Opinion: Bomb/Not Bomb

If you can’t hold two opposing ideas in your mind at the same time, Jewish life is not for you. 

Two weeks ago, at the massive AIPAC war council — I mean, gathering — in Washington, D.C., Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that an Iran on the cusp of nuclear weapons is another Auschwitz. The threat, he argued, is not just existential, but imminent. At Netanyahu’s high-profile meeting with President Barack Obama, he conveyed the message that if America isn’t prepared to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities soon, Israel won’t hesitate.

But this past week in Los Angeles, Israel’s President Shimon Peres told an audience of more than 1,000 community members at the Beverly Hilton that there is a chance for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Although he didn’t say, “There’s no rush,” in those exact words, he implied as much.

And then, just a few days after Peres’ visit, Meir Dagan came to town. Dagan is the former chief of Mossad who, until he left his post last year, was primarily responsible for delaying and disabling Iran’s nuclear weapons capability. At a private reception in Bel Air on Saturday night, he told a few dozen well-heeled Israel supporters that for Israel to attack any time soon would be a huge mistake.

The Israeli-born philanthropist Daphne Ziman hosted Dagan at her home, and according to several attendees at the private event (press wasn’t invited), he did not hold back.

He told the group that the key in Iran is regime change. It’s not about eliminating nuclear weapons — Israel will have to live with an Iran with nuclear power — but the regime.

Dagan said an attack would not cause permanent damage, and that if you bomb, you will unite Iranians around their regime.

Iran, he said, can be turned into an ally. Its population is largely young, and many in the new generation are pro-American. And there’s a way of tapping into them, though as long as the current regime is in power, that will be impossible.

Nuclear power in Iran is a reality, but war will bring uncertainty and an unknown outcome, he said.

The real focus, Dagan concluded, should be Syria. The tragic oppression in Syria offers the West an opportunity to support opposition and bring it into a Western alliance. The revolution there is less about Islamic fundamentalism and more about standing up against brutality, Dagan said.

Why was Dagan so straightforward, breaking a code of omertà that had sealed the lips of past Mossad directors? The Israeli government is too focused on winning elections, he said, it’s not about leadership. Therefore, Dagan said he’s not willing to mince words anymore. 

Sunday evening, in an interview on CBS’ “60 Minutes,” Dagan said much the same thing, but to the world.

“You have said publicly that bombing Iran now is the stupidest idea you’ve ever heard,” correspondent Lesley Stahl stated. “That’s a direct quote.”

“An attack on Iran before you are exploring all other approaches is not the right way how to do it,” Dagan replied. 

Dagan said the window of action on Iran could be as long as three years, and if any country should attack, it should be the United States.

“The issue of Iran armed with a nuclear capability is not an Israeli problem,” he told Stahl. “It’s an international problem.”

Dagan was in Los Angeles to receive an award from the Israeli Leadership Council on Sunday night at the Beverly Hilton. It was a huge, festive event with a performance by Israeli singer Rita, and honoring former Consul General Ehud Danoch along with Dagan. 

Dagan received his award with a gracious, brief and non-political speech. (He said he had no idea how large, vital and powerful the Israeli Jewish community is in Los Angeles. Which made me wonder: Wasn’t he head of the Mossad? If he was in the dark about Los Angeles, how much does he really know about Tehran?)

But there you have it: The prime minister of Israel is hinting Israel can’t wait to “act”; the president and former Mossad chief are saying “hold on.” Netanyahu compares Iranian nukes to Auschwitz; Dagan is saying, free Syria. Dagan says Iranians are essentially rational; Netanyahu says they’re nuts, willing to destroy themselves to destroy Israel.

At the Peres event Thursday night, I asked Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren how an Israeli prime minister makes a final decision, given all the conflicting advice and information. Before he was ambassador, Oren was one of Israel’s preeminent historians, so naturally he reached back for precedents.

Peres is the last active Israeli leader who was around in 1948, when, as Oren pointed out, then-U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall warned Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion that the surrounding Arab armies would crush Israel if he declared independence. Ben-Gurion risked the declaration.

And, in 1967, Prime Minister Levi Eshkol faced similar life-and-death decisions over whether and when to launch a preemptive war against surrounding Arab armies.

President Peres took part in all those agonizing, historic decisions. This moment, I said to Oren, seems to be like those — full of dread and portent and absolutely conflicting opinions. Has Oren ever asked the president how, ultimately, a prime minister decides?

“We’ve spoken about it for hours,” Oren told me. “And I remember one time he said to me that, at the end of the day, a leader has to lead.”