Thursday, August 09, 2012

Is There A New NIE?

I've stuck my neck out on a very long limb by insisting that Israel will not attack Iran this year. I made my first public prediction back in February, when the "smart money" was betting on a June or July attack. Here we are in early August, and exactly as I predicted -- no Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.

One option I never considered was an American attack on Iran in 2012.

One of the pieces of evidence I used in support of my prediction that Israel would not attack in 2012 was the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), produced during the warmongering Bush presidency, which concluded that Iran had suspended its military nuclear program in 2003, and would be capable of producing an atomic weapon no earlier than 2015. It was a controversial NIE, and it generated praise from doves and consternation from hawks both here and abroad. But I thought precisely because the 2007 NIE was produced for a White House that claimed "axis of evil" status for Iran it had the ring of bitter truth.

When you make a prediction as I did, you better be prepared to either stick with it or adjust it as circumstances warrant. And I am now trying to figure out if circumstances warrant.

What has happened in the last 24 hours is that an Israeli journalist who likes to break big stories but who has less than a perfect batting record (see Dennis Ross's "red phone") has reported that unnamed "Western diplomats and Israeli officials" have told him that a new NIE has been delivered to the Obama White House with alarming new information that confirms the more threatening portrait of Iran touted by Israeli intelligence for the past 6 months.

Writes Haaretz's Barak Ravid:
This NIE report on Iran was supposed to have been submitted to Obama a few weeks ago, but it was revised to include new and alarming intelligence information about military components of Iran's nuclear program. Haaretz has learned that the report's conclusions are quite similar to those drawn by Israel's intelligence community.
The NIE report contends that Iran has made surprising, notable progress in the research and development of key components of its military nuclear program.
Now if this report is true, it is -- excuse the pun -- a bombshell. A National Intelligence Estimate is a classified document that presents the findings of the top spooks/analysts in the US intelligence community. They actually become pillars of American foreign policy. When an NIE changes as radically as this Israeli journalist is suggesting, it is a game changer.  But, here we are nearly 24 hours into the publication of this "exclusive" news report and I cannot find anyone who has independently corroborated, with either named or unnamed sources, the story that a new NIE has been produced. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who might have been one of Ravid's unnamed "Israeli officials," went on Israeli radio this morning to confirm the gist of the story -- that US intelligence now tracks "much, much" closer to Israeli intelligence, but Barak walked back from calling this new US intelligence an actual NIE.

To top things off, the reporter who broke the "exclusive" that has yet to be confirmed by any other news source went on an Israeli TV news show for a live interview, and then raised speculation (more like Israeli government wishful thinking) he has overheard that this new NIE might very well serve as the pretext for a possible "October surprise" attack by the Obama administration. And for me, at that point, we pass into a world of conspiracy theories and invisible goblins. You got my attention, working journalist, but your performance on the TV show is less than reassuring.

The truly foolish character in this episode so far is not the journalist, who has double-sourced his story. The foolish character is once again Ehud Barak. In Hebrew, there is a saying "ratz le-sapper la-chevreh" which means "run to tell your buds" and it refers to the rampant gossiping and loose lips of Israeli soldiers and politicians. There have been a string of high-level US administration visitors to Israel in the last few weeks (Scanlon, Clinton, Panetta), and it looks like Barak ran to breathlessly tell his buds, the local journalist du jour, that the US is now seeing Iranian intentions the same as Israel. And I have no doubt that it was Ravid's sources -- and not Ravid -- who used the words "National Intelligence Estimate."

This story could change by the minute or by the hour. So don't hold me to any of it. It seems intriguing, but it may turn out to be much ado about nothing.

So all I am saying is this: I still stand by my prediction -- no Israeli aerial attack on Iranian nuclear installations in 2012. If this report by Mr. Ravid is confirmed (and not simply bounced around the world as a headline, citing his lone story as the source), I will reconsider. And don't ask me about 2013...

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Bibi and the Bomb

A different Jericho missile
I want to refer you all to a very interesting episode that transpired yesterday about an event that took place back in 1998 during Binyamin Netanyahu's first tour as PM of Israel, which was documented yesterday in a short posting that was written by Noam Sheizaf on the web magazine +972, and was also commented upon (in Hebrew) in an even shorter posting by the media monitor web site "The 7th Eye" of the Israel Democracy Institute.
Pinhas Lavon
It all began when the Haaretz columnist Sefi Rachlevsky published an article entitled (in Hebrew) "The 'Disastrous Affair' Syndrome" (Sindrom Eseq ha-Bish) and in English "The Secret Behind an Iran War Order" (unfortunately, behind the Haaretz English paywall). The Hebrew phrase Eseq ha-Bish is a well-known historical/political term for what is known in English as the Lavon Affair, a bungled Israeli "false flag" operation which took place in 1954, when a group of Egyptian Jews were recruited by Israeli military intelligence to blow up a string of Egyptian, British, and American sites in Egypt. The intent of the operation was to mobilize American and British leaders into a hostile attitude towards Egyptian President Nasser's new rule. The cell succeeded with a string of small explosions, including the US Information Agency facilities in Alexandria and Cairo, and was then uncovered. It is a very complicated episode, which resulted in damaged relations between Israel and the US and the UK, and caused a subterranean crisis in the Israeli government (which publicly denied any involvement in the operation), eventuating the resignation of the Israeli Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon, and the return of then-retired David Ben Gurion to the Defense Ministry, and eventually to the Prime Ministership.
Rachlevsky is a controversial journalist who first made a name for himself with a best-selling investigative book in 1998 entitled Messiah's Donkey, which has never been translated into English. Written in the aftermath of the Rabin assassination and on the eve of Netanyahu's rise to power, the book was an examination of the messianic and racist doctrines of contemporary Israeli religious Judaism and painted an extremely dark portrait for the future of liberal democratic values in the Jewish state. In 2008 he published a second book in a similar vein entitled No Limit. As best I can determine, Rechlevsky became a regular columnist for Haaretz in 2011.
The main point of Rachlevsky's column yesterday was to argue that Netanyahu intends to run yet another Eseq ha-Bish by unilaterally attacking Iran in October of this year -- just weeks before the US presidential elections -- in order to hopefully draw the much more capable yet reluctant American military into an unavoidable attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Wrote Rechlevsky:
The logic is simple. According to Netanyahu and Barak, Israel has the military power to delay Iran's nuclear project by only one year. This is the up-to-date estimate based on operations research by the body in charge of the matter in Israel: the air force. There is no significance to a delay of that length. There is, however, a force that can stop the Iranian project militarily: the United States. The problem, Netanyahu says, is that the U.S. administration is not willing to do so.
The solution is simple. A moment before the U.S. presidential elections, when Mitt Romney - the candidate of Netanyahu's patron, Sheldon Adelson - is breathing down Barack Obama's neck, and in the wake of the large number of casualties and the extensive damage that the Iranian response is likely to cause in the region and particularly in Israel, the American president will have no choice but to order his armed forces to join in the war.
Netanyahu is gambling that if Obama does not do so, he will lose the elections. Then Romney will replace him and, as a token of gratitude, will complete the military work. And if the gamble fails? For that there is no backup plan. 

Whatever the wisdom of Rechlevsky's editorial speculation (and I remain unpersuaded), there is a significant difference between the print version of the article and the e-version of the article. An entire paragraph from the Hebrew print version is absent from the online version, and therefore also from the English online version. This difference was (first?) noted by researcher Avner Cohen, author of two definitive academic studies of Israel's own nuclear program and policy and posted on his Facebook page.
Here is a translation of the missing paragraph:
In 1998, Saddam Hussein, weakened by the American no-flight zone, made one hollow threat. In response, [Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu ordered to consider the arming of Jericho missiles. An order that wasn’t issued even during the [1973] Yom Kippur War, under a fear of destruction. Three people went to Netanyahu: Ariel Sharon, [former Chief of Staff and minister] Rafael Eitan, and CoS Amnon Lipkin-Shahak. They told him to relax, take a pill, and forget about it. Some things even a prime minister shouldn’t do. Will [Ehud] Barak be one of the three this time around? I don’t know.
Left unspoken is that the phrase "the arming of Jericho missiles" means only one thing -- nuclear warheads. The Jericho medium range ballistic missile isn't Tony Stark's fictional weapon; it is an Israeli weapons system that is apparently on its third iteration and reportedly has an accurate range which would include Iran. This 1998 incident, now reported by multiple sources, apparently generated an unusual editorial by the famed (and now deceased) Haaretz military correspondent Zeev Schiff in 2001 about the need to review nuclear release authority in Israel in the light of Israel's "extreme and unbalanced" political leadership. 
Online speculation has it that the military censor got wind of Rachlevsky's article in the print version, which had not been submitted to censorship review, and insisted that the online version not carry the paragraph. Haaretz, it is then speculated, complied with the order. The 7th Eye reports that neither the military censor nor Haaretz will comment on the article's treatment.
This of course raises the thorny issue of the Israeli military censorship regime. Aluf Benn, the current editor-in-chief of Haaretz, has in the past criticized the censorship regime regarding the nuclear question. There is a long history of combat between Israeli media and the military censor. Normally, it is the paper's responsibility to submit potentially offending news articles to the censor for review. Negotiations ensue, an administrative review might be held, but the censor's ruling is final. Occasionally a paper protests the censor's decision by publishing a blank paragraph or sentence to indicate to readers the hand of the censor. Sometimes an Israeli journalist will "pass" the item to a foreign journalist and get it printed with an overseas dateline. Foreign journalists who run afoul of the censorship regime (a very rare occurrence, insofar as foreign journalists rarely have access to truly sensitive information) have lost their press credentials and been required to leave the country.
It is safe to assume that Rachlevsky's op-ed piece was never submitted for review, insofar as the 1998 incident it recounts is a widely known "urban legend" that has been recounted in public many times. Yet the paragraph must have hit a nerve, as the debate over an attack on Iran has become more heated in recent weeks. One can imagine that there must have been a bit of an argument between Benn and the military censor Col. Sima Vaknin-Gil yesterday, but in the end Haaretz -- as it must according to the long-standing understanding between censorship authorities and the media -- relented. Not a great moment in the history of what many believe is "Israel's only 'quality' newspaper" and not a great moment for the military censor, who apparently demanded a change in an opinion piece before it was placed online. But the "missing" paragraph is nevertheless part of the public record, found in every paper copy of yesterday's edition, and on the internet for anyone who digs a bit.
So this entire episode raises a number of dark semi-secrets that touch upon Israel's plans for Iran, the nature of Israel's free press, and the competency of Netanyahu's judgment. You can draw your own conclusions.