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. Israelis tend to trust military figures more than politicians. In the past year, several retired security chiefs have come out against military action and gained wide public attention (former Mossad director Meir Dagan called it “the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard”). Any decision to go to war requires the approval of the security cabinet, where current military and intelligence chiefs would weigh in. With Barak arguing against an operation, the already-reticent military brass would likely do the same. “Barak holds the key to any military action,” the former official told Newsweek.
The weight of public opinion is also pressing on Netanyahu. Former prime minister Ariel Sharon used to tell people that to start a war, an Israeli leader needs broad public backing and an understanding with Washington (he learned the lesson from his disastrous invasion of Lebanon in 1982, which Ronald Reagan criticized and many Israelis opposed). Netanyahu has watched the polls move steadily against him for the past year. One of them, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in August, showed just 27 percent of Israelis support a unilateral strike—that is, an attack on Iran without a green light from the United States.
If it were earlier in his term, those poll numbers might not have been critical, but Netanyahu will be facing voters soon. His government has so far failed to pass a budget proposal for 2013, a sign that his coalition won’t last much longer. Though elections are scheduled for a year from now, analysts believe Netanyahu will be forced to bring up the date, possibly to March. A war between now and then—with fighting on several fronts and civilian casualties in Israel’s big cities—could well hurt Netanyahu in the ballot box. Netanyahu “reads polls for breakfast and he knows the Israeli public is not behind him [on Iran],” says Martin Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel and now director of the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If Tel Aviv is under rocket attack and he’s at war with Lebanon, and he’s strained the relationship with the United States, that’s a very different context for him to be going to elections. Netanyahu is not an adventurer. He’s never started any war.”
Of course there’s always a first time—that’s the fear in Washington. Even if some of Netanyahu’s war rhetoric is explicitly designed to goad the U.S. into action against Iran, the perception of a nuclear Iran as a dire threat to Israel is real—and the military option remains very much alive. When President Obama phoned Netanyahu in early September to paper over the latest tensions between the two men, the Israeli leader sounded defiant, according to a source familiar with details of the call. He pressed for the U.S. to impose ultimatums on Iran over its uranium enrichment, but Obama refused. Like many of their other interactions, the conversation underscored the extent to which Netanyahu is more comfortable with Republicans in Washington.
The rub for the Israeli leader is that even some Republicans are now thinking an Israeli strike before the U.S. election is a bad idea. Karl Rove, the GOP’s éminence grise, said on Fox News in August that a war now would cause Americans to rally around the president and likely clinch the election for him. The recent riots in the Middle East in response to an anti-Muslim video posted on the Internet seem to bear Rove out. Far from hurting Obama, they may have shored up his lead. “It’s the kind of event that allows Obama to seem presidential, while [Mitt] Romney just looks politically craven,” says Jim Gerstein, a Democratic pollster. For Netanyahu, that’s one more obstacle—in a long list of them—to getting what he wants on Iran.