Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 December 2007
Issue No. 875
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tel Aviv rocked

A crisis meeting indicates that Israel faces a strategic emergency following a US intelligence report that sees no threat in Iran, writes Saleh Al-Naami

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Clockwise from top left: Ahmadinejad; Bush; Gates; Levni, Olmert and Barak at an Israeli cabinet meeting

The mobile phone of Dr Shlomo Segev, private physician of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, rang at around 6pm last Wednesday. It was Olmert's private secretary, asking Segev to postpone the appointment scheduled in Olmert's home, and in the presence of his wife, to schedule an operation to remove the cancerous prostate tumour Olmert suffers from. This appointment was cancelled due to an important security development -- at that time Olmert was heading an emergency meeting of the heads of the security and intelligence agencies and representatives of the Israeli atomic energy agency, as well as propaganda experts and the ministers of foreign affairs and defence. On the agenda were the claims of an American intelligence report stating that Iran had, since 2003, halted development of its nuclear arms programme. Those attending the meeting agreed that the report was a resounding blow for Israel, and some described it as a "major intelligence and diplomatic failure".

During this meeting, Olmert's tone was sharp and decisive. He directed the heads of intelligence agencies and representatives of the nuclear energy agency to "employ all of Israel's abilities and intelligence capacity to show that the American report interpreted intelligence information incorrectly". Israeli journalist Ben Kasbit, who has close ties with the intelligence agencies, says that the head of Mossad, Meir Dagan, promised Olmert during the meeting that his agency would aim to prove to the world that in addition to the nuclear arms programme discontinued in 2003 and the nuclear programme for peaceful purposes that Iran is still developing, a third, secret programme exists that Iran has successfully hidden until now. Dagan promised that his agency would cooperate with others in an attempt to prove that the Iranians are trying through this secret programme to acquire military nuclear abilities without the outside world knowing.

As for propaganda, it was decided during this meeting that a relentless campaign would be waged against the American report, but not by official Israeli agencies. It was agreed during the meeting that on official military and political levels in Israel it is prohibited to appear as though Israel wants to push the American administration towards military confrontation with Iran at any price. It was thus decided that this campaign would be undertaken by Israeli propaganda experts in cooperation with retired generals, atomic energy experts, and retired heads of intelligence agencies, and in coordination with the heads of Jewish groups in the United States and all American parties that have criticised the report.

Although the basis of the propaganda campaign against the report has not been announced, a week since its commencement one can see the mechanisms used to meet its goals, and they appear contradictory and weak. Participants in the Israeli propaganda campaign have doubts about the professionalism of the report, claiming that the Americans have interpreted intelligence information incorrectly and incompletely. They also doubt the motivations of the 16 top officials in American intelligence agencies who crafted the report, many of the campaigners claiming that they issued the report based on the lessons of the war on Iraq, when the American administration justified its war on information offered by American intelligence claiming that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction while this information was later proven wrong. Those running the Israeli campaign claim that the authors of the report wanted to prevent President Bush from waging war against Iran through publicly undermining the reasons for going to war.

Yet the Israeli propagandists contradict themselves in also claiming that the report was issued with the encouragement of Bush himself, seeking justification to not wage war against Iran since it is clearly impossible for him to do so following the report's issue. So as to add a personal character to the intelligence report, Olmert's government has allowed the leaking of a report issued by researchers in the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs that claims that Bush has decided not to wage war against Iran due to his present weakness. The Israeli media had previously embellished the issue with appropriate quotes taken from a number of top Israeli officials praising Bush's determination to put an end to Tehran's nuclear programme.

Yet these Israeli propaganda efforts have not succeeded in convincing most of the Israeli media. All of the intelligence affairs commentators in Israeli newspapers, such as Ronin Bregman, Yossi Melman, Amir Oren and others, stress that the American report relied on exactly the same intelligence information available to Israel, and that the Israeli intelligence agencies do not possess any information American intelligence agencies don't have. These commentators also stress that top officials in Israeli intelligence agencies know well that they can't refute the professionalism of American intelligence agencies.

Israel has been extremely embarrassed on political and security levels by the American report because it shows Israel -- and particularly its intelligence agencies -- as a party seeking to involve Washington in a confrontation with Tehran without justification. Yet Israel has not only lost diplomatically, and in terms of media coverage. The report has also been a blow to the Israeli strategy of raising the slogan that "a nuclear Iran is a threat to world peace and security."

While Israel's bet on the Bush administration thwarting Iran's nuclear programme through military action has failed since the report's appearance, Tel Aviv realises that even the next American president won't be able to resort to a military option in confronting Iran after this report. At the same time, Tel Aviv also realises that its ability to convince the world's nations to impose strict economic sanctions on Tehran has weakened, despite the promise of Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to continue efforts to place further pressure on Tehran. Tel Aviv knows that many of the world's countries that have economic and commercial relations with Tehran have breathed a sigh of relief following the report, because it allows them to resist Washington's attempts to recruit them into an alliance against Iran.

Yet Israel's predicament following the publication of the American report does not stop here. According to decision- makers in Tel Aviv, Iran constitutes a strategic threat to Israel even without nuclear arms. According to General Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, Israeli minister of infrastructure, Iran possesses a massive arsenal of ballistic missiles that could cover all of Israel. Tsevi Bareil, a well-known Israeli researcher and writer, states that the American report has caused Tel Aviv to lose "an important strategic wealth", and that Israel will find it difficult to continue marketing the stereotype it tried to spread about Iran in order to sustain on its policies in the region. For example, it will now be difficult for Israel to demand that Syria cut its relations with Iran as a condition for resuming peace negotiations. Roni Daniel, military commentator for Israeli television Channel Two, holds that the report is a harsh blow to Israel's attempts to grow closer to Arab states -- particularly Gulf States -- because it undermines Israel's argument that the Iranian threat forms a common denominator between them, creating groundwork for cooperation and mutual understanding, and even an alliance based on shared interests.

Yet most terrifying to Israeli circles is the fact that the American report paves the way for a new stage in relations between Tehran and Washington. Tel Aviv watched with extreme worry as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attended the recent Gulf summit. Strategic circles in Tel Aviv claim that Ahmadinejad's attendance would not happened without a green light from Washington. At the same time, these circles worryingly point to intensified meetings between Iranian and American diplomats in Baghdad on the invitation of Nuri Al-Maliki's government with the aim of decreasing levels of violence in Iraq. Similarly, Tel Aviv is pointing to agreement on the new president of Lebanon, claiming that it indicates that a new stage of relations between the two parties is about to ensue. In general, decision-makers in Israel hold that the American report is a diplomatic gain for Iran.

In addition, the report represents a blow to the credibility of Israeli intelligence agencies that have continued to portray themselves as offering indisputable intelligence information. This development is an extremely negative one for Israel because the West -- and in particular Washington -- has often made decisions on the basis of intelligence provided by Israel. Doubt over the credibility of Israeli intelligence agencies has reached the point of Yossi Melman, intelligence correspondent for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, accusing Israeli agencies of "cooking up" intelligence information to serve the personal interests of Israeli leaders. Melman has urged his government to respond to the suggestion of the former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, to engage in dialogue with Iran.

It appears, however, that decision- makers in Israel remain intent on a confrontational policy. Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman noted in an interview with Channel Two last Friday that Israel was now alone confronting Iran. Whether this declaration is prelude to unilateral action remains to be seen.

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