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Israel abuzz over reports that attacks on Iran were planned, abandoned

Israel abuzz over reports that attacks on Iran were planned, abandoned
In 2012, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, right, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (GPO / Getty Images)

Accounts published in Israel over the weekend suggest that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to strike Iran more than once in recent years but met with internal opposition.

On Friday, Israel's Channel 2 news broadcast excerpts from a taped interview that former Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave to the authors of his upcoming biography. Barak, who served as defense minister in Netanyahu's second government during 2009 and 2013, described three occasions from 2010 to 2012 when plans to strike Iran fell through for different reasons.

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Israel's top leaders at the time -- Netanyahu, Barak and then-Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman -- reportedly believed that Iran would soon enter a "zone of immunity," beyond which a strike would be more complicated and less effective. In advance of what would have been the next stage of government decision-making, the three held a meeting with Israel's top security chiefs, including the chief of staff and the heads of the country's intelligence agencies: Mossad, Shin Bet and military intelligence.

"At the decisive moment, the army's answer was that [Israel's] cumulative capabilities did not pass the threshold of an operation," Barak said in the interview with Danny Dor and Ilan Kfir, authors of his new biography. In other words, the military was not ready to strike Iran.

When the matter next came up in 2011, the military's new chief of staff, Benny Gantz, said the army did have the necessary capabilities and a wider security cabinet of eight ministers was convened, according to Barak. At that point, he said, two of Netanyahu's more hawkish ministers, Moshe Yaalon and Yuval Steinitz, objected that the potential losses Israel could face were too great.

The following year, plans coincided with a joint military exercise with the United States and Israel did not want to implicate its important ally and get into diplomatic trouble, Barak said. He added that he persuaded U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to postpone the exercise by several months but that ultimately, the new timing was inconvenient as well.

Accurate or not, Barak's detailed account of such sensitive discussions caused anger and concern among Israeli leaders and defense observers.

Netanyahu's office did not issue an official response. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement that he would not comment on the matter, particularly not on deliberately "distorted versions" of events. A statement from Steinitz said he would not comment on matters discussed in closed meetings and that he regarded revealing information from cabinet meetings "very gravely."

The timing or purpose of the publication was not immediately clear and subject to speculation. Barak reportedly objected to broadcasting the recordings and tried to prevent Channel 2 from airing the sensitive tape, although he had given the interview willingly for the book.

Tzahi Hanegbi, head of the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, which oversees sensitive security discussions, was surprised that military censors permitted the publication and said he intended to summon the chief censor to the committee in the near future.

"I can't understand what reasons could have possibly justified the publication," he told Israel Radio.

The censor, entrusted with screening information for potential harm to national security, often permits Israeli media to publish sensitive information that appeared previously in foreign reports. According to Hanegbi, however, 90% of what Barak said had not been published before at all. He wouldn't say whether he believed that Barak had caused damage to Israel's security but said the publication "does not serve Israel."

Interior Minister Silvan Shalom expressed concern that sensitive discussions could be tainted if security and political officials avoided speaking their mind for fear of being "outed" in the media.

Most sensitive material is cleared for publication after 30 years, although some remains under wraps even longer. "If everything comes out of intimate forums in two, three years, this changes the game rules dramatically," Shalom said.

Sobelman is a special correspondent

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