Bibi in a Box

Article excerpt

Byline: Dan Ephron

After months of bluster on Iran, the Israeli leader is losing steam.

Benjamin Netanyahu was fuming. For the first time in months, the Israeli leader had allowed a discussion in his security cabinet about Iran's nuclear program and it wasn't going well. Several cabinet members were questioning the wisdom of defying the United States, Israel's ally and protector, by weighing a strike on Iran before the American election in November, according to a source familiar with the details. The grinding back-and-forth went on for seven hours. When it came time for the security chiefs to weigh in, at least two of them disputed the premise Netanyahu had been advancing--that Israel's window for an attack would last only through this year, before Iran moves its nuclear components to hardened sites underground. "You can interpret the intelligence in different ways ... and some people were saying the time frame is longer," the source told Newsweek.

The next morning, leaks from the Sept. 4 meeting appeared in the Israeli press, prompting Netanyahu to cancel a second parley. Discussions at security-cabinet meetings are highly classified and the leak was unusual. For Netanyahu, the message was clear: members of his own government had reservations about his direction on Iran and wanted the public to know it.

Netanyahu is in a box. After hinting for months that he would attack Iran if the Obama administration didn't do more to stop its uranium enrichment, he now seems unable to marshal enough domestic support for military action. The setback could be temporary. His critics appear to be opposed more to the idea of disobeying Washington than going to war over Iranian nukes. (Some are deeply troubled by the public bickering between Washington and Jerusalem in recent weeks.) But the sheer scope of resistance at home--by members of the public; the military's senior echelon; and now, apparently, Netanyahu's defense minister, Ehud Barak--seems for the time being, at least, too vast to overcome.

Barak's shift marks the most significant change over the past few weeks. For much of the summer the defense chief had been Israel's most aggressive proponent of quick military action. "Barak is even more hawkish than Netanyahu on this issue," a former official who witnessed his decision making from up close told me in June. The source said Barak liked to tell people how, in the 1990s, he heard top American leaders pledge repeatedly to Israel that Washington would prevent Pakistan from crossing the nuclear threshold. When Islamabad did eventually break out, testing its first nuclear devices in 1998, the Clinton administration condemned the action and then went about quietly adjusting itself to the new reality in South Asia. The lesson Barak absorbed, according to the former official: even ironclad American assurances are never truly ironclad.

But the Obama administration has put in its time with Barak. At least a half-dozen times in the past year, he has made trips to Washington, where he usually meets with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Between the visits, U.S. military officials are on the phone with him almost every week. Though Barak denied in a recent Israeli newspaper interview that he and Netanyahu have moved apart on Iran, people who know him detect a change. "He was pressing on the Americans, and at some point he came to believe that they're serious [about preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons]," says Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat who worked alongside Barak for years and is now a contributing fellow with the left-leaning Israel Policy Forum in New York. "I think he also came to believe that the price Israel would pay in the relationship [with the United States] would far outweigh the advantages" of an attack on Iran.

Without support from Barak, who was an army general and one of Israel's most decorated soldiers before turning to politics, it's almost impossible to imagine Netanyahu undertaking an attack. …