caption) Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak at a press conference. He has gone on the offense against former security officials who have been criticizing the administration's policy on Iran in advance of Israel's elections.

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In an interview released Thursday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak made no bones about attacking the commitment to Israel's security of two retired senior security officials.

Former Mossad boss Meir Dagan and former Shin Bet boss Yuval Diskin have joined former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in recent weeks in warning against an Israeli attack on Iran any time soon. Mr. Barak dismissed their views as serving Iranian interests, saying the "Olmert gang is traveling around the world and speaking in a way that is serving Iran."

With Israeli elections now looking set for early September, and already being framed by the Israeli press as a referendum on the hawkish Iran policy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, expect a flood of statements, arguments and analysis on this issue in the months ahead.

Traditionally in Israeli politics, former security bosses have held a lot of sway, both directly as in the case of Barak (he entered politics after serving as chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces) and more broadly in the court of public opinion. There are currently 18 former top tier security leaders in Israel: seven former heads of the international spy agency, Mossad; five former leaders of the Shin Bet internal security service; and six former heads of the IDF.

The current head of the IDF, Gen. Benny Gantz, indicated recently that war should not be imminent, that Iran is a rational actor and predicted that it will be deterred from seeking a nuclear bomb out of fear of what comes next.

Where do the former security chiefs stand? Here's an incomplete list of stated positions and leanings. I hope to update this as more people speak or change their positions.

Doves

1. Meir Dagan. The former head of the Mossad, who served from 2002-2011, called a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran "the stupidest thing I have ever heard" in March. He said that full success in destroying Iran's nuclear facilities is unlikely, and that the likely outcome would be for the country to redouble it's clandestine nuclear efforts in response to attack and remove all supervision from the International Atomic Energy Agency. He also worries about a broader war. "It will be followed by a war with Iran. It is the kind of thing where we know how it starts, but not how it will end."

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2. Yuval Diskin. Mr. Diskin ran the Shin Bet from 2005-2011. In April, he declared both Netanyahu and Barak unfit to lead Israel, accused them of "misleading the public on the Iran issue," and said that contrary to their position that military action would deter Iran "many experts say that an Israeli attack would accelerate the Iranian nuclear race."

3. Gabi Ashkhenazi. Gen. Ashkenazi, who was chief of staff of the IDF from 2007-2011, said in April that an attack on Iran would be a bad idea now, while expressing grave concern about Iran's nuclear program. “I think we still have time. It is not tomorrow morning" when Israel needs to act, he said. “It is better to persuade our friends in the world and the region that it is a global threat and [the government] has done a good job on this."

3. Shaul Mofaz. Gen. (Ret.) Mofaz was IDF chief of staff between 1998-2002, leaving his post when he was appointed defense minister. Mofaz is now a leader of the Kadima party, an opponent of Netanyahu's Likud that is now moving into campaign mode. In April he spoke in favor of Diskin's criticisms of the government on Iran issues, and said that their public attacks on the former Shin Bet head "suggested a fear" of responding to the substance of his criticisms.

4. Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. Gen. (Ret.) Lipkin-Shahak was head of the IDF from 1995-1998 and then entered politics, seeking to unseat Netanyahu from the premiership in 1999. He hasn't spoken about Iran's nuclear issue, but has taken consistently more dovish positions than the current government. While running for the Knesset in 1999 he described Netanyahu as "dangerous" for Israel's security and not to be trusted. Last year he was a signatory of the Israeli Peace Initiative, which calls for "the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip on the basis of the 1967 lines, and territory swaps on a 1:1 basis, in limited scope" and for Jerusalem to "be the capital of both peoples, whereas the Jewish neighborhoods, the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter will be under Israeli sovereignty and the temple mount shall remain under a special no-sovereignty regime (“G-d sovereignty”) with special arrangements. Israeli Jerusalem will be acknowledged as the capital of Israel." These positions put him sharply at odds with Netanyahu and his supporters.

5. Yaakov (Jacob) Perry. The former Shin Bet chief doesn't appear to have spoken about Iran recently. But last year he bemoaned the lack of lines of communication between Israel and Iran on the nuclear issue. He's also a signatory to the Israel Peace Initiative, and said in 2011 about the effort: “We are isolated internationally and seen to be against peace.... I hope this will make a small contribution to pushing our prime minister forward. It is about time that Israel initiates something on peace.”

6. Ami Ayalon. Ayalon ran the Shin Bet from 1995-2000, then went into politics with the Labour party, Likud's principal opponent in the upcoming elections. He's a signer of the Israel Peace Initiative. I can find no recent comments from him on Iran's nuclear program, but he's generally considered to be in the dovish camp, preferring a focus on Israeli-Palestinian peace. Recently, he's been calling for a unilateral Israeli settlement withdrawal from the West Bank, and complained that focusing on Iran is hurting more important peace efforts.

Hawks.

1. Ehud Barak. Gen. (Ret.) Barak was IDF chief of staff from 1991-1995. He is now the defense minister and deputy prime minister in Netanyahu's government, and is very much in the "war is coming" camp. "Israel can not afford to be duped," he said in late April. “The No. 1 responsibility is to ensure that our fate will remain firmly in our own hands.” He has dismissed the criticism of Dagan and others as politically motivated and dangerous for Israel.

2. Moshe Yaalon. Gen. Yaalon was IDF chief of staff from 2002-2005 and is now a member of the Knesset for Netanyahu's Likud and serves in the government as Minister of Strategic Affairs. He said in early May, responding to speculation that a possible attack on Iran has been taken off the table until at least after the Sept. 2012 elections, that "the election will not be a consideration in the Iranian issue. If we need to make decisions we will make them." Deputies in his office have repeatedly voiced skepticism that multilateral attacks with Iran over its nuclear program will make any progress.

Unclear.

1. Danny Yatom. The former head of the Mossad appeared to both take issue with Dagan's warnings, and to back him, last year. "The backlash from a strike on Iran's nuclear sites will not be as bad for Israel as will an Iran armed with nuclear weapons," he said at one point. "I don't think that those predicting apocalyptic repercussions of a strike on Tehran are correct, and even if they are, Israel can't afford to wonder if Tehran will go crazy and bomb us." Haaretz paraphrased him as saying on Israel radio however, that "he too opposed the idea of attacking Iran as it would not achieve the intended goal." If I had to guess, he's in favor of an attack if an Iranian nuclear bomb is imminent, but doesn't believe that point has been reached. But I can find no clear, contextualized comments from him in the press.

Follow Dan Murphy on Twitter.


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